Wednesday, November 05, 2008

An Unwanted Journey: Day 1078 - Public and Private Spheres

I just finished watching the 7th and final episode of the John Adams mini-series this morning. Coming as it did after last night's epic presidential election results in the United States, I am struck once more by the curious intersection of the public and the private spheres, the macro and the micro, the world outside and the world within. In the final episode, John Adams loses his daughter to metastatic breast cancer and his wife to typhoid fever. But he also resumes his deep and fulfilling friendship with Thomas Jefferson, with both men dying on the same day, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence (4-July-1826).

The mini-series drama stands as a monumental tribute to the revolutionary age in the United States and does more, in my view, than any collection of scholarly or popular texts could ever hope to achieve in bringing the characters and controversies of the time to life...with one possible exception - the correspondence between Adams and Jefferson that resulted from the renewal of friendship initiated by Adams after the death of his beloved Abigail. That correspondence says much about history lived and history remembered, about that intersection of public and private life.

A colleague and I had a brief correspondence about precisely this thing yesterday as we reflected on the coming Age of Obama and the unwanted journey that I am travelling dealing with metastatic colorectal cancer. In that correspondence I alluded to my desire to be part of the larger world of commerce and industry and the frustrations of being unable to do so because of the side effects of my palliative chemotherapy. I also discussed the irony of how blogging about my unwanted journey may actually have a more significant impact than if I were back at work doing what I love to do (I really don't know how to measure such things).

It struck me this morning that Adams and Jefferson worried, in their correspondence, about how the mere facts of the American struggle for independence revealed very little of the actual personal struggles and sacrifices such men made for their young country. They felt as though true history was being lost with the deaths of the founding fathers, leaving mere facts and mementoes.

Adams and Jefferson are really no different from you and me. True, their struggles involved the dream of independence and freedom, but the rest of us also struggle to make an impact. We also hope that more of our personal lives will be remembered beyond the pieces of paper we have signed, the policies we have helped forge, the software we have developed or supported, the commerce we have encouraged.

There is, of course, no truly satisfying answer to the perennial issue of public and private spheres. Each of us, individually, must find some kind of accommodation or balance. In the case of Adams and Jefferson, the very survival of their private correspondence assured them historical recognition for the truly significant personal spheres of conduct and influence. Today, at the beginning of a new millennium, some of us will blog about our medical journeys, hoping to inform and inspire those who read our entries. Nobody may know the depth of our struggles as fully as we might desire, but the ripples of our lives provide us with some hope, written or merely witnessed by our loved ones.

One thing that helps is to be as fully invested and present where ever we happen to be situated as possible. If that means being fully present in a battle with the ravages of cancer, then so be it. If it means being healthy and without any serious medical concerns, then even better. But we are both obliged, I think, to take our personal worlds and invest them in whatever public sphere of influence is available to us at the time, no matter how small or insignificant it may appear.

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