Hierarchy of Needs

We have a poltergeist.

His name is Gerald. He lives in our garage, and makes one of the smoke alarms beep at regular intervals. How we know he’s “he,” or that his name is Gerald, I’m not sure, although I do know when The Kid asked me his name, I immediately thought of that old Pixar short with the chess players for some random reason.

It’s possible I haven’t been getting enough sleep.

Now, before you all decide I’ve gone off a metaphysical deep end — yeah, I know Gerald isn’t a poltergeist. Gerald is a malfunctioning smoke detector. We’ve changed the battery to no avail; the thing keeps gamely beeping every 180 seconds, or whatever the interval is. We have a new one that’s waiting to be installed, but the bad detector is on the less-accessible side of the garage, so we’ve been putting it off. (Don’t worry. There’s a second smoke detector in the garage that works, and one in the room above. We’re covered.)

There’s no such thing as ghosts.

On the way home from the supermarket today, Spouse and I got to talking about conspiracy theories, and the sorts of people who cling to them. I realized that part of the attraction is their complexity: we want the world to be more interesting than it is. We all want our lives to be more meaningful. We want to believe that somewhere under the mundanity there’s a mystical world of magic, of generational subterfuge, of the One Ring and the Chosen Few. We want there to be reason, structure. We want there to be a point to all this.

We want to be special.

Of course we’re all special, we’re all unique, we each have something to contribute to blah blah blah — it’s not that those platitudes are false, it’s that they emphasize the wrong things. They emphasize a type of specificity the vast majority of us will never achieve. We’re all unique, but for most of us, our talents are not. Even Stephen Hawking’s brilliant mind was not the only brilliant mind in physics.

Do you know what I remember about Stephen Hawking? I remember him on Futurama and The Simpsons,¬†merrily poking fun at himself. I remember thinking that someone who could take his image as a genius, as a serious scientist, and turn that image upside down for laughs was probably someone who’d have been fun to talk to, the kind of person you’d be relieved to be seated next to at some distant cousin’s wedding where you didn’t know anybody. I knew his name because of his talent. I remember him because of his humor.

So what’s important, really? What is it that makes a difference? Is it being brilliant at something, holding up a rare creative offering to humanity? Or is it humor and kindness, the kind of connection that might, sometime, here and there, make someone else feel less alone?

I don’t have answers, really. I’m not a philosopher, any more than any other writer. But I think it’s both.

I think there are intellectual and creative achievements that affect our species in irreplaceable ways.

But I think the day-to-day kindnesses, the moments of humor, of contact, of letting someone else know yes, I’m human too, you’re not alone, no matter how you feel sometimes, are at least as important. The former is a contribution to the ages. The latter is a contribution to today.

We need both, all of us, every day. We need ambitions, and hope for the future. We need dreams of all sizes to drive and sustain us.

And we need connection, however tenuous, to get us through the here and now.

When Gerald’s smoke detector gets replaced, Gerald won’t leave us. He’ll move somewhere else. Perhaps he’ll be quiet for a while. Perhaps he’ll become the thing that makes our landline phone choke out a half-ring every once in a while, or our stove’s broken display mysteriously start working for ten or fifteen minutes. Perhaps he’ll be whatever it is that makes the tire pressure light on my car light up when the tires are fine. Perhaps he’ll be what our cats are looking at when they stare intently upward, as if there’s something calling to them from our ceiling.

All I know for sure is that he’s staying.

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