When I was a kid, my folks once got into an argument over whether or not peanuts were a fruit. It was silly. It was inconsequential. And it was hard to stop once it got started.
On our first Christmas together, Heather discovered my family had always done stockings last, after presents. I discovered that her family did them wrong … er, I mean, first. The resulting “holy war” has had more than its share of laughter but never entirely died down, either.
And somewhere in Alaska, a mountain got a new federal name this week. You might just have heard about it.
I’m not sure how many of the people on social media have actually been to Denali, the peak that many of us learned in grade school as Mount McKinley. But when President Obama announced that the feds would recognize the name Alaska had been using officially since 1975 – well, the Internet reacted with the passion usually reserved for a minor Kardashian sister or the cancellation of “The Dukes of Hazzard.”
Mind you, the mountain itself doesn’t especially care what it’s called. (Imagine THOSE headlines!) That’s left to us and in particular to:
1) The people and leaders of Ohio, who argue that President McKinley was an important man whose reputation and legacy should be remembered, even if you’ve never actually given him two thoughts since your freshman year in college.
2) The people and leaders of Alaska, who argue that “Um, it’s our mountain, dudes.”
An alien watching from orbit would probably decide we were all nuts. (Mind you, he’d probably reach the same conclusion after watching a typical football game.) Not necessarily for endorsing one side or the other, but for putting so much energy into it.
But that’s what happens. The less significant a debate is, the more importance it actually assumes.
A professor, Wallace Stanley Sayre, once observed that academic politics were so intense “because the stakes are so small.” But it’s not just academia. At any level, a small scope can engender big feelings. A county government might spend minutes discussing a multi-million bond issue … or hours on a $2,500 budget item. A family that navigates the big issues with ease can spend all day on … well, presents and peanuts.
Why do we this to ourselves? I suspect it’s partly survival, partly relief.
There are a lot of big, complicated issues out there. We get drowned in them every day, issues of war and terrorism, politics and civil rights, straining economies and questioning minds. It’s a lot to take in, and we’re never really given a quiet space in which to do it.
“Every man whose business it is to think knows that he must for part of the day create about himself a pool of silence,” Walter Lippmann once wrote. “But in that helter-skelter which we flatter by the name of civilization, the citizen performs the perilous business of government under the worst possible conditions.”
In that situation, a trivial issue can seem heaven-sent. Simple in scope, easy to understand, no challenge at all to form an opinion on. And because it’s so easy, we can’t see how anyone could possibly reach a different conclusion.
But of course, they do. And it’s off to the races!
Fundamentally, those sorts of debates are more or less harmless. They may even be a good way to vent for a while. But they take time. They can generate hard feelings if they go on too long. And sometimes they even seduce us into thinking all issues should be this easy – that any major subject of debate can be quickly simplified into memes, quotes and a cute animation.
That’s when it’s time to step back. To breathe. To take some time and gain some perspective.
Because I promise, the mountain doesn’t care.
Energy and passion are good things. We just need to figure out where to aim them, and how to weld them to some kind of understanding.
Because the last thing we want to do is peak too soon.