Uncertainty as an Invitation to Create New Meaning
For his first 35 years, Samuel Finley Breese Morse aspired to be a painter, a great one.
In pursuit of his need for greatness, he studied all the finest institutions: Andover, Yale, the Royal Academy in London. He was fascinated with the masters. How they could bring a human body to life; how the smallest change in hue could alter a viewer’s experience. He fell in love with the way that he could conjure the unimaginable. He could remove the barriers of space and time.
In the fall of 1825, he was living in Connecticut with his wife, Lucretia, due any day with their third child. One day, a letter arrived from New York with an offer for a sizable commission. The Marquis de LaFayette was traveling to Washington for the 50th anniversary of the start of the revolution. And LaFayette was willing to sit for Morse.
This seemed like Providence. Morse had only some minor success to this point, so he was looking for a sign, anything that would encourage him in his drive for greatness. And here the heavens had provided. Morse packed his paints, kissed his wife, and left for Washington right away.
A week later, Morse was in a Washington studio preparing for Lafayette’s arrival. A courier knocked on the door. Breathing heavy from days of riding, he handed Morse a note, “Your dear wife is convalescent.”
Morse left that night and rode for six straight days and cold nights. When he arrived home, he learned that his wife, Lucretia, his muse, was dead. She was dead before the courier had knocked on his door in Washington. And, at some point, when he was on that torturous road home, they had already buried her.
This was the darkest night of his life. The canvas of the cold New England night sky stretched out above. I wonder what he saw that night when he gazed at the stars. How did they cluster? Did he regret his decision to boldly pursue his dream? Did he find comfort when gazing up through ineffable pain?
Whatever he saw that night, it radically changed our current realities.
For the next 45 years, he completely changed the script on his destiny. Putting aside his paints and brushes, he wrote in a new language, one of dots and dashes, dits and dahs. He invented the telegraph.
Morse was not an engineer or a linguist. He was not an authority on electricity. If you knew his past, you would not have predicted his final form. But, after decades with the masters, he was practiced at the art of folding space and time. He could take out the illusion of physical separation and transmit the substance of real lives. Just like he had been trained to do.
There is no need for an epilogue on the telegraph or Morse code. Everything from the telephone to America Online to Facebook to ChatGPT could be traced to that October night in 1825. We remained connected to others through the course of a global pandemic because of the grief of a 19th century would-be portrait artist. The only need for this epilogue is to recognize the cascading strength of Morse’s inspiration.
A Collective Staring into the Abyss
A common interpretation of the trajectory of Morse’s is that of the exceptional inventor. He was Silicon Valley tech bro before Silicon Valley tech bro was cool and then subsequently uncool. This narrative is ubiquitous. Here, the visionary was driven to pursue a dream and leverage new tech to get there.
That reveals, however, only a shallow, TED-talk-like read on an otherwise complex and deeply human story. That is the story of a human’s search for meaning.
In some ways, we have all been in the position of Morse, especially over the past years. We have had disruptions greater than any of us had predicted. The word, “unprecedented” has been Googled an unprecedented number of times since 2020. There is a kind of grief that comes from the dreams we defer or the loss of potential realities.
Back in 1970, Alvin Toffler described our current collective cultural phenomenon as Future Shock, a state of distress or disorientation due to rapid social and technological change. And his remedy for the state of shock is a fact-facing accounting of what must be held onto and what we leave behind:
“To survive, to avert what we have termed future shock, the individual must become infinitely more adaptable and capable than ever before. He must search out totally new ways to anchor himself, for all the old roots—religion, nation, community, family, or profession— are now shaking under the hurricane impact of the accelerative thrust.”
So perhaps the moral or the intention of Samuel Morse’s story is that of the antidote for future shock. It is a lesson in how to think about our future from the past. When the best-laid, linear plans are found wanting and no longer serve us, we must take agency in shaping new futures. A necessary component, however, is the willingness to stare into the abyss — to listen deeply to the natural world and what is presented with an exploratory disposition.
2023: The Year You Create Your Own Constellation
The passage of another year presents the opportunity for such a reflection. The clichéd versions of this ritual involve making resolutions. However, in twinkling light of Morse’s inspiration, perhaps some time spent in purposeful reflection is of supreme value. And what better metaphor for this activity than looking to the stars?
Staring into the night sky is a practice in dissolving space and time. It offers the chance to do the thing that only humans can do: make meaning. The images you carry of your career, your dreams, your network, your futures, and your past are much like clusters of stars. And, perhaps, like the collections in the sky, they have been preassigned a meaning.
We at Bigwidesky have a benediction of sorts for you: We hope that you take this moment to craft your own constellations. Take those images that are perhaps light years apart — work things, childhood things, community things — and find new connections. By taking agency to shape the spaces between our images and ideas, new meaning can emerge.
Why do this?
- It’s something only humans can do. Even though the robot overlords will soon be coming for our jobs, only humans are able to engage in analogical thinking, based on finding relations between things. Morse did it by seeing the thread between painting and removing the barriers of space and time.
- It’s the source of cascading innovation and new possibilities. We were created to make meaning. So take agency in shaping the kinds of futures you want. Find the leverage points where you can have the greatest influence.
A caveat: This is not an invocation of a quote misattributed to Abraham Lincoln or Shaklee or whomever: “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” That kind of posture lacks a fundamental humility. Anyone who has stared into the night sky must have seen that there is a vastness to this universe. There is more to this reality than what we think, more than our narcissistic egos, more than just what we want. The practice we hope for you in the new year is one of meaning-making, not predicting.
We hope the next year holds a meaning beyond what you can easily measure. That you find the balance of using wisdom from the past and seeking new connections and understanding. In the context of ever-changing times, we must find any opportunity to be more human.
(Background on Samuel Morse from The Memory Palace Podcast)