In the first part of last night’s dream, I was trapped in a building, but as soon as I began to wake up, I lost that image. What lingered was a swarming crowd, people rushing to join a mass on the horizon, gazes transfixed skyward. Huge fireballs were forming in the blue air, spinning as they fell to earth, landing somewhere out of sight. Voices began to sound, the ordinary tones of TV newsreaders: clear, oddly animated, slightly robotic. They described the scene around me, the completely unprecedented and unexplained rain of enormous fireballs, in exactly the same way they might tell a story about a road accident or a snowstorm.
Then they began to joke in the usual fashion of newsreaders: “Wow! The one that landed on highway 50 must have surprised those commuters.” “A whole ‘nother meaning to ‘hair on fire,’ huh, Ted?” As the inanities rang out, my brain threw out that ancient joke on the idiocy of reportage: “Aside from all that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?”
What came to mind as I emerged from the half-light of the dream was Doris Lessing’s short story, “Report on the Threatened City,” set nearly fifty years ago. It was framed as an alien dispatch, detailing failed attempts to warn the residents of San Francisco about an impending earthquake.
Then I was fully awake, thinking about the October UN report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the federally mandated National Climate Assessment released over Thanksgiving (presumably to bury its dire findings under a soothing blanket of mashed potatoes and gravy). Images surged: families tear-gassed along the border, election tampering and voter suppression, crooks in high places and much, much more. In Lessing’s story, governmental authorities are aware of alien attempts to warn the populace, but write them off as what is now called “fake news.” Ground-level resistance swells, but the result is conflict between camps of opinion, not action to avoid mass extinction.
And of course, nearly a half-century after Lessing’s story, San Francisco still stands.
With friends on Thanksgiving, we took turns around the table sharing whatever we wished—gratitude, if we could summon it, but whatever was true for each of us.
Some were certain that despite both the darkness of the moment, with a madman in the White House and moral cowardice swamping those best-positioned to stop him, despite the glimmers of light shown in recent elections, the worst is yet to come. The human project was spoken of as a failed experiment, the end of human life as a necessary cleansing, hope as a delusion.
Some were certain that the massive resistance and remarkable flowering of alternative visions, that the Great Mystery all of us have experienced but none of us can explain, the resilience, beauty, resourcefulness, and will to live built into the human subject will carry us through. Things will change, but the earth and the life it supports will abide, and fresh possibility will emerge. History justifies hope—action grounded in hope, to be sure, but hope nonetheless.
Some—myself among them—spoke of not-knowing. No matter how dire the predictions, how strongly rooted in scientific research, none of us can foretell the future. The end of life has been predicted many times, and always our challenge has been to live. This time may be different—indeed, it may be the end—but there is no more ground for that certainty than for its opposite, that humankind will be rescued by some remarkable and magical redemption not of our making. No one knows.
It is not my aim to persuade people that their predictions are wrong, that they are betting on the wrong horse, that a different future surely awaits us. I have no interest in debunking the science that points to the great likelihood of disaster. How could I? But likelihood is not certainty, because it cannot be known what healing actions—even what miracles—may follow the alarm that has been sounded. (Please check out the Green New Deal, for instance.)
I have one aim in these times, and that is to demonstrate the power of not-knowing, to stick a pin in the illusion that we can know what has not yet come to pass, and to raise the question of desire in the place of hope. What power will be released in the act of freeing ourselves from the delusion that we can know what has not yet unfolded? What gifts will we be able to bring to the moment if we stop believing our own predictions? Sitting with the awareness of not knowing—of the impossibility of knowing—what do we desire? Beginning with not knowing, how do we move toward our desire?
Hanukkah starts this weekend. During the holiday, we’ll have another chance to be with friends, to go around the circle and ask a generative question. The holiday marks the return of light from the darkness of winter, the miracle of a small amount of oil burning for eight days to light the repair of the temple destroyed by soldiers of the Seleucid Empire a couple of hundred years before the common era. Last Hanukkah’s question was, “What light do you wish to bring into the world?” Some people chose not to answer, refusing to validate what they saw as superstition. Some denounced the idea of bringing light as trivial, counseling us to bring on the fight instead. Most shared their hopes for the Great Awakening we all desire, even those who think to hope for it is foolish.
When I consider what to say this year, I think of shining a light of awakening on the newsreaders in my dream, to be sure, but also the countless voices in waking life who support, intentionally or not, the ordinary lies that insure us to suffering, that normalize absurdity and invite us into complicity with the indifference that perpetuates these delusions.
I am not much of a believer. I’m more given to desires, to questions, to exploration than to certitude. But I do have two convictions: first, that by joining our conscious intentions, speaking them aloud and allowing them to amplify each other, ring out, and spread, we can build energy, influencing actions to the good. Second, that if we align ourselves with the certainty of failure—if we abandon all hope despite the fact that the future cannot be known—we deplete the energy that animates healing. So at this season, I wish each of us the will to embrace not-knowing and spirit to let freedom ring!
In his amazing short essay, “The Creative Process,” James Baldwin wrote that “the war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war, and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself and, with that revelation, to make freedom real.” I’m deeply into Rev. Sekou these days. Think about the face of this nation as you listen to “Loving You Is Killing Me.”