Sunday, July 27, 2014

Doing What's Important

It seems to be human nature that, as long as things are going well or predictably, we don't think too much about what we're doing with our lives. Are we doing the right things? Are we focusing on what's important? Et cetera. Usually it takes a crisis for someone to get off their duff and to do something important or constructive or meaningful with his/her life.

Luckily, in my case, no crisis was needed. I had the first adult conversation with myself when I was around 25. I was writing an "alternate history" in which I tried to imagine what my life would have been like if my parents hadn't divorced, and how it would have been better had they not. It was a faintly ridiculous exercise, and I realized--even as and after I wrote it--that I did not believe the premise. All the life circumstances I'd described in the story were relatively achievable, I realized, if I just did something. The reason I call this my first "adult" conversation was that this was the first time I stopped asking, "Why me?" and started asking, "What do you want to do about it?" The specific question I asked--jeez, 20 years ago now--was, "What do you want to do with your life?" And a scared but determined little voice in the back of my mind said, "I want to go into space."

So what this answer led to was a simple question and a few realizations. The question was, "So what are you going to do about it?" From there arose the following realizations:
  • My life wasn't going to get better waiting for some magical thing to just happen to me.
  • I could change my life's narrative.
  • I could take constructive steps on my own behalf to live the sort of life I wanted and make the sort of world I wanted to have happen.
That was some heady stuff at 25. I still need occasional reminders at 45 that this is what I'm doing. But at 25, that meant changing my attitude for the better at work (I did); getting smarter about space (which I did, first in the form of reading a lot of the eminent books on the subject, later through formal schooling); and trying to figure out what sort of career I could have to make "space" a reality. Eventually I became a space advocate, got myself a better degree, and developed a daily habit of doing something constructive every single day. That last habit continues. Mind you, it took about 15 years to realize that going into space might not be the best career choice for me, given my biological susceptibilities to claustrophobia, motion sickness, and fear of heights. But I'm still working in the space business. I can't help it. It's what's important to me.


Funny thing, that. From a very young age, I've just always believed that going into space was fundamentally a good thing. Call it an article of faith, if you like. The words coalesced around that kernel of faith later, but here they are: If human beings are out in space, they're expanding their literal and figurative horizons. They're looking outward, trying to understand the universe and gaining knowledge for themselves rather than looking inward and meddling in the lives of their neighbors. They don't see life as a zero-sum game. They have an expansive view of themselves and their place in the universe. They believe that they have the abilities necessary to learn what's out there and how to survive in it. A society that's going into space believes that it's worthwhile to do so because it believes that it's worth expanding; that their way of life is worth replicating on other worlds; that it has confidence; and that is worth emulating, and worth duplicating on other worlds.

My way of supporting that cause is to write. In my case, writing takes on many forms: some glorious, some complicated, some mundane. I write outreach materials for NASA. I write technical documents and proposals for organizations that do aerospace work. I write policy papers and manifestos. I create documents and processes so Science Cheerleaders can go out and get kids excited about science.

So that's what motivates me. Your mileage might vary. In any case, I'm living my life in line with and in support of my ideals. I am not waiting for some major catastrophe to rip me out of my world and ask, "What have I been doing with my life?"

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