My brother and sister love to tell the story of the day Dad came home and told them, “We killed Joe Camel.” My dad worked at the FDA at the time and was engaged in an all out war to regulate the tobacco industry. I was too young to really have a memory of this story, but I do know that it didn’t end there. He had committed to something much larger than himself, something that might not bear fruit until years later. He was right. The fight over tobacco regulation continued long after he left the FDA until President Obama signed the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act into law in 2009.
Recently, I came across a powerful statistic published in a paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association:
between 1964 and 2012, eight million premature deaths were avoided as a result of tobacco control.
History is a messy and complicated affair. Occasionally, however, you are able to step back a little and see the arc of smaller stories. With the aforementioned retrospective, the tobacco fight is one of these little arcs that I feel I can actually grasp and I think I’ve learned a lot about the long haul from being able to see the story happen in my own lifetime. It gave me a sense that committing yourself to the big things isn’t an act of naiveté. It’s an act of courage.
I was able to get a sense of another smaller arc when I visited the museum in Santiago. After walking through the second floor, a floor of dark corridors filled with the shadows of abuse and terror of the Pinochet regime, you reach the open and light space of the third floor. The third floor represents the resistance, the fight, the overcoming of the Chilean people.
In 1988, there was a national plebiscite to determine whether Pinochet should continue his rule. YES meant more Pinochet; NO meant elections for a new government. The campaigns from the opposing sides became the stuff of legends. The NO movement won out, capturing almost 56% of the vote. Pinochet’s time as the leader of Chile had come to a close. The NO movement is perhaps best represented by their cheery jingle: “Chile, la alegría ya viene” (Chile, joy is on its way).
The song felt like the fruition of a movement, the closing of a narrative. It was powerful. In that moment, I thought of my dad and his unrelenting commitment to the long haul. These commitments matter. As we sum up these arcs, we start to bend the bigger story. It’s often worth it to take a step back and wonder what arcs we are engaged in.