The Unbearable Tension of Opposites
Mathematician John Horton Conway founded The Game of Life, a computer pattern model. It is now The Game of Life’s 50th Anniversary. Melanie Mitchell is a Professor of Complexity at the Santa Fe Institute. Of The Game of Life, she says, “We have to figure out ways to flourish in spite of the inherent unpredictability and uncertainty we constantly live with. As the mathematician John Allen Paulos so eloquently said, ‘Uncertainty is the only certainty there is, and knowing how to live with insecurity is the only security.’ This is, I think, Life’s most important lesson.”
Uncertainty is the only certainty. Insecurity is the only security.
Do those two sentences make the breath whoosh out of your lungs? They’re both true, but they are also two of the truths we humans do our level best to avoid at all costs. No wonder The Game of Life was Dr. Conway’s least favorite of his simulations.
Nothing is certain. Nothing is secure. How is it possible that we have learned over millennia to demand both of life? Humanity loves certainty. We ask for it prior ever to making any decision. Humanity loves security. We feel it is our due to be secure even in the face of uncertainty.
This is the time of year that the R word gets bandied about. You know the one I mean: Resolution. Even The New York Times is in on the Resolution Bandwagon. They published an article this morning about political resolutions, asking what humans might do differently in the next four years.
John Voith, 36, of Wellesley, MA responded, this “has been a wake-up call to me to accept more responsibility. Moving forward, I’ll take a stronger and more public stand, even if it’s unpopular.” He’s changed his mind because of his two very young children — a one year-old and a newborn.
It’s a little hard to make tangible resolutions this year, Beloved, or it is for a great many Americans, and I’d venture, Europeans as well. The gap between the haves and the have-nots has spread into an abyss. Economic historian at Cornell University Louis Hyman says, “Visibility is a good thing, that people are forced to confront it.” I agree. It’s far too easy to look away from the needs of others in our world, to pretend that because those needs are not ours, they don’t exist. But they do. And for more of us than we even know.
Professor Hyman again, “His argument isn’t that consumers should feel bad about ordering takeout, or having their groceries delivered. It’s not the services that are the problem, it’s the insecurity and low wages that come with doing that work in an economy that offers few opportunities to build wealth and limited access to benefits. Factory work wasn’t all that great, either. What we romanticize about it are the livable wages and benefits it provided for a time.
The story of the 1930s is not making the jobs of the 1920s work better. It’s creating new systems for the industrial work force.”
New systems — if they are truly new — must be acknowledged as both uncertain and insecure. Despite every model we posit, despite every well-intentioned plan we make, despite all our efforts, new things must be, as that great theologian of our time, Dolly Parton, wrote, “Get your dreams in line / And then just shine, design, refine / ’Til they come true.”
The United States is desperately in need of some new dreams, Beloved. But as Margaret O’Mara, a historian at the University of Washington, says, “It’s been a very long time since people across the income spectrum felt that acting in the collective interest was going to be more beneficial than acting in individual interests.”
Ouch. Yes, actually, double ouch. It doesn’t matter whether you’re focused on your own interests or collective interests, if you’re alive, and thinking, in the U.S. at all, you know that these two create an exquisite, dreadful tension. Witness the maniacal Mr. Wonka, “The suspense is terrible, I hope it will last.”
Well, I for one, do not hope it will last.
Barbara Rose died this week. Only modern art geeks would know her name. She wrote the definitive textbook on modern art since 1900. In “[h]er last published article, a review of work by Andrew Lyght, the Guyana-born artist, which appeared in The Brooklyn Rail in October,” she wrote, “The capacity to synthesize opposites is one of the distinctions of his entirely original style.” Her obituary ended, “That comment could have applied just as easily to her.”
It gave me hope, Beloved. Because this is what we too, we each, and we all are called to do. We must notice the tension of opposites drawn taut between the interests of the one and the interests of the many, and we must synthesize them. Before it’s too late.
Helen Keller famously wrote, “Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing at all.” How might we make 2021 a daring adventure? A daring adventure of the uncertainty and insecurity that will naturally arise when we consider both our individual interests and those of the collective at the same time. Perhaps like this …
The Times’ Quotation of the Day is from Nathalie Delgado, a Paris resident who said she would get vaccinated as soon as possible, describing it as an act of citizenship. “It is not even for me, but it is the only way to stop the virus.” Here is individual action in behalf of the collective.
Or, like this … Kristen Howerton is a psychologist and a mother of teenagers. She writes in this morning’s Times how unhappy she is with the kind of mother Covid-19 has morphed her into. Here’s what she’s done to counter that. She’s “trying to find the ‘yeses’ where I can in a season of saying no.” What if we take a page from her playbook and actively, deliberately look for where we can say yes instead of no? That might go a long way.
Nivi Achanta writes for The Soapbox Project. This year, she told it like it is, and “did not list a bunch of eco-friendly products people can put a bow on, instead writing, ‘The best way to be sustainable is to stop buying stuff.’”
Well now, here is a definitive place where the rubber meets the road, Beloved. Stop buying stuff?!?!? Why, whatever for? I mean, how can we, how could we, we are Homo Economicus, after all, the supreme consumers of all things! But, Beloved, what if we weren’t? What if that’s an identity thrust upon us to make us focus on things that are easy to measure — and that’s all?
“Elizabeth Chai decided she would not buy anything in 2020, with the exception of food, coffee, toiletries (if she ran out of something essential) and the occasional service like a haircut. She would resist the urge to add to her wardrobe or to buy anything material for her home. She would fix things or borrow them instead of purchasing new ones, and she would get rid of stuff she already had; 2,020 items sold, donated or tossed was her goal.
“Her ‘buy-nothing’ commitment was inspired by a desire to minimize her impact on the planet and to better appreciate what she already owns. She told some friends about the project and made a list of rules to hold herself accountable.”
The rules she made up were very personal, but they worked for her. My husband and I both had a similar instinct for 2021, before I even saw Ms. Chai’s story. We’re not particularly maniacal consumers either, but one of the things we’ve realized this year is that we don’t have to have every gadget under the sun, that there are things we use and value because we use them, and that we own plenty of things that we use only occasionally which might, if given away, make another human’s face beam a grin of happiness around the world.
“Ms. Liz Chai did successfully rid herself of 2,020 things by the end of the year with the help of a spreadsheet. So she’s thinking about extending the experiment into 2021, [b]ecause she certainly doesn’t regret it. ‘I’m looking around and everything is something I want to be in here,’ she said.”
The song lyric I cited of Dolly’s is from an anthem titled, “Better Get to Livin’,” Beloved. I’m taking Dolly’s advice, even if, as she says, she’s “not the Dalai Lama.” It’s time to get to living again, but not just for me, or those I love, or those I know. Oh no, it’s time for the whole world to get to living, and if I can give others things that make their livin’ easier, why the hell wouldn’t I?
Dr. Susan Corso is a spiritual teacher, the founder of iAmpersand, and the author of The Mex Mysteries, the Boots & Boas Books, and spiritual nonfiction. Her essays address the intersection of spirituality and culture. Her website is susancorso.com.