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He knew all the arguments for despair, and would not listen to them. – J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King
Eva Cassidy was 33 years old and at the height of her creative powers when she was struck down by melanoma in 1996. At the time of her death, she was largely unknown outside the Washington D.C. area. But after her death, someone in the U.K. happened to play Eva’s recording of Somewhere Over The Rainbow on the radio and the result was that her self-recorded “Songbird” album zoomed to the top of the U.K. music charts. Only after she was gone did the world start to recognize her artistic beauty.
Today, Eva’s friends laugh at the thought of her posthumous musical success. They say that this is exactly how she would have wanted it. She was never one for the limelight and her quirky musical repertoire never really fit the music industry’s tightly scripted genres.
Sometimes life is disappointing and, for people like Eva, much depends on how they receive and process life’s unfairness.
Any dreams Eva may have had for her young life were suddenly overturned by tragedy. In the face of such unexpected disappointments, the temptation to despair can be very strong.
But taking refuge in despair, when faced with disappointments, presupposes we know the end of the story. In my own life, far more often than I would like, I belatedly discover that I didn’t really know what I was talking about. Thomas Sowell, in a recent interview, said:
“You can’t have extensive knowledge about everything, but you can have knowledge about the extent of your own ignorance.”
Humility regarding the limits of our own understanding may actually be an important prerequisite for retaining any ability to fight the inclination toward despair.
In one of the more interesting stories in all of the bible, an angel appeared to the prophet Daniel to explain that he had been dispatched in response to Daniel’s prayers to answer the questions Daniel had recently been asking. The angel explained that he had actually been dispatched weeks before, but battles were taking place in the heavenly realms that had prevented him from getting to Daniel before that very moment. Even at that moment, the angel said, he would be returning to the fight after delivering his message to Daniel.
Many things intrigue me about that story, but perhaps the most interesting thing is the extent to which it reveals that there are things afoot, outside our field of vision, which nevertheless greatly impact our lives and the lives of those around us. Even the way we receive answers to our prayers are, apparently, impacted by unseen events.
Even someone who does not believe in God, or in the power of prayer, is well served by adopting a constrained view of their own omniscience. Complex systems are hard to gain visibility into, and negativity bias is really a thing. I worked for a while as a principal engineer for amazon.com. The last talk I gave to the engineering organization there was called “Superstitious Architectures: How to Avoid Them”. Sometime I’ll write up what prompted that presentation, but my talk contained example after example of wrong decisions that had been made based on an inflated view of the completeness of someone’s understanding of what was happening in a complex system.
Covid-19 pandemic modelers have not covered themselves with glory in this regard.
We would all be well served by remembering the distinct possibility that we will be surprised by events.
I can certainly say I have been repeatedly surprised in my own life. I was born with a type of exotic vascular deformity that wasn’t discovered until early adulthood. On 2 occasions it has tried to take my life. I once took a 20 mile ride in an ambulance, from one hospital to another, that no one thought I would survive. Twice I have had to say “final” goodbyes to my wife and children in the expectation that it might be the last words I could ever say to them. I’m really only alive today by the grace of God and the gobsmacking improvisational brilliance of a team of surgeons at a world beating medical school. But all along the way I have repeatedly discovered, after the fact, that what I had perceived as hopelessly dire was ultimately mitigated by things I did not know about at the time.
Life is complex and full of surprises.
I have friends and acquaintances who, like myself, have been extremely disappointed by both the process and outcome of the recent presidential election. Obviously, there is much to be disappointed about. Leading up to the election, and afterwards, the predictions of constitutional disaster and the imminent ruination of the republic have filled my inbox and news feed. I share all of these concerns.
But I don’t despair.
It isn’t that I’m blind to events or that I can’t see the same highly dubious, underhanded behaviors that all of my friends see. I expect that the conflict will escalate and get much worse before it gets better. But I don’t despair, in part, because I have had to come to grips with the limits of my own predictive powers. I’ve have too often been wrong in my own dire prognostications. There are things likely happening outside our vision, for good or ill, that will alter the outcome of events. Until all becomes clear, we must act where we can to influence events, but resist by all means the temptation to give in to despair. A demoralized army will not fight.
We are going to have to choose to play the long game. We must ignore the arguments for despair.
A few weeks before she died, friends of Eva Cassidy in the Washington D.C. area held a benefit concert for her. She was amazed at the turnout and moved by the outpouring of love. During the concert, in her last public performance, Eva required help to get onto the stage and up onto a stool with her guitar. She was in a great deal of pain and explained to the crowd that she had taken a large dose of morphine to fortify herself for her performance. But, in the excruciating disappointment of that dying moment, these are the words she chose to sing:
I see trees of green, red roses too
I see them bloom for me and you
And I think to myself what a wonderful world
I see skies of blue and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself what a wonderful worldThe colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people going by
I see friends shaking hands saying how do you do
They’re really saying I love you
I hear babies crying, I watch them grow
They’ll learn much more than I’ll never know
And I think to myself what a wonderful world
Yes I think to myself what a wonderful world