When I was studying abroad in Russia (and forgive me if you’ve heard this story a million times before), I was drugged in a bar and woke up in my bed with half my front tooth missing and no memory of how it happened. It was maybe a week or two before the scheduled end of my trip; I was so close to coming home unscathed from my safe little life-changing travel experiment. My Russian language skills had improved, I’d made friends and walked around in the strange, soft light of St. Petersburg until it was somewhat my own. And now I was in the back of an ambulance being rushed through the city after twelve hours of unconsciousness, having woken up when my host mom came in to check my pulse for probably the tenth time.
What I remember primarily from that ambulance ride is the feeling of possibility, the truth of chance. You do not know what will happen, I thought. You cannot predict or control it all.
The end of this year has felt very much the same to me, although I’m only now coming to realize it. The election was shocking and painful and I think has taught me (and our country, or large swaths of it) that the beliefs we held not only to be sacred but also obvious and permanent – that we were making social progress however slowly, that obvious hatred was to be named and defeated – are not as sacrosanct as we thought. I guess, speaking personally, that some part of me thought that progress could only go forward; that there would not come a time when a crude, cruel, and foolish demagogue would walk onto the western world stage and be, well, elected. (I know that a lot of my naiveté can be chalked up to being a white person of reasonable privilege. But not all of it, I think. The shock feels more shared than that.)
Of course I was wrong about what was possible. Anything is possible, and not all of it is good. I also thought that when Martin Luther King, Jr. said that the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice, that perhaps the bend was one I could observe. And maybe I can, but not as closely as I thought. Like a rainbow, I can’t reach the end; it fuzzes out at the horizon, and those of us looking for it just have to keep walking.
I think often about possibility and chance in an abstract sense, wondering about causality in the universe and whether or not our fates are guided. One way to put this would be to say I wonder whether there is a God, which is not a point I can offer any clarity on (in case you were hoping). Maybe there’s not; maybe there’s just the indifferent universe; or maybe an active multiverse; or a sense of consciousness or design that moves us along despite our lack of understanding. But even if there is a God-as-such, I don’t know that it can be taken as a given that this God is paying attention to us or cares what we do, or acts for our good. Even just believing in free will should be enough to tell us we’re kind of on our own out here, and should be enough to suggest the possibility that people who act based on greed or selfishness or a hunger for power may be doing just fine in the cosmic sense, because there is no cosmic sense. Maybe the mark of a life well lived is or could be just seeing that someone else has shiny rocks you want, and taking those rocks, and hoarding them until you die.
But the larger part of me cannot believe it. Even admitting the possibility of an indifferent universe – which I do think is possible – cannot quite bring me to a place of ethical abandon. I do not believe that my life is at its most good if it is profiting from the suffering of others; I do not believe in power for its own sake. I am a writer, and I believe in the transmission of ideas and hope through every possible vehicle, every possible voice. I am a person, and I believe in other people.
I think that some people look at hope of this kind and see it as, in fact, an argument for God (and ok, some people look at it & call it shlock, ok, but): that the impulse to pursue light in the darkness comes from some divine inspiration.
But the way I see it, even if that is not true, the impulse is still right, and it is still good. What better statement to make, however, briefly, in a cold and endless universe than to say we were here, for a while, and we were warm?
(Wow, that got heavy. Enjoy your raccoons, and Happy New Year. xo)