The Wisdom of a Postal Clerk: Insight into Present-Day America

Carla Seaquist
6 min readJun 15, 2023
Julian Lozano / Unsplash

It’s not every day when a mundane chore turns into an Enlightening Encounter.

Several months ago, I was at the Post Office, waiting in line to mail a copy of — what can I say? — my book, “Can America Save Itself from Decline?” Specifically, it was Volume II of my collection of commentary, spanning the years 2015 through 2020. It is a big book — 632 pages, to be exact — twice the size of Volume I. The question — Can America save itself from decline? — is a big, unending one.

When I got to the counter, I had in hand what I thought would be the proper mailer, with the book inside. When I handed the box to the young clerk, I said I wanted the book rate.

“It’s heavy,” he said. “What’s the book?”

“It’s titled ‘Can America Save Itself from Decline?’”

“Sounds interesting,” he said. “Who’s it by?”

“Um, me.”

He stopped, looked at me hard. “Really?”

“Young man, books are not made by the gods. Mortals make them. I made this one.”

He pulled out the book, checked my credit card against the author’s name. “Yup.”

“So,” I ventured, “can America save itself from decline? It’s an important question.”

“It sure is,” he agreed. Then he asked me, “What do you think?”

“Uh-uh, what do you think? I’d like to know, because at the P.O. you see everybody.”

He took it onboard, the question. I became aware that he had slowed his otherwise fast pace to weigh the package, secure it ultra-ultra-tight with tape, all the while his face showing he was working on his response. Meanwhile, I was also aware there was a long line behind me that was probably not terribly interested in our intellectual exchange.

Finally, after the transaction had been completed, he leaned on the counter and said: “Here’s what I think. About the question” — can America save itself from decline?:

“Not enough people care. And way too many people care way too much about the wrong things.”

“Wow,” I said quietly. I wanted to ask what evidence he had for his thesis, but my time was up. As I left I said, “Young man, you are something else,” and gave him a thumbs-up.

Since then, I have thought so often of — what can I say? — the wisdom of that young postal clerk, someone who sees and hears it all, because it seems to capture what ails America at this juncture, and so cogently. When I relate it to friends, they are similarly impressed. “Wow,” they say. Or “subtle.” Or “spot-on.” Or “hmmm.” Then, always, they want to commit to memory what exactly he said. “How’d that go again?”

“Not enough people care. And way too many people care way too much about the wrong things.”

Unpacking it, I’ll start with his latter point — about way too many people caring way too much about the wrong things — because that is so glaringly, gratingly, scarily obvious.

No doubt the young man refers to that large swath of the public that believes the lies of a “stolen” 2020 election and widespread election “fraud” retailed by a former “president” of the United States (scare-quotes intended). That faux-president has since been on a retribution tour, vowing to take back the White House; no doubt our young man hears the retribution. And no doubt he hears other anti-government raillery from that same large swath, expressed with the loud scorn and contempt now given license by that same faux-president. As a government employee, our young postal clerk must be having third and fourth thoughts about serving in a “public-facing” agency. Why do so many Americans interpret their free-speech rights as the freedom to say absolutely every last reptilian thing on their mind? Our young postal clerk could probably write an ode.

As for the former point — about not enough people caring, that is, caring America may be in decline, caring its democracy is under assault: I’d like to hear the young postal clerk’s evidence. Do people out-and-out say they are fine with America’s moment in History passing by? (A friend of mine actually said as much: “Civilizations come, civilizations go, our time has gone.”) Do people out-and-out say they are fine with America’s liberal democracy becoming illiberal, as is the case in Hungary, Poland, Turkey?

That is hard to credit. Rather, I wonder if our young postal clerk is making an inference from the latter point: that way too many people caring way too much about the wrong things thus implies they do not have the bandwidth to care about decline and democracy.

I want to assure that young man that there is a public that does care — about decline and democracy. This public, what I call the “conscientious” public, protested the Iraq war; it protested America engaging in torture in Iraq; it cried with joy when our first African-American president was elected, in 2008; it was broken-hearted when the faux-president was elected in 2016, but it showed up in record numbers to prevent that calamity. And it showed up in record numbers in 2020 to ensure a better day.

These conscientious citizens (of whom I include myself) not only care about America’s decline and democracy, but they care to the point of sleepless nights, obsession, even illness (I made myself very ill over government-sanctioned torture). And this caring, if I may so characterize it, is of the positive kind: not nationalist — “USA! USA!” — but philosophical: We love the idea of America and democracy and tremble at their demise.

And, no, this kind of caring would not be freely expressed over the counter at the P.O.

It’s one of Civilization’s discontents that scorn and contempt are closer to the surface and more readily expressed than the higher emotions of love and gratitude. As a favorite poet, the Polish Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska, wrote in a poem simply titled “Hatred”: “Since when does brotherhood / draw crowds? / Has compassion / ever finished first? / Does doubt every really rouse the rabble? / Only hatred has just what it takes.”

So, if I may: We need to solve for Civilization’s discontents, at least on this point. We, the conscientious public, need to be a more vocal and forceful antagonist to the right’s scorn and contempt. And, to counter the cynicism growing on the left at the seemingly endless struggle with the right’s scorn and contempt, we need to find the right note of reality-based hope. And we need to be more openly supportive of our public employees.

I want to say all this to Bartleby. In my head I’ve named our young postal clerk after another clerk, Bartleby the Scrivener, from Herman Melville’s story of the Wall Street law clerk, who, when given material to copy, would occasionally announce, “I would prefer not to.” Not that our young postal clerk is, I imagine, obstreperous, just that he may be starved for evidence of a public that cares.

But, sorry to say, Bartleby is no longer at my post office. I inquired: He has “moved on.”

I’d prefer not to think our Bartleby has taken himself out of public service. I’d prefer not to think he’s in recovery from working a public-facing job. Instead, I’d prefer to think he anticipated my message: That while, yes, way too many people care way too much about the wrong things, enough people do care about the right things — saving democracy, reversing America’s decline — and he’s off to do his part. Because in his insight, I detect a political note: Maybe he’s throwing himself into a campaign, or throwing his own hat in the ring? Or maybe he’s writing The Great American Novel? He has the thesis for it.

How so? Because he has something vital. In his insight about caring and not-caring, our young postal clerk revealed: He himself cares — and he cares about the right things.

That is the elixir, young man: caring about the right things. Bon chance.

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Carla Seaquist

Our times examined via politics, culture, morality. Author, "Can America Save Itself from Decline?" (Vol. II). Playwright. Fmr. HuffPost. www.carlaseaquist.com.