Staying inspired in a world trying to kill, demean, or deride inspiration is hard, but worth every effort. The future depends on it. Still, some days inspiration runs out, and we look for consolations. Staying amused is a useful one.
We have two cats and two dogs. For some reason, both cats favor specific spots to rest, while both dogs vie for similar “best dog spots.” When one animal arrives late to the game, he or she mulls, pouts, and putters about, until the other gives up the favorite spot, then all is well – except not in reverse.
Watching how these animals behaved, especially during long COVID days, when inspiration ran out and news poured in, analysis less inspiring than tiring – was amusing. In this, there is a lesson.
Daily, we see in our news things that stop us short. There is a tendency to get upset, dismayed, disillusioned, even discouraged. We have another claim of outrage at traditions, words old as humanity, references to history, science, medicine, math, biology, criminology, even fairy tales – someone wants changed.
We see bold statements of untruth on everything from inflation and energy to open borders. The idea is, apparently, the more times a leader says what is false, the closer it gets to true – only it does not. Those who spout nonsense look foolish.
Americans know: Open borders are not closed, high crime is not low, less police do not make us safer, inflation is not from phases of the moon or Russia’s buffoon, Afghanistan withdrawal was not a success, and China is not benign. Still, we are told to buy it. If we do not like that, “lots of luck on our trip to the moon.” Right.
So, we look for consolation. We think quietly, pondering history’s trajectory. We ask, did Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, and Monroe, Lincoln, two Roosevelts, a Kennedy, Reagan, two Bushes, and Trump lead to this?
On inspired days, we know history is long, this too will pass. We know bad leaders precede good ones. We know national inspiration goes deep, if occasionally dark. Americans are, after all, individually inspired, made this country great on their vision, determination, perspiration, and can-do. They can again.
On tough days, we look for something to lighten the mood – amusement. One place is animals, filled with foolishness. Another is humanity, close on their tails.
For 450 days, I met with Secretary Powell as Assistant Secretary for various operations. Issues were big, historical, and inspiration often high. We ran programs entrusted to us in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Colombia.
Yet some days, the “cats and dogs” got to us, as they will. One morning, arriving early, a newly confirmed assistant secretary – meaning no harm – sat where another usually sat. By the time Powell arrived, the whole room’s seating chart was a mess, bollixed up, musical chairs having occurred.
Powell could have ignored it, kept the amusement to himself, but he did not. Amusement, once understood, is worth sharing. Tensions were high in the world, his team equal parts inspiration and exhaustion. But he did not let this pass.
“I see we have a different seating chart today,” he said with a whimsical smile. This produced what he aimed to induce, a moment of laughter, banter, humility about the room, honesty about our crazy ways – and some smiles. That was it.
That was all we needed to get everyone in a decent mood, lift the day, point us toward higher goals, make us worry less about chairs, status, stupid stuff. We had bigger things to do, and that was his way of reminding us.
Some days, you reach for inspiration in a world awash in whacky words, indulgent habits, and disrespect for truth. You come up short. Finding inspiration is just hard. But finding amusement – in cats and dogs, nonsensical humanity – is consolation.
By the time I left Powell’s State, having spent time in other pockets of government, I could confidently tell my team we would have good days and bad. Best way to work it? “Stay inspired…and on those days when you cannot, at least stay amused.” There is plenty of that these days, amusement, to go around.
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