Is there any phrase more full of joy, more optimistic and more
American than "hey, anything is possible''?
For people who grew up in this country in the 1960s and 1970s, that
attitude was always part of the allure of space travel. We watched the
countdowns and splashdowns of astronauts, and saw them walk on the moon,
and thought, wow, anything is possible. We felt ourselves to be
the can-do nation: our people had the right mix of fantasy and
practicality. Our president could suggest, in all seriousness, that we
send humans to the moon; and our government could bring to that wild
dream the skills of sober, no-nonsense people: Engineers, pilots,
military officers. That combination was our cardinal virtue, the basis
of America's global success: We saw both the box and the value of
thinking outside it. We could do both.
The disasters (the Apollo fire, the two shuttles lost) just made it
look more inspiring. It's not a cheap and easy belief, the thought that
anything is possible. It requires some guts to accept that the world
could be anarchic and unpredictable -- to accept that the past is no
guide to the future, and that common sense, tradition, and yesterday's
scientific truths could be overturned. Maybe that was why we liked our
astronauts bland and steady-seeming; why we expected them to speak in
the flat, calm voice of military discipline, no matter what ("Houston,
we have a problem'').
It was an act, as Tom Wolfe abundantly showed in The Right Stuff. But everyone likes to be convinced by a good act.
As a general rule, people like to think a role played in one part of
life predicts a person's character in all the others. You think, here
is a distinguished jurist, the head of a state supreme court. He will
be a dignified and serious man in his personal life. When the guy gets caught mailing a condom to
his ex-girlfriend's little girl, you're surprised. Or you think,
the President of the United States is not going to be, as Nixon famously
said, a crook. But Nixon was.
And you think of those unflappable Chuck Yeager voices, those thumbs
up and confident smiles over tidy flight suits, and say, an astronaut is
not going to go bat-shit insane with sexual jealousy. But the
case of Lisa Marie Nowak pops up to tell you, Wrong again.
That anything is possible is a principle that applies also to our own
minds, and to our emotions. It gives the lie to our idea that we can
perfectly know another person, or ourselves. It says each
accomplishment in our lives is just about itself -- that being president
means you won an election; that being a judge means you went to law
school and know how to network; that being an astronaut means you can go
up into space and come back. And that none of these things can protect
you from the other things you are, the other sorts of person that, after
a little bad luck and some bad choices, you may become.
"I can't believe I'm doing this.'' Who hasn't said that? Why can't we believe it? After all, in life, anything is possible. Is
there any phrase more full of terror, more pessimistic, more downright