The great divide

Some people thrive on the predictable, others keep rewriting their lives. A healthy society needs both

Published November 4, 2009 1:04AM (EST)

It costs $722 to fly from St. Paul/Minneapolis to Bismarck, N.D., and you can fly from St. Paul/Minneapolis to Paris for $754. Life is unfair; we all know this. Big prizes go to mediocrities while you struggle on, unappreciated. The righteous suffer while the wicked prosper. Bernie Madoff danced around the Securities & Exchange Commission to the tune of billions and the Immigration & Naturalization people deport a good Vietnamese woman for a minor error.

I grew up with the Kellogg's Variety Pack in a family of eight and so I know about unfairness. Some mornings your beloved Raisin Bran with its crunchy chewiness is snatched away by swifter hands and you sit staring into a bowl of soggy Rice Krispies or the wretched Sugar Pops and feel resentful, cheated, abused. Some days Mother embraces socialism and cooks a pot of Cream of Wheat, take it or leave it, but you look forward to the day when you take your place in the great emporium of adult life and can enjoy Raisin Bran whenever you like.

But by then, you have transcended Raisin Bran. You long for nobler things such as a moment of brilliance deconstructing Nabokov in your American lit seminar and winning the admiration of the delightful Jessica, who sits behind you, her mango hair conditioner sweetening the air, her beautiful knees just inches from your gluteus maximus. She is the smartest and sexiest girl you've ever met. In the Variety Pack of Love there is only Jessica, Jessica, Jessica, and all the other girls are tepid gruel in comparison. She allows you to put your arm around her magnificent shoulders. And one day she says to you over coffee, "I like you but you are not the one for me." You asked her to the homecoming dance, but no, she is going to come home with someone else.

Your heart is truly broken. Suddenly those songs on the jukebox are about you -- "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" and "I Will Always Love You" and "Too Far Gone" -- big salty tears well up in your pale green eyes and trickle down your tan cheeks.

Maybe Jessica's dismissal sends you spinning into a cult that believes that mankind is haunted and harried by the spirits of billions of people brought to Earth 75 million years ago by the intergalactic tyrant Xenu and you need to be hooked up to an e-meter to get free of them, or maybe you become a right-wing blogger and global-warming denier. Or you have your head pierced and a tiny red blinking light installed.

Or perhaps the loss of Jessica turns you into a true conservative. This is someone who believes that the treasures you inherited are probably more important than what you chose for yourself, that your family, your community, your culture, about which you had no choice, are the true gifts and all that you were ambitious to acquire on your own -- fame, wealth, an elegant prose style, mastery of the tango, Jessica -- are less true. This is the great divide in society: Some people accept who they are and settle into it and thrive on the predictable, and others are restless searchers and keep rewriting their lives, ever in the market for some new scheme, a new prophet, the newest True Light.

There are as many restless searchers among Republicans as among Democrats, and as many true conservatives, and a healthy society needs both. You do not want your child's school bus driver to be a restless searcher, you want him to stop at railroad crossings and look both ways. The older brother known for his constancy, his abiding faith, his discipline, proves to be an irritant to the younger brother and inspires him to feats of recklessness and to achieve a sort of breathless happiness unavailable to constancy and discipline.

The great unrequited love tears open your heart to the beauty of the world, its small rivers and upland meadows. It also makes you kinder to the next hundred thousand persons who cross your path. You kneel down beside small children and ask them how was their Halloween and what is their favorite breakfast cereal. You met grim defeat and so what? After a few months in Paris, you would've realized that Bismarck was a better fit for you. There is no Louvre, no Notre Dame, and the wind blows all the time, and winter lasts until April, but you're going to feel right at home there.

(Garrison Keillor is the author of "77 Love Sonnets," published by Common Good Books.)

© 2009 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

By Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor is the author of the Lake Wobegon novel "Liberty" (Viking) and the creator and host of the nationally syndicated radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," broadcast on more than 500 public radio stations nationwide. For more columns by Keillor, visit his column archive.

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