How to survive like Atlas during our 13 seconds

Thirteen seconds is about how long it takes you to pick up a glass of water from a table and take a couple of sips.

On this May 4 of the year 2020, many of us in the older generation remembered 13 seconds that happened 50 years ago. Those 13 seconds are how long National Guard troops fired on a crowd at Kent State University. Four people were killed; nine people, wounded.

The late ‘60s and early ‘70s spanned an era of activism and awareness-building for our society, as well as incredibly tough, complicated issues. The Vietnam War. Racial inequality. Women’s rights. Gay rights. A crooked president. The environment. Energy crisis. Student strikes. Buildings burned. Passionate speeches. Angry backlashes. Riots. Teargas. People arrested. People shot and killed.

Old Main in 1891. From Colorado State University Archives and Special Collections

Old Main in 1891. From Colorado State University Archives and Special Collections.

In May 1970, I was a journalism student at Colorado State University, Fort Collins. One student demonstration after another culminated on the evening of May 8 with an unknown arsonist setting fire to Old Main, the oldest building on campus. Hundreds of people watched as thick flames consumed the 108-year-old building. People were shocked, silent, as we listened to the relentless knell of flames engulfing the iconic building. People cried.

The red brick building, with its creaky wood floors, drafty class rooms, way too cold in the winter, way too hot in the summer, was a special place for me. The granite slab steps going up to the entrance were deeply worn by footsteps of students long-gone and ones still alive.

One warm spring I went through a semester-long class about Beowulf and other early forms of literature in a second-floor classroom so hot that steady drops of sweat drowned Grendel. I studied classic mythology in Old Main and became good buddies (metaphorically speaking, that is) with Zeus, Athene, Apollo, Venus, and Titans like Atlas. On some late evenings, six-pack of brew in hand, my friends (real people, not gods) and I sneaked into the building and sat on hard, splintery auditorium seats and figured out ways to solve the problems of the world. If only people would listen to us…

Old Main burned on May 8, 1970.

The morning after Old Main burned.

Since then, I’ve often thought that our country’s society is like Atlas holding up a huge globe that represents the heavens. With knees bent, he strains to keep the heavens held high. There are many versions of the Atlas story. The most popular says he was given the punishment by Zeus for leading the Titans in a losing battle against the Olympian Gods for control over the heavens.

In my version of Atlas and his burden, there’s a lot of grunting, moaning, knees and arms wobbling, occasional cursing, sweat flopping everywhere, and sometimes unsteady stutter-steps to rebalance the globe. Atlas is us, the common folk, and the globe is every challenge facing our society. It’s our fate, our burden, if you will, to keep things balanced and make better. If the globe falls, it’s over.

Despite the violence, despite the Kent State bloodshed, despite burned buildings and uncounted numbers of arrests around the nation, the few years before Kent State and a couple after were days of grand optimism. Many people believed they were changing things, making things better. It seemed as if everyone spoke of change. Our lives will be better. America will be better.

And so, generally, in some ways it did become better over the last five decades. Atlas was holding on tight to the globe. Yet, not tight enough. There has remained a dangerous off-kilter tilt, even before coronavirus.

Old Main in flames on May 8, 1970. From Colorado State University Archives and Special Collections.

Old Main in flames on May 8, 1970. From Colorado State University Archives and Special Collections.

Many people are barely making it in our America, despite the fact that we live in the wealthiest nation in the history of the world. The glass ceiling still exists for women. Me, Too, is righting some wrongs. Environmental progress was made and then abruptly undone over the last three years. Ghettos are still there with poverty, injustice, crime, inequality. Americans with Asian features or dark skin are attacked. Neo-Nazis are increasing in numbers.

Now, in our time of face masks and home quarantine, the knees of Atlas are shaking more than ever. His hold is weakening. These are signs warning us to re-balance. We need to stop attacking each other. We need to support others. We need to stop listening to liars. We need to realize that when a political leader says “fake news,” it’s probably not fake. We need to verify information through credible sources, not Fox News or Facebook or Twitter posts. We need to study candidates for office closely and vote right. We need to grasp the truth of things and act accordingly.

We’re sitting in our own Old Main. Our 13 seconds are ticking. It’s time to tighten our grip on the globe.