In the past 12 months, three big victories have occurred on three different scales:
The United States crushed the medal countat the Summer Olympics in Rio.
The Chicago Cubs won the World Series.
And I became a father for the second time.
Now, I consider myself a patriotic American. My wife and I watched a not-inconsiderable amount of Olympic coverage on television. We were, like many Americans, glued to coverage of swimming and gymnastics, as well as a whole range of other sports in which our country did extremely well. And we chanted "U-S-A! U-S-A!" and felt good about the national anthem and the Stars and Stripes.
But I was even more excited by the Chicago Cubs and their magnificent, thrilling, and incredibly suspenseful run to the World Series. The United States is my country, of course, but the Chicago Cubs have been my baseball team since birth. I'm no latecomer or bandwagoneer: My family roots in Chicago go back to the time of the Great Chicago Fire. That's just where we're from. So when the Cubs pulled off that heart-stopping win in Game 7, I cheered like a maniac from a hotel bar in central Nebraska. That was a victory for my team, my heritage, and a common thread that binds my extended family together.
But there is no equivalence between that win, no matter how much I had anticipated it since my childhood, and the arrival of my second kid this year. The Cubs could have gone on for another century of missed chances and it wouldn't have mattered in comparison with my joy in holding my new baby girl. These aren't comparables -- or, if they are, they're only comparable on a logarithmic scale. The birth of the child is infinitely better than the next-best thing.
The scale of a thing may be in inverse proportion to its importance. 320 million of us cheered for the United States to win in Rio, but unless you were Katie Ledecky's family or Michael Phelps's fiancee, it probably wasn't the most intense feeling you had all year. There's no doubt there were legions of lifelong Cubs fans who had a much stronger sensation about winning the World Series. But unless there's something wrong with you, if you had a kid, then that's it -- it's the indisputable high point of the year.
Which brings us to the political.
Think of the global events of enormous magnitude taking place right now:
- War in Yemen and Syria and Somalia and elsewhere
- A refugee crisis of historic proportions knocking on Europe's door
- The potential dissolution of the European Union -- or perhaps even NATO
- China asserting a bold new claim to a sphere of influence unlike any seen in Asia since World War II
These huge, enormous, agenda-setting events merit a few lines of coverage in the news, but unless you're following the stories in real time on Twitter, they're not really happening in an intense way to most of us individually.
Naturally, the 2016 election had most of us in a high-alert state -- and with much of the executive branch of government remaining to be appointed, there's much to watch. But for all the intensity with which the Supreme Court was used as a hot potato prior to November, I don't think most Americans could name even half of the Supreme Court justices.
The real intensity starts to show up at the state level, where the fight over the collective-bargaining bill reached a rolling boil this week, as it earned legislative approval and was signed into law yesterday (Friday).
But even then, for pure intensity, it might be hard to find an issue like sidewalks in Windsor Heights, or speed cameras on I-235, or the decision whether to dissolve or merge a school district. These intensely local issues come with massively intensified feelings.
Intensity of feeling doesn't make any of these issues (or the opinions about them) any more or less virtuous. But engagement on the close, personal issues is the real training ground for us to do better with the big issues, too. When we're faced with the idea of conflict with our immediate neighbors, and when we have to be accountable for things like the costs, then it's hard to run away from -- if not compromise, at least civilized resoution of our differences. Trade-offs and accommodations and negotiations on these issues matter, and they decide whether we can live at peace in our own neighborhoods.
That's excellent practice for being more civilized at the higher and higher levels of coordinated human action. If all we ever look at, and all we ever think about, is the stuff that's happening in Washington (or London or Beijing or Brussels or at the UN General Assembly), then it's easy to channel ourselves straight into binary thinking. Trade deals? Yes or no! Brexit? Yes or no! Armed conflict with China? Yes or no!
All of us need practice with being engaged in the local questions and with finding local solutions to them. It's like getting physical exercise: Little by little, through repeated effort, we build our strength. And it's really good for our moral fiber, too, if we can train ourselves to see that answers really can be found to our questions. We need to be involved in the local stuff to see that resolutions are possible, but that things are rarely neat and tidy -- and virtually never unanimous. And if we can't come up with easy answers about things like how often to plow sidestreets in a snowstorm, then how are we ever supposed to be satisfied with oversimplified "answers" on the seemingly intractable questions on the much higher stages?
Local issues matter. They matter just like the birth of a child matters, if only to the immediate family, but with great intensity. But those local issues matter because we need to exercise our civic "muscles" on the issues that are solvable and comprehensible when seen with our own eyes, so that we can project the same kind of sobriety and maturity onto questions of politics with much greater reach.