Pessimistic Optimism

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

I’ve been thinking about this since the first time I read it a few months ago in a Nicholas Kristof opinion piece, and how it connects so well to my natural tendency (and everyone’s, I suppose), to see history — broad history, as well as our own individual ones — strung up like garland around a Christmas tree, moving in a similar fashion and in a similar not-far-off place that looks like the last but isn’t exactly the same.

What do we have to do to get out of our silly little patterns? Will we ever reach Nirvana? Suddenly the religions that view life cyclically, the ones where we all come back over and over again — as individuals, as groups, as societies — make a lot of sense to me. Why wouldn’t we be like everything else in the world, after all?

Most people think Mark Twain said that quote about history, which is entirely possible because he was brilliant and witty. I sure wish he’d actually written it down if he did so we could know for sure. I’m not too concerned about its source, in any case: wise words are wise words, and I’m an irreverent and unapologetic life-long scavenger of good verse.

We humans are pattern-finding creatures, after all…it’s simply the way our brains are built. The clouds are just clouds with no meaning behind them, but we see a dragon, we see Santa Claus, we see a suspiciously-accurate Last Supper. The French philosopher Voltaire famously said, “If God didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” We’re naturally superstitious in spite of ourselves, wired for belief. I’ve called myself an atheist in the past, but that’s not really true. I never stopped reading my horoscope, or praying. And I’ve mostly lived my life with frequent bouts of cosmically peeping over my shoulder with narrowed eyes, sometimes with a slight smile and nod (bro-style), sometimes with a hurt scowl.

There are so many ways right now that we’re being asked to hold on, to wait and be patient in our suffering (my smile-to-scowl ratio right now is at a rare 50/50). There’s promising vaccine news, but not yet: we need to wait a little more. My dad wants to travel to Mexico over the Christmas holiday, and I want to say “oh yes please come” but I can’t, because there’s actually an end in sight and waiting sucks but we should wait. Biden won the presidential election, but we can’t have him yet: Trump, like the virus, is stubborn in his effort to stick around as long as humanly possible and prevent any fun at all until he’s absolutely forced out.

Pandemics faithfully and predictably throb their way through history, as do leaders of the current Trump-Bolsonaro-Duterte strain.

And not everything will be perfect once we get these lowered levels of intensity. We’ll still need to be careful and cautious with our health, despite the vaccine; those who lost others, those who lost livelihoods, and those who lost both will have to pick up the pieces, which is just completely unfair (I’m scowling at you, pandemic gods). President Biden will still need to deal with $%&/·#@% Mitch McConnell and the ravages wrought by obstruction-as-strategy from a resentful and angry political party that will still hold quite a bit of power. Whether those resentments are justifiable or not isn’t the point; they’ll need to be dealt with and somehow neutralized all the same.

But we can find light where we’d never expect it. Good and beautiful things can happen mid-apocalypse. Your daughter’s eyes can shine with pride. Mind-blowing love can pop up out of the blue. You can bite into the perfect, sweetest strawberry you’ve ever tasted. So hang on, people. Be ready for it. We’re on a rocky part of the spiral, but it won’t always be this way. Even if you don’t survive this part, who’s to say you won’t be washed, transformed, back for another round on the flip-side?

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