The Optimism of Uncertainty

Howard Zinn (Photo: History is a Weapon)

What is left to be said? Ten days in, I have read hundreds of opinions about the outcome of the election, conversed with sympathetic friends and family, sought for ways to stay grounded in this increasingly surreal landscape we now share in the United States. For all the opinionating and pontificating, I still don’t have a definitive and complete explanation for how this happened or what the best strategy will be going forward. I’m perplexed by all of it. Perplexed and utterly, utterly devastated.

If I am aligned with anyone, it would be with many of the writers from one of my favorite books, The Impossible Will Take a Little While*. It was published by Paul Rogat Loeb in 2004, during another era of extreme political pain. The contributors to this collection of essays are familiar names from many walks of life—Maya Angelou, Nelson Mandela, Václav Havel, Adrienne Rich, Cornel West, Joanna Macy, Pablo Neruda, Alice Walker, John Lewis, Terry Tempest Williams, among others. But they share a common message: Do not be daunted, even if your first efforts feel tiny and insignificant. This book is full of inspiring stories of how to effect change and how to tenaciously attend to efforts that often start small but end up making a difference. In some cases, a very big difference.

Howard Zinn, ever wise and much loved here in Boston/Cambridge even after his passing in 2010, wrote an essay for this volume: The Optimism of Uncertainty. What a concept! The content of that essay is so apropos it could have been written this morning.

Is the optimist necessarily a blithe, slightly sappy whistler in the dark of our time? I am totally confident not that the world will get better, but that only confidence can prevent people from giving up the game before all the cards have been played. The metaphor is deliberate; life is a gamble. Not to play is to foreclose any chance of winning. to play, to act, is to create at least a possibility of changing the world.

What leaps out from the history of the past hundred years is its utter unpredictability. This confounds us, because we are talking about exactly the period when human beings became so ingenious technologically that they could plan and predict the exact time of someone landing on the moon, or walk down the street talking to someone halfway around the Earth.

And this:

The bad things that happen are repetitions of bad things that have always happened—war, racism, maltreatment of women, religious and nationalist fanaticism, starvation. The good things that happen are unexpected. Unexpected, and yet explainable by certain truths that spring at us from time to time, but which we tend to forget.

Political power, however formidable, is more fragile than we think. (Note how nervous are those who hold it.)…

Revolutionary change does not come as one cataclysmic moment (beware of such moments!) but as an endless succession of surprises, moving zigzag toward a more decent society…

To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives.

So begins this latest zigzag. And for me, a daily practice of steering clear of hate while staying focused on compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.

Once more with feeling, since most of us have been here before. Is this my last chance to really get good at this?

*The title of the book references lyrics written by Bob Russell ( “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother”, among others) for Billie Holiday back in the 1940s:

The difficult I’ll do right now
The impossible will take a little while.

10 Replies to “The Optimism of Uncertainty”

  1. Oh thank you for this timely post, Deborah. Some days are better than others, and today has been for me the darkest yet since the election. I needed this reminder of the long game. And I promptly ordered the book from the library. Sending you all the best :->

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      It feels good to know others are on the same trajectory. Thank you Jane.

  2. Deb, I am with you on this. In Michele’s words, “When they go low, we go high.” I will not be indifferent and I will stand in love.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thanks Di.
      Means a lot.

  3. Deborah, this is just what I needed. I particularly like these words of Zinn:

    To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives.

    Thank you,

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      So glad we are on the same wave Michael.

  4. Thank you for this post, and for directing us (me) to the “impossible” anthology. You are not alone in your perplexed uncertainty and dismay.

    Poets and artists often use uncertainty as a kind of bridge, I think, into knowing. Compassion derives from uncertainty: once we are ourselves confused and unsure, we begin to know the fears and confusion that others may be feeling and to connect with them as other human beings. At least, I think that can occur.

    I’ve often termed myself a pragmatic optimist. So here’s the current situation. Roll up sleeves, work with what we have, try for better. Make art.

    1. This was so like you, wise and so beautifully expressed. Thank you Ann for so many responses here that have enriched my understanding.

  5. Bravo Deborah for putting these minds before us…I’m with you and all of us caring compassionate folk.

    1. Thanks Tim. We are cotravelers in so many ways.

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