When I was 14 or 15 years old, I was having one of my many bad days, and my dad said to me, “Brad, I hope you don’t become a cynic. Do you know what a cynic is? A cynic is a disappointed idealist.”
He wasn’t just saying that out of the blue. A few weeks before Christmas, 1967, Dad had looked up from the newspaper and said, “Son, how would you like to go for a ride on Santa’s Moon Rocket?”
Well I just about went crazy. A moon rocket? With Santa? From that moment on, I spent just about every waking moment daydreaming about what this experience was going to be like. I was a huge space geek, so I had my priorities in order. Meeting Santa would be good. Being on the moon would be nice. But what I was really looking forward to was weightlessness. I mean, yeah, there would probably be some other kids floating around and getting in the way. But still — Santa, Dad and me in zero-G! What could be better?
So you can imagine how I felt when we got to the mall parking lot, and the moon rocket turned out to be a 50s-era city bus with a couple of fins tacked onto it. I must have used the words “false advertising” about two hundred times. I was miserable, and I made sure my dad miserable, too.
But what else was I going to do? I was disappointed.
Some years later I was fulfilling my space geek destiny as a team leader at Huntsville, Alabama’s Space Camp, and my experience with that whole lousy fake-rocket-fake-Santa-lousy-bus-rocket-fake thing kept coming into my mind. All the time. Especially toward the end of my hitch, I was getting sick and tired of telling kids that a plywood tube and a few computers was a Spacelab simulator, and that carnival rides were astronaut training equipment.
As my dad had prophesied, I had become a disappointed idealist.
One day, we were getting ready to mount our “Mars Exploration Expedition.” This was the climax of the Space Camp experience, and I really felt embarrassed and sorry for one of our astronaut trainees. I had to tell him, “Eddie, as mission specialist number four, your mission is to get temperature readings from as many different surfaces as possible.”
Then I issued him the mission-critical equipment for the expedition: an instant-read meat thermometer.
The Martian Extra Vehicular Activity lasted about a half hour, and I was wondering how long it would take a 9-year-old to get bored jabbing a meat thermometer into stuff. But when I started rounding everybody up to go back to the habitat, Eddie was still taking temperature measurements and writing them down. He showed me his notes. Pavement was warmer than gravel. Gravel was warmer than soil. Grassy areas were cooler than bare dirt.
At the end of the week, our team got Best Mission, and Eddie got the award for outstanding trainee. Even then I was cynical. I was thinking something like, “Yeah, the world is wide open for a kid who’s fascinated by a meat thermometer.”
Then, I saw Eddie over by the Mercury Redstone rocket, standing as still as a statue. I asked him what was going on, and he said, “I thought if I just stood here real, real, reeeal still, then maybe I would remember what this feels like forever.”
That’s when The World According to Eddie finally broke through. Eddie wasn’t the one who suffering from a lack of wisdom and insight and imagination and intelligence — I was. The world’s false advertising wants us to lose the joy and power and wonder that is right in front of us. We can be saved from the empty promises in life if only we live in this world as Eddie did — in sincerity, humility, and faithfulness, even when the work before us seems completely pointless.
Otherwise, the planet will bear one more disappointed idealist, standing in the midst of wonders, grousing at the world because a city bus can’t take you to the moon.