Something to think about as a new year dawns

December 22, 2008

It's Saturday morning. I'm driving to Michigan for a family gathering. On either side of the asphalt ribbon, winter has rendered the sky and landscape gray and lifeless.

I'm listening to an audio book. It's a novel called "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy. It's about a father and his young son who've somehow survived in a post-apocalyptic world. They're among the very few people alive.

The narrator says:

"They passed through the city at noon of the day following. He kept the pistol to hand on the folded tarp on top of the cart. He kept the boy close to his side. The city was mostly burned. No sign of life. Cars in the street caked with ash, everything covered with ash and dust. Fossil tracks in the dried sludge. A corpse in a doorway dried to leather. Grimacing at the day. He pulled the boy closer.

"'Just remember that the things you put into your head are there forever,' he said. 'You might want to think about that.'

"'You forget some things, don't you?'

"'Yes. You forget what you want to remember and you remember what you want to forget.'"

I turn off the radio. I let that notion sink in.

In Michigan, my nephew wants to see a movie. He wants to see "The Day the Earth Stood Still." It's a remake of a scifi classic. He likes sci-fi. His mom and I go along.

In the movie, an alien named Klaatu arrives on Earth. Klaatu says things have grown hopeless here. He says people do too much damage and won't change. He says the human race must be eliminated to save the planet.

A Nobel-prize-winning scientist tries to dissuade Klaatu. "It's only at the precipice that people evolve," the scientist says.

I contemplate whether Klaatu or the scientist is right.

A few days before my trip, a journalist calls. He wants to know about precipices, too. He wants to know whether public officials too often cast situations as crises.

I tell him yes, they do.

He asks why.

"Because," I say, "every time there is a crisis, people seem to move in ways they don't move in their normal lives."

I tell him about Rahm Emanuel, the chief of staff to President-elect Barack Obama, who said, "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before."

I think about the economic crisis, the housing crisis, the climate crisis, the energy crisis, the automotive crisis, the Middle East crisis, the education crisis, the college affordability crisis and all the other crises — real, imagined and manufactured — and I wonder whether they'll drive us to the precipice, or even the apocalypse, and whether we'll change at the last minute, and, should we survive, whether we'll remember what we want to forget or forget what we want to remember.

There's much worth forgetting this year:
• Client No. 9 and Candidate No. 5.
• Auctioning a U.S. Senate seat to the highest bidder.
• Bankrupt newspapers reporting on almost-bankrupt car companies.
• Thoughtless auto executives parlaying private jets to panhandle Congress.
• Ingrate insurers fiddling at the spa while Rome burns.
• Turkeys losing their heads while an officeholder prattles in the foreground.
• Caustic comedians lampooning a blind man.
• A journalist hailed as hero for hurling shoes at a foreign dignitary.
• That same dignitary using his own shoes to stomp on civil liberties.
• People who've suffered discrimination voting to discriminate against others.
• Public servants defending the "right" to poison the public's air.

It's not the precipice, but it's enough to lend Klaatu some credence.

And yet... Holiday cards fill our family's mailbox. They're bright and beautiful. They wish us "Merry Christmas" and "Happy New Year," "Holiday Blessings" and "Peace on Earth." They show pictures of people we love. They tell stories of a good year despite tough times.

They don't show people perched on any precipice.

No one seems anxious over an impending apocalypse.

They're just everyday people facing everyday realities: jobs and layoffs, sickness and health, togetherness and solitude, travel and home, elder care and child care, struggles and aspirations, sorrows and joys, soul and spirit, fear and hope, constants and — yes — constant change.

It's Monday night. I'm driving home from work. I turn on the radio.

Steven Chu is speaking. He's just been introduced by President-elect Barack Obama as his energy secretary nominee.

He says there is hope. He says we can concurrently address the crises of economics, energy and environment. He quotes William Faulkner's Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

"I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance."

Put that into your head forever. You might want to think about that.


  Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at

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