This is the third blog of three in the “Dark Landscapes” series I have been posting. “The Cliff” was published on July 17. “The Mountain” came out on July 21. This, “The Clearing,” is the shortest and, perhaps, the most uncertain. Uncertainty is part of corrosive times. There is no mask that covers it.
Part III: The Clearing
Rather than lights at the end of tunnels, I think in terms of forests and clearings. In the world we are in—in pandemic times and more generally—there is no reliable end of the tunnel, certainly not for many, probably not for most. There are, however, clearings—of varying size and safety. In a clearing one is never out of the woods. There is a mix of light and shade, and one never knows how long either may last or how consuming either will become. Eventually, of course, we all come to the end of the tunnel. Whether or not there is light is a theological question.
In the meantime, I more fully appreciate twilight over either light or dark. Above all, I appreciate the mix. As my intellectual heroes William James and Primo Levi insisted, life and lives are as complicated as they seem. And we are obliged not to dumb them down, even though—as “practical creatures,” in James’s phrase—we inevitably will dumb them down. My students protest the shallowness of social rituals like “How are you?/Fine.” But if we actually took the time to find out how someone is, and they were willing to tell us, we would have time for nothing else.
All of this requires tolerance for uncertainty and messiness–perhaps even a taste for it. There is very rarely remembering or not, grieving or not, integrity or not, resilience or not, recovery or not. There are many combinations, many shades.
In the context of the pandemic, recovery comes and recovery goes. It comes and goes for some people, in some places, very differently than for others. In the context of our political catastrophes, there is probably also some sort of dialectic. In the context of the loss of an inhabitable planet, there may be no recovery at all. There can be no clearing because there is no longer a forest—at least not for us.
In that context—the wilderness in which we now find ourselves, which we have in part created, and, in one way or other, in which we have always been—reality is provisional, mutable, and often unknowable. It is a precarious space to inhabit. But I am convinced it is the least illusory space and the one most likely to facilitate compassion, including for oneself and one’s own limits and limitations. Compassion of this kind is the enemy of pretense, delusion, rage, and isolation. All of these underlie and catalyze our multiple disasters in corrosive times.