Dear Atticus – On Striving

Geof is doing his own letter-writing project for NaBloPoMo and I roped him into writing one for Atticus. He has had a difficult year. Here are some of the things he’s learned.

Dear Atticus,

It is my sincere hope that we will have made acquaintances by the time that you are old enough to read this letter. If we haven’t, please know that the fault lies with me and not your parents. I have watched you from afar, getting glimmers of information from things your mother has written about on her blog as well as small things passed in our emails to each other. Your mother really means a lot to me, and because she means a lot to you, that means that you should mean something to me. Mathematicians call that the transitive property. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, it’s great.

The one thing that I’m quite sure that your parents are teaching you to do is to strive for a goal. That’s what I want to write about to you today.

We should all strive, for there is a lot to be learned from pushing toward a goal whether or not we actually get there. Some goals are great; when we attain them, we are filled with a sense of wonder. Some goals are merely pedestrian; when we attain them, we feel a bit cheated for having thought them better than they were. Some goals are worthless; we often attain them just because we want to attain some goal.

But it should be clear to you that just as the attaining of a goal doesn’t make it great, neither does failing to attain a goal make it poor. If we strive for a great goal and miss it, the chances are that we will have learned something from our attempt at greatness. That can be any number of things: that we weren’t equipped for the goal, that we really didn’t want it enough to pursue it, or perhaps even that in our striving we learned enough about ourselves to go another way.

I believe that all of this is rooted in embracing our limitations in life. I’m not a father, but I don’t plan on telling my kids that they can be whatever they want to be if they set their mind to it. I do plan on telling them to strive for whatever that they think that they want, because in their earnest striving they will achieve great things regardless of whether or not they attain the original goal.

I think that I can make my point more clearly if I tell you a little about my own striving. Please hang in there with me a little while longer.

Before your parents and I were born, our country did the unbelievable: we sent 12 men, two-by-two, to the Moon. There were a lot of complex geopolitical reasons for doing this, but we can boil the reaction down to simple wonder: that humans, flesh and blood like us, stood on firm ground that was not connected to the planet where seven billion of us live. These six trips were nearly over by the time that my older brother was born in 1972. Your parents and I grew up in the generation that saw the Space Shuttle go up into space like a rocket and come back like a plane. Access to space became ordinary, something that we did four-to-six times a year.

Then came a horrible day in January of 1986. One of those rockets went wrong, and seven people died. Most everyone was absolutely horrified by the accident, and I’m sure that your parents were in that number. I had a different reaction than most: I wanted to fix it, to be a part of a culture where that didn’t happen again.

While I went a number of years in school where all I wanted to do was get good grades and make my parents happy, when it came time to think about what to do after high school, I again wanted to be a part of making that culture work. I went to school, got the aerospace engineering degree that I wanted, and then jumped out into the vast pool of spaceflight work. It took me years to find my way, but I did. I finally got to a place where I could be a part of a culture that said, “We must do this right because people’s lives are at stake.” As a result of that work, I got a nice award from NASA, given to me by astronaut Pat Forrester.

If you know Andrew Peterson's "Rocket", Pat is the guy he writes about.

While I was striving to make a career, I learned a lot. I learned a lot about perseverance through things that weren’t fun but would build foundations for things that were. [A lot of that was math.] I learned that I didn’t go to college where I thought that I would, and that I would stay in the South without really wanting to do so. I learned that life is a lot about hard work but more than a little bit about luck. I learned that I could suddenly be at the stage of life where I’d once thought I’d know everything, only to find out that I still didn’t know very much. I learned that I always had to keep my head up not just to keep from feeling sorry for myself but to also see the opportunities that presented themselves to me. I also learned that no one was going to just give me anything other than an opportunity.

It’s not just in our academics or our careers that we must strive. No, I believe that there is an inner desire in all of us to be better than we were yesterday, and for tomorrow to be a little bit better than today. It takes just three days in this world to know that this desire is rarely well met. I may have had a great career, but I missed a lot of the goals that I thought that I’d attain by this age. For example, I’m still not married, and I don’t have any children of my own. Though I haven’t attained these goals, they are still good ones, and God and your mother both know that I’m learning a lot in the striving.

Now, your mother has told me that I should relate this to your striving today, by which I presume that she’s going to read this to you soon. Obviously, you don’t know what you want to be yet. She says that you strive for both sweet potatoes and the ability to walk. Both of these are good goals! That walking thing is a great goal, and it’s also a stepping stone to many more great things in your life. Walking doesn’t come easily—lately I have been trying to fall down the stairs at my house—but it is a great goal, even if it comes with a lot of knocks to the head, skint hands, and bruised knees.

You’re going to spend the next couple of years exploring the world around you, learning how to communicate better with everyone around you, and letting that personality come through. These are breathtaking changes in your life, and with all these goals you’re building the foundation for the rest of your life. You should focus on these great, attainable goals for now before you start to tackle the ones to come.

I must finish before I put you and all of your mother’s readers to sleep. To quote the mathematician Blaise Pascal, “I have made this letter longer because I lack the time to make it shorter.” So let me finish with this: strive, sir, for you know not what you will find. There are worlds out there to explore, and you should go and make one of them yours.

"Do you see that faint crescent of a moon? We're either gonna hit it square on or fly right past. Either way, it'll be a fun ride!"


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  1. By DominoQQ. Domino99 on 1/5/2020 at

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    Dear Atticus – On Striving – Through a Glass, Darkly

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