Columbus Day has become a topic of much criticism in our politically correct, historically accurate society. We treat it scornfully: a holiday for directionally challenged sailors and small pox infected blankets.
But Columbus is lucky to be discussed at all. For every explorer or historical figure who gets a national holiday, there are hundreds who go unnoticed. Few students even realized that October 9 was Leif Ericson day, a celebration of the first Europeans to set foot on American soil.
It seems a shame that we close the banks for Christopher Columbus but don’t even bat an eye for poor Ericson. But because the Icelandic explorer left behind no permanent settlements and few written records, this is the fate that he is relegated to. History, after all, is written by the winners, the people who are able to accomplish something permanent, to be admired by future generations. What is important, or so we have been led to believe, is not so much what happens as what gets recorded. We only count what gets written down.
This is a poor mindset for historians as well as for students. It is easy to become overly concerned with written records, the things which can be examined, analyzed, and judged. In class, we’re most concerned with what’s going to be on the test, whether or not an assignment will count toward our final grade, because those are the things for which we are held accountable. The rest of it, much like Leif Ericson, we put aside as irrelevant—an interesting anecdote, but of no lasting importance.
I too, am guilty of this flawed outlook. For three and a half years, I’ve been studying things instead of doing them; I’ve allowed myself to overstate the importance of the things that would be written down. And I fear that I may have missed the tiny moments that, on the record, don’t account for much, but added together are what make up a life. For there is a great deal of value in the anecdotes, the fleeting moments, in the lunches spent picnicking in Battery Park instead of studying in the library. In the books that we read just because we feel like it. In the ice cream cones eaten, songs sung, games won and lost. These are things we tend to ignore because they can’t be written on a resume or calculated into a grade. Whether we experience them or not, no one will know but ourselves. Like Leif Ericson in his discovery of America, we will be alone in these accomplishments.
But I think, and Ericson would probably agree, that this doesn’t make them any less valuable. This is something that you’ve heard before, and no doubt it will be repeated many times in the future. But it is worth saying. Don’t neglect the tiny moments in pursuit of a bigger picture. Don’t forget that for every major victory there are hundreds of smaller ones just as significant but perhaps not quite loud enough to be noticed. After all, Columbus died in debt and was considered incompetent by many Spaniards, while Leif Ericson returned to Greenland a hero. You decide which life was most worth living.