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Essay

Our Little Systems

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When I went to college, I received a scholarship called the “President’s Associates” scholarship. It was an incredible gift, paying for my tuition and my books as well as providing a stipend. As the name implies, we also had opportunities to meet donors and community members as part of the award, and several times a year, the small group of us PAs were invited to have dinner at our university president’s home.

At the reception before the very first dinner I attended as a freshman, a very elderly man came over and chatted with me. Warm and welcoming, he asked me all sorts of questions about myself. And when I asked him what he did, he replied offhandedly that he was a “just a retired science professor.” Kind and unpretentious, he was interested in who I was and what I was going to do—and at every dinner after that, over my four years, he always sought me out, asked me for an update, told me his latest pun, and often sat with me during the meal.

Except I’m not telling you the whole story.

After I met this professor the first time, our university president came over and said: “Oh, I see you’ve met Clyde Tombaugh.”

“Yes,” I responded, “he seems really nice.”

“Did you know he discovered the planet Pluto?” The president smiled wryly, not surprised when I admitted he had never mentioned it—he hadn’t even mentioned he was in astronomy. Instead, here was one of a handful of people in world history to ever discover a planet asking freshman me about how my life and studies were going. Amazing.

I’ve been thinking about Professor Tombaugh because this week Pluto is getting a thrilling fly-by as part of the New Horizons mission.  clydew.tombaugh

I’m pleased that there’s such excitement about this exploration because I was one of the people who was quite sad when Pluto was demoted in 2006 to being a “dwarf planet.” Not because of the science, but because I had liked Professor Tombaugh so much. It saddened me to think that he would probably become just a trivia question: that guy who discovered a planet that really wasn’t one after all. That scientist who lost his planet.

It seems to me, though, that such a response isn’t a very faithful one. After all, what does happen when we lose our “planets”? What happens when our achievements are surpassed or diminished or are simply not as important as they once were? What happens when illness leaves us radically changed? When a beloved person dies and the landscape becomes disorientingly unfamiliar? When a retirement happens before we’ve figured out who we are without work?

What happens when you lose your planet? What kind of story have we cultivated to tell us who we are, especially when the planet you discovered isn’t the defining fact of your narrative?

I love the way Tennyson gets at the question In Memoriam:

Our little systems have their day

They have their day and cease to be

They are but broken lights of Thee

And Thou, oh Lord, art more than they.

Our “little systems”—be they our bodily systems eventually winding down with age, our philosophical systems being surpassed by the newest –ism or -ology, our technological systems grown slow and unresponsive—our little systems can only go so far, can only give limited luminosity .  We need something brighter, something more illuminating.

This week, as we see Pluto up close for the first time, I’ll raise a glass in memory of Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of a lost planet.  But more importantly, I’ll celebrate him as a man of great good humor and graciousness–and as a reminder that our most significant accomplishment comes in how we live our lives, how we are Christ to each other. Every day.

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). I also do various administrative things across campus. As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids. I count myself rich in friends and family. I enjoy kayaking and hiking. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I have a bumper sticker on my car that says: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” Which is true.

2 Comments

  • Deborah Enman says:

    This is absolutely lovely. Just read it to my husband who has recently retired and has an ongoing health issue. This calls us to live in the “now” and glorify God each day. He has blessed us greatly in the past and continues to do so. Thank you!

  • Arika Theule-VanDam says:

    A beautiful reflection on perspective – having a healthy perspective on our life’s accomplishments and priorities, which Dr. Tombaugh seems to have had. Something to emulate. I read this article this morning and thought it offered a nice supplement to yours: http://www.cnn.com/2015/07/13/us/nasa-pluto-new-horizons-clyde-tombaugh-ashes/

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