Perhaps all events alter history, but can we make sense of them?
By Herbert Rothschild
There was a show in the relatively early days of TV called “You Are There” (1953-1957). On it, Walter Cronkite narrated re-enactments of significant historical events, such as the death of Socrates and the siege of the Alamo. Each episode ended with, “What sort of day was it? A day like all days, filled with those events that alter and illuminate our times … all things are as they were then, except you were there.”
Perhaps all days are filled with events that alter our times. Many people believe that every action has consequences that radiate along untraceable pathways to decisive intersections with the consequences of myriad other actions. And thus our times are continually altered. But are they illuminated? And what would that mean? That certain events clarify the meaning of human history?
Near the start of “The White Album: A Chronicle of Survival” (1979), Joan Didion wrote, “We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” But that essay is about losing faith in the validity of the stories we tell to make sense of our times.
Soon our print and electronic media will offer us compilations of the most important events of 2022. Will these offerings illuminate the last 12 months? For example, which one of the 607 mass shootings in the U.S. to date will be singled out — the one at a Walmart in Chesapeake, Virginia? Or the one at an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs? Or the one at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas? Each of them changed numerous lives; all 607 of them seem to have changed nothing. What commentator will illuminate that darkness for us?
This crazy-quilt of localized disasters is echoed on a global scale by events of a climate for which there is now no normal except pain. Through September, at least 29 events each costing more than $1 billion to remediate occurred. The bill for Hurricane Ian (Sept. 27-Oct. 1) may run as high as $100 billion. Cumulatively, these events increased attention to global warming and spurred meaningful efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Still, preliminary data for 2022 suggest that total CO2 emissions from fossil fuel consumption will exceed the pre-COVID high of 2019, decreasing slightly in China and the European Union but increasing in the U.S.
I’ve singled out as noteworthy, not events, but aggregations of events. In an attempt to make sense of them, I could portion out some agency, such as the National Rifle Association (NRA) in the one case and fossil fuel corporations in the other. But these events entail far too many choices of action and inaction to construct narratives that would ring true.
More than anyone else, Charles Darwin illuminated the history of life on this planet. Attending to the finest details of animal morphology — the beaks of finches, the internal organs of barnacles — he grounded the theory of natural selection in countless events in the histories of extant species. It was the grandest of narratives imposed upon disparate images. Yet, all those histories were filled with chaos — random genetic and environmental mutations.
Most humans have yielded to the temptation to regard evolution as teleological — working toward an end — the end, of course, being ourselves, homo sapiens. Humans, presumably, have the mental capacity to understand, and thus shape, our destiny. Morally-informed intentionality would replace randomness. The historical narrative would assume meaning.
We didn’t reckon with our host. To a distressing extent, the human psyche is chaotic. The degree varies from one to another of us, depending on the environments that shaped us and our brain chemistries. Over time, our aggregated behavior may manifest the “underlying patterns, interconnection, constant feedback loops, repetition, self-similarity, fractals, and self organization” that chaos theory researchers try to discern in dynamical systems “once thought to have completely random states of disorder.” Which still doesn’t mean that human history isn’t “a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.”
Assuming we want to act on the world’s stage, no matter how small our parts, rather than retreat into a privacy that affords the mere illusion of control, there are, I think, two requirements. One is that we have done our internal work with enough honesty to understand the underlying patterns, repetitions etc. of our own behavior, rejected those that are self-destructive, and adopted the others as habitual virtues. The other is to examine the faith assumptions that keep us going.
I have no interest in whether people believe in God. I am greatly interested in why they believe their actions count. That it’s good to hear a child laugh rather than cry out in terror is a faith more motivating than most theisms. That our great-grandchildren should inherit a livable world is a belief more compelling than whatever world we inhabit after death. That work to such ends will bring us joy as well as pain — indeed, joy in part because of the pain — is a faith I can commend as we try to make sense of our lives for another year.
Herbert Rothschild is an unpaid Ashland.news board member. Opinions expressed in columns represent the author’s views and may or may not reflect those of Ashland.news. Email Rothschild at firstname.lastname@example.org.