Why didn’t I learn from America?
I think I believed in the restorative properties of travel and adventure.
I thought, as America once did, that looking west, that adventure and sojourn, could heal what hurts, could mend what was broken, could give you the vision and wisdom and experience to make what was wrong, right. But it can’t. What is rotten still rots.
I imagine Thomas Jefferson wracked with worry about the unsolvable problem of the “peculiar institution” of slavery, and the bruising partisanship of the 1800 election, gazing westward and seeing in that expanse a salve. But discovery without can’t reverse or allay rotting within, can it?
Jefferson is both America’s mightiest revolutionary thinker and biggest hypocrite. The ideas embodied in The Declaration, the Summary View of the Rights of British North America, the Autobiography, and his personal semi-public correspondence with public intellectuals of the time would be expressed in some form by democratic revolutionaries for centuries afterward. The same man who owned inherited slaves wrote that “the earth belongs in usufruct
to the living” and that
[L]aws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the same coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.
This from a man whose greatest political nemesis was not Alexander Hamilton or John Adams but John Marshall
whose theories of judicial power allowed for just the type of flexibility Jefferson advocated for.
He was also probably America’s biggest debtor President, a fact that is more telling than at first blush. He suffered under immense debt his entire adult life, constantly wriggling his way out comeuppance, unable to finish the wildly expensive Monticello, and finding himself unable to manumit, or free, his slaves at his death due to his huge number of creditors. His procrastination and anxiety over his debt is mirrored in his attitude towards America’s chattel slavery system. He likened it to “[having] the wolf by the ears”, both unable to continue it nor end it.
Instead, he assumed unprecedented executive authority and expanded the American experiment, dispatching two young men, Lewis and Clark (or “Clarke” as it is in his letters), to physically explore America’s future, to provide a new challenge, a new adventure, to a young nation done with revolutionary fervor and in need of self-evaluation. I imagine Jefferson saw in that challenge the solution to the problem; that by committing America to an adventure of exploration and discovery, it could overwhelm with new experience the corrupting influence of its original sin.
Adventure and exploration is hard, but growing up is infinitely harder.
When your heart’s been broken, or things seem to be swirling downwards–that patina of anxiety creeps over you as everything you’ve tried at, you’ve failed at, or worse, you failed to try at, adventure is the solution. By getting out of your “element”, by throwing off your moorings and setting into unknown–you’ll get “distance” and “clarity” that will help you fix what hurts. Will you? There’s no doubt that getting away can help you with context and perspective, but that context and perspective can just as often make things worse as make things better.
I got the swine flu last year. Contracting a virus for which my body had no antibodies was a scary reminder of the true power of influenza. I had a fever over 100 for a few days, wracked with chills, unable to sleep or rest, but obviously too sick to move around and take care of myself. I sank into my couch, over the course of a week surrounding myself with orange juice and ginger ale, soup cans, tissues, blankets, pillows, books and notebooks, my laptop. When I was well enough to get up and go get myself more provisions, I paused at the door of my apartment and saw a me-shaped space in the midst of a slowly-built nest. This was my extended phenotype
. It occurred to me that my apartment–my social networks–these were my nest, my beaver dam, my extended phenotype meant to maximize my comfort and minimize my challenges.
As a job came to an end, a love came to an end, personal projects ended in failure after failure, I was certain that some time free of this nest was the only way to realize again who I was, to “reset”, to heal. I determined to see the entire country, to tour sites of America’s founding and westward adventure, and thought of some of these forceful, perfectly crafted lines of poetry, by the unfortunately fascist Ezra Pound,
And then went down to the ship,
Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and
We set up mast and sail on that swart ship,
Bore sheep aboard her, and our bodies also
Heavy with weeping, and winds from sternward
Bore us onward with bellying canvas,
Crice’s this craft, the trim-coifed goddess.
I encountered a bear in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, broke balls with Rhode Island townies in America’s oldest pirate town
, pondered the Plymouth Plantation and touched John Adams’ edition of Tacitus
. I chatted with elementary school kids at the site of Lexington and Concord
. I hiked the freshest, most untouched parts of Yellowstone in Montana and Bighorn in Wyoming, where Custer saw his ignoble defeat in the American effort to subdue the Sioux. I drank whiskey in Deadwood gulch, communed with bison, and slept amidst mountain flowers and graveyards of ancient trees. I hiked the same exact trails taken by Messrs. Lewis and Clark[e], the land as virgin now, as then.
Finally I ended at Cape Disappointment
, where Lewis & Clark ended their journey. There are conflicting stories as to the origin of the name, though many accept that Lewis named it when he found no ships passing the Cape, as they’d expected. As Jefferson luxuriated in the stream of information about new, curious species of plants and animals, his young commissioned explorers, having just mapped and experienced the great unknown west, were kicking sand and confounding their bad luck at the end of a journey that would animate the American imagination for generations.
And I, sun-crisp and in fine exhaustion after several weeks and seven thousand miles, found exactly myself there. Found exactly wanting, pride, bitterness, hurt. Disappointment. Who was most dear was still gone. What was most desired still unobtainable.
When I traveled in Europe and South America, the “career travelers” and the on-again off-again ex-pats always made me sad. Any American who has traveled widely will confirm that career travelers–those people who spend most of their lives bouncing from place to place, sneering at tourists while typically making a living off the hospitality that requires them–are usually way more annoying and rude than the locals. Never more than a curiosity to the locals–who themselves wanted nothing more than to escape their parochial bonds–and an irritant to travelers, these people exuded a phony joie de vivre. They reeked of affectation concealing hollowness, like cologne slapped on to conceal the stink of a weary dirty body. Cutting moorings–setting keel to breakers–had solved nothing. It had only postponed, perhaps forever, dealing with what was broken inside.
So did westward expansion only expose the inborn weakness of the American experiment, the inexcusable “tradition” of chattel slavery and human bondage, and the constitutional mechanisms crafted
specifically to protect that property through a muting of popular democracy. Where those brave pioneers–and near psychopathic settlers–braved unfathomable privation and terrifying conditions to make concrete the promise of America along with them came the inherent contradiction of America. So the ballad of the frontier
was sung to drown out the terrifying drumbeat of our young nation’s painful reality. Westward expansion brought into high relief the problem, exacerbated the contradictions, and ultimately led to a civil war so painful, so traumatic, and so complete in its character that it changed warfare forever while acting as a de facto second Revolution
–one that reiterated the promise of the Declaration more than it reinforced the institutions of the Constitution.
Ultimately, it was the effort to instantiate those American ideals in the “wilderness” that rubbed raw the sores of our democracy’s discontent. With each new territory settled, each new wilderness tamed, with proposed statehood, the intractable problem of the “peculiar institution” forced deeper divisions. Corrupted, as battle does, the instinct to freedom and openness as sides retrench.
On the rim of the sky in Montana, I thought of a poem by Alphonse Lamartine, a plea for time to stop moving:
Ô temps! suspends ton vol, et vous, heures propices!
Suspendez votre cours:
Laissez-nous savourer les rapides délices
Des plus beaux de nos jours!
Oh time! Suspend your journey, and you, eager hours!
Suspend your course:
Allow us to savour the fleeting delights
Of our most beautiful days.
But, Lamartine, life is not lived in the most beautiful of days. Life is lived in the mean. The pursuit of happiness is the pursuit of raising that average. Through embracing, not cursing, time, and its power to change you, improve you, reverse the rot that even in decay can sprout life, exhilarating and improved.
When a love collapses, it can only be useful to look inward, to rededicate yourself to self-improvement bit by bit. Evolution as opposed to revolution: incremental changes, over time, lead to large qualitative changes. The self-reflection that comes from hurt is only different from the self-reflection that comes with travel in one way: the former is torture, the latter distraction. So how self-improvement? That self-improvement comes through the thousands of hours on the field, in the context in which we’ve chosen to live, slowly raising our performance, bettering ourselves, to raise that average bit by bit, day by day. When your connection with others, valued above anything else, is corrupted and broken, maybe it isn’t your fault; but what causes those you love to see you differently? What is it in you that distorts or corrupts that connection? Bonds are frayed where they should be strong, between lovers, between brothers and sisters, between frightened and wanting specimen in the human family, we can assign blame, we can hate, but that moves us no further forward.
Only the pursuit of happiness, not happiness itself, is guaranteed. Bitterness at a lack of happiness right now–a lack of contentment, a lack of peace–fatally cripples the pursuit.
Had Thomas Jefferson, the conscience of the Revolution, the Southern state radical whose mighty words damned tyranny for all future generations of humanity, been brave enough not to look West but inward, to face the wolf despite the fear of his fangs, to fix what he knew was killing the American experiment from within: what misery could we have avoided? Wouldn’t we now be looking back with even more pride at the founding of a nation dedicated not to power or glory but freedom from servitude and opportunity for all?
Mastering life at home, aware of what’s broken there. Then we can live with ourselves.