The main reason why we like January is because it gives us a blank slate. The whole new year is opened up to us like a New World.
It’s much like the Boomers lining up by the thousands around the unassigned lands of central Oklahoma in 1889. The future, to them, seemed open and free, not tied down by the past.
And this January is special. Not only are we looking at a year’s horizon New World, but that horizon is lengthened and deepened by a factor of ten. It’s actually a decade of blank slate.
Goodness gracious. Anything could happen.
Just think of the last decade. Could you have ever predicted the events of the 2010’s? The rise of populism, Big Data and smart phones and thermostats and doorbells, the rise of artificial intelligence and mystery drones, Chinese extermination of the Uighurs, the increase of anti-semitism and despotism, fires in the Amazon, Australia and soaring temperatures?
But human nature cannot abide, for long, a blank slate. It has to make better sense of things out of the fog of ambiguity, to focus on a reasonable narrative, to figure out a way through.
And that is a good thing in human nature. As every teacher with an ADHD student knows, you really cannot focus on everything at once. “Everything” ends up being “nothing.” Wisdom and growth require the friendly discipline of a single path chosen from out of a dizzying array of possibilities. With apologies to St Tomas Aquinas, “possibilism” was a bad idea.
The distinguished writer (and not a stranger to controversy) Susan Sontag thought deeply on the need to focus on a path, or rather, to choose a single narrative out of a field of possibilities. She recognized a close similarity between making moral judgment and telling a story:
“To tell a story is to say: this is the important story. It is to reduce the spread and simultaneity of everything to something linear, a path. To be a moral human being is to pay, to be obliged to pay, certain kinds of attention … The nature of moral judgments depends on our capacity for paying attention — a capacity that, inevitably, has its limits but whose limits can be stretched” (from her posthumous anthology, “At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches”).
It seems that everyone, no matter how lettered or unlettered, needs — for their own sake — to become their own narrator, a storyteller who makes moral judgments. It is human nature to look for a single thread in a tapestry, or a single theme in a symphony, and then to relate that single meaning to the whole big picture.
That, in a few words, is what wisdom and art are all about.
Sontag offered this advice on the life-art of storytelling:
“I’m often asked if there is something I think writers (i.e., storytellers) ought to do, and recently in an interview I heard myself say: ‘Several things. Love words, agonize over sentences. And pay attention to the world.’ Needless to say, no sooner had these perky phrases fallen out of my mouth than I thought of some more recipes for [storyteller’s] virtue. For instance: ‘Be serious.’ By which I meant: Never be cynical. And which doesn’t preclude being funny.”
This is some of the best advice I’ve ever heard (or read). “Be serious” means to reject cynicism. And isn’t that thought golden? Seriousness, nowadays, seems to be linked with a sort of hopeless pessimism that is nothing short of cynical. It is liberating to read that “seriousness” is not “cynicism.”
And I would add that “cynicism” is not serious. It is intellectually lazy, especially this hyper-modern brand of cynicism that underlies so much of politics and commerce these days.
We can’t ever allow ourselves to get hopeless or cynical. Serious, yes. Hopeless, no.
There is an old apocryphal saw about these two terms, and it goes like this:
“What is the difference between northern Germans and southern Germans?”
“For northern Germans, the situation is serious but not hopeless. But for southern Germans (like my Bavarian ancestors), the situation is hopeless but not serious.”
The saw is funny, but it’s not right. Sontag, rather, is spot on. To be serious is to be hopeful.
Hopelessness comes from trying to take in the entire blank slate and to take in all possibilities all at once (and to take, uncritically, cynical messages). Disappointment comes from experiencing stories having gone the wrong way, taken unexpected and tragic turns.
Hopelessness and disappointment are two different things. A story can survive the disappointment, and almost always needs to go through it. In the hopeless cynicism, stories wither and die.
Pay attention, and be hopeful. Focus on people, not the abstract causes or agenda they represent or espouse. Focus on time and place and beautify it: nothing is to just be “used” or consumed. Focus on particular, concrete “life,” not something abstract like “reality.”
For heaven’s sake, don’t catch yourself saying hopeless things (apologies to Bruce Hornsby) like “that’s just the way it is.”
Because, more times than not, it simply isn’t (especially in politics, especially in commerce).
“Love words. Agonize over sentences. Pay attention to the world.” Turn that phrase over, again and again. Think of life as grammar and time as story, and Sontag’s phrase will turn golden indeed.
I’m sure you’ve heard the “parable of the starfish.” You know how it goes: Two guys go out on the beach after a stormy night, and the shore is littered with thousands of stranded starfish. One of them picks up a starfish and throws it back into the surf. The other says, “What’s the use? There are so many. You can’t hope to make much of a difference!”
The first guy bends over, picks up another one, and throws it, too, into the water. “It makes a difference to this one.”
Make such a beautifying, loving difference. The blank slate is an impossible shore. But make a moral judgment and focus on story: choose a particular path. Love words, and pay attention to the world.