“Make no mistake – it’s not revenge he’s after. It’s a reckoning.”
-Doc Holliday, Tombstone
Sometimes at dusk, I look at the sky and I feel a sense of reckoning. If I position my awareness just right, I become balanced between the unfathomable grandness and the relative insignificance of the moment. If I can see the horizon, I can get a sense for the curvature of the earth. As the stars begin to peak through our atmosphere, I get a taste of the size of the universe. I can almost feel the thrumming humanity all around me, everyone all going about the chaos of their days; going about their lives.
Of course, my monkey brain cannot possibly comprehend all that, but in those moments I feel a feather’s touch closer. This typically happens while taking my dog on his evening walk. He’ll pause in his ever-vigilant search for discarded food on the sidewalk to look at the sky and then will give me a huff and a tug on his leash to tell me to stop being a foolish human and get on with it. He’s not wrong. Those moments are important but one cannot linger.
In Tombstone, Doc tells us that it’s a reckoning that Wyatt is after in his war with the Cowboys. Doc is a well-educated man and knows that a reckoning is not about revenge or justice. It’s about measuring. Wyatt is forcing events to a place where his view of the world is set against the Cowboys’ view of the world to see which will stand.
In her excellent book Rising Strong, Brene Brown explains that the term reckoning in navigation refers to sailors determining their location. She makes the point that when we find ourselves face down in the arena, we need to have an emotional reckoning. When something goes wrong, we need to look around and be honest with where we came from and where we are.
It’s one of those words that makes you think, “yes, I probably need one of those.” You’re right to think that. Look around and you’ll see that we are sorely in need of a reckoning as individuals, as a society and as a species.
Modern culture has taught us that it is wrong to feel bad. So, we discard the emotion of our past never really addressing it truthfully. Our present is filled with overflowing to-do lists and never ending demands on our energy, our time, and our focus. So, we never take the time to stop and look around, Ferris style, to consider where we are. The future may be promising, but we’re too busy to be mindful about setting our course, instead just barreling forward into uncharted waters.
In other words, we ignore the shores we’ve left, failing to pay attention to our current position and wind up having no idea where we’re going. We’re drunk captains dancing on the ashes of our charts as our ship spins around in circles and our crew readies the lifeboats.
How do we change this?
I’m not sure there are clear answers. But I’ve learned three things for certain: 1) you can’t find answers without asking questions. 2) You won’t know where you’re going without calculating where you are and 3) you can’t know where you are without considering where you’ve been.
As individuals and as a society, we need to ask more questions. Tougher questions. Questions about who we are and where we come from. We’re all running around, shouting answers and invoking confidence in our positions when so many times we’re really adrift. I don’t have answers to offer about addressing issues with guns or education or racial tension, but I do have questions.
We have a tendency to brush the bad under the carpet and shine a spotlight on the good in our pasts. Lately, I’ve been asking myself questions about the path that has brought me to this point. Perhaps it is a function of fatherhood. Questions are dangerous because sometimes your stories need changing. Sometimes your truths need revising.
However, only then can we be honest about where we are now. The fatal flaw of adulthood is that we stop marveling at what is right in front of us. The blessing of having children in one’s life is that they remind you how much there is to be amazed at in the world. They also give us sleep deprivation and have never met a cup of juice that can’t be spilled on a couch or a wall that couldn’t be improved with crayon, so I’ll call it even.
Here I am, a single aware being, among millions of aware beings, hurtling through the universe on a rock that is too large to grasp intellectually all at once and yet is miniscule compared to its companions out in space. My life is single drop in the well of human existence. Many have come before me and many will come after I’m gone.
And yet, here I am.
Armed with an honest view of the past and better questions about where we are, only then can we set our course forward. The way you decide where to go is by arming yourself with knowledge of your past and an awareness of your present. You ask hard questions about what is important to you and in turn you are honest about your answers. Not what is supposed to be important to you…. Not what is important to your boss or your parents or your friends or the media or your coworkers or that talkative guy at the coffee place – what is important to you.
Then you set your own course, asking questions all along the way. When your answers don’t seem right, you adjust. A reckoning is not a weekend retreat, it’s a constant evaluation.
Before modern instruments, ship captains couldn’t figure out their position just once and be done with it. They had to chart their course over and over. Constantly aware of where they came from and constantly mindful of where they were. If the winds shifted, they shifted. If they were blown off course, they put themselves back on course. Storms come and storms go but as long as your ship is still sailing, there’s time to figure out where you are and push forward.
As Whitman wrote, “The powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.” If that’s not the stuff of wonder, I don’t know what is.