I once saw Ralph Sampson (of college and NBA fame) outside of a dorm complex at the University of Virginia. He was standing, arms folded, chin on hands, leaning against the roof of his car, talking to someone on the other side. His car was a full-sized Econoline van. And this is how I know how tall 7’4″ is.
We do this often in photographs. Stand in front of that mountain to show how big or how far away it is. Take a picture of that spider next to a dime. It gives it perspective. We need something to base our perceptions on. Something to help us understand a concept that might otherwise get lost in the description.
I think of this as I watch and listen and read the comments of many regarding the passing of Senator Kennedy. The talking heads of the media cannot seem to speak of him without somehow bringing themselves into the conversation. At some point they saw him or met him or spoke to him. They have a child with illness, as he had a child with cancer. They once sailed off Martha’s Vineyard, as he often sailed off Hyannis. They love their dog. He loved his dogs. Truly, their stretch to connect to him too often seems a bit much for me.
And as I watched the overwhelming numbers of fellow-Massachusetts folk line the way from the Cape to Boston yesterday, tears in their eyes as the motorcade carrying his body passed, I found myself growing a bit cynical. He was indeed a good man, a great champion of many a valued, liberal cause. A wonderful representative for all of us in the state – and beyond. But as I kept hearing people, average people on the street, speaking through sobs, telling the reporters how shocked and sad and lost they now felt, I couldn’t help but think the exaggerated responses were just a ploy to grab attention – of the camera, of friends, of strangers. Cynical thinking. Yes. I know.
But then I stopped and I thought of Ralph Sampson. Perhaps this is really our only way to understand things so much bigger than ourselves. We have to somehow relate it back to us. The person of Ted Kennedy was huge. The idea of him, of the Kennedy family, even greater. And there is just no way we can possibly comprehend the magnitude of his passing, both the person and the idea, without bringing it back to ourselves. Maybe the doing so, in some ways, diminishes the meaning, but without it I fear there isn’t any meaning for us at all.