"It doesn't make any difference, Jack...!"
I once despised those words, uttered with disdainful dismissal by the family patriarch to whatever bright new idea I came up with at the family table. Hey look, I'm going to college. I'm studying the Great Books. Just because I'm full of new ideas and passions while you're full of arthritis and cynicism, you can't brush me off like that.
But he did. Dinner after dinner. Not angrily -- you could almost welcome the attention anger would have required -- but indulgently. As if to say, "When you grow up a little, then we can talk."
Now I'm grown up [at least old] and now I wish Uncle Abe were here to hear me utter [at least think to myself] the very same words. Time can do that to you. Although with the sad wisdom these words carry comes an even sadder regret. If all the bright new ideas in life actually "don't make any difference," then what the hell are we all doing here? Running around studying, designing, writing, and speechifying?
Donald Trump has never been a hero, but he once uttered an heroic admission: "I'm busy thinking and doing all these things because, well, it's what you do till you die..." Uncle Abe would nod, reminding the table how whatever we are all busily doing-till-we-die is in the final measure a game whose rules are controlled by someone else!
Government...? Despite all the impassioned campaigning, voting, and Mr-Smith-Goes-To-Washington movies, no one in government is able to stretch any farther than the tethers of their own funds, friends and lobbyists. Food...? Regardless of all the sharp-eyed inspections, nutritional studies, and consumer alerts, we still end up consuming most of what makes the suppliers the most profit. Business....? Despite America's giddy dreams about anyone-can-make-it, a few hundred bankers in New York, Geneva and Beijing control enough global purse strings to decide whether your niche of the economy is going anywhere this year or not. Sports & entertainment...? Give me a break, because big games and big celebrities don't depend on our cheering as much as on the financing of the backers with the bankrolls.
OK, OK, sounds cynical. Just like Uncle Abe did. But when I re-check the Great Books, I can see where Uncle Abe learned his cynicism. Aha, but with one fierce exception. The song still has it right: "The best things in life are free."
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