This I Believe

Chip - Palo Alto, California
Entered on November 8, 2006
Age Group: 30 - 50

When I was a teenager we moved to the country, to run a small lakeside mountain resort. For a nerdy 15 year old from the burbs, it was a rude shock. It was not the rural isolation that got to me — I loved the mountains and still do. But I was completely unprepared for the new family business, dealing every day with the unfiltered public, who came into our store for gas, groceries, and bait. I had no idea how incredibly sheltered my life had been, as a middle class kid in a college town.

I witnessed amazing episodes of bizarre behavior and breathtaking cluelessness. I ended some days literally in tears: “Mom! Where do these people *come* from?” A quick example: in 1975, the movie _Jaws_ came out. Suddenly, customers started asking, in all seriousness, if there were sharks in the lake. We’re 200 miles from the ocean, 7,000 feet up in the mountains. The lake is half a mile wide, two miles long, and filled by melting snow. Are there any *sharks* in the lake? How could anyone possibly be so stupid? The first time, I just stood there slack jawed. After a while, I got cynical and mean: “Well, no. Not technically” or “Oh, don’t worry about *them*.” And this is just one of many tales, both hilarious and heartbreaking.

This kind of experience makes a teenage kid skeptical about human nature. I got to thinking that people, *other* people, were ignorant dolts who pretty much sleepwalked through their miserable existence. *I*, of course, was much smarter than that.

But age has brought some humility. Partly, it’s that I went out and made some breathtakingly boneheaded mistakes of my own. Mainly, I’ve spent many years working with a lot of people who are, in fact, really, *really* smart, and together we seem to be as dumb as ever. It’s slowly dawned on me that most of us are confused about most things most of the time.

Human history is an endless catalog of folly and madness, with new horrors added daily. Yet, bad as it is, most of us are *not* starving, most of us do *not* die young from some terrible disease, most of us get on, if not fabulously well, at least minimally adequately. We have agriculture and medicine, music and art. We have, most of us, electricity and roads and roofs over our heads. We have the Internet and National Public Radio. We have all this *stuff*, and mostly it works. Even our dissatisfactions are measured against our expectation that it could work even better. And here’s the thing: all of this is the product of *them*, *those* people, all those stupid people who made my life so miserable as a teenager. We are them and they are us.

I believe in the astonishing robustness of human civilization.

It may be a teetering-on-the-brink-of-disaster, two-steps-forward-one-step-back mess, yet somehow we manage. That’s amazing.