Optimism with Smudges and a Misdirected Finger

Our paths follow an elliptical orbit around secrets we simply cannot unlock, secrets hidden not through willful disguise but by natural obscurity, the same way some sounds are withheld from our ears but given freely to the ears of dogs, who become our masters when we let our guards down. The complexity that bedevils our waking hours and sets us afire with passion for answers always leads us to the…certainty that life is what it is, nothing more.

I extracted those words from something I wrote more than four years ago. That span of time seems like a thousand lifetimes, now.

A few months later, I wrote from a different perspective, one in which I was more certain than was reasonable or legitimate. My words revealed an emotion intertwined with optimism and fear, an emotion impossible to name, but harder still to escape.

Even on this day, this day beginning with such sparkling promise, I can’t help but allow my thoughts to be swarmed by the ripples, when I should permit my mind to marvel at the still waters. I am a man awash in abundance, yet I worry that the bounty is, perhaps, undeserved. No, that is a lie. I am certain my largess was an inadvertent mistake of the universe, given to me by accident. My worry is that the universe will discover its blunder and will come calling to correct the snafu.

A swirl of events I could scarcely have imagined then have since consumed the planet and the people on it in a firestorm of chaos and uncertainty. Perhaps the universe followed me on that elliptical orbit and unlocked the secret for me; maybe the blunder has been discovered and is being corrected.

There are no predetermined courses of action; only random intersections between time and circumstances over which we might have exercised control had we had known the likely outcome of our actions or inaction. But life is what it is. “What if” begins announces a nonsensical question that can never lead to a realistic answer. The junction between what is and what might have been is riddled with billions of events, each one independent on every other one, except when randomness says otherwise.

That randomness can throw a steel wrench into the precision workings of a finely-tuned engine that is as powerful as the sun and as delicate as blown glass. A tiny, insignificant event can trigger cataclysmic results; imagine a broken axle on a vehicle crossing a railroad track in front of a passenger train, just as the train reaches a bridge over a deep canyon. The derailment could kill hundreds; all because a tiny stress crack in the axle finally gave way.

Yet the same randomness can deliver world leaders and great composers and vaccines that save millions from the scourge of polio or measles. “The right place at the right time,” coupled with the right upbringing and the right nourishment and the right education and the right resources. Snatch away any of those elements and our reality might be utterly different; no Gandhi, no Bach, swarms of crippling diseases, and horrible health challenges and death accelerated by the unholy spread of natural decay.

It would be so easy to just give up, telling ourselves we are impotent in the face of the randomness of the universe. But we are not impotent. We do not always win in our efforts to outwit the forces of randomness, but our efforts are more likely to have positive results than to fall short. Too often, we confuse randomness with intent; the universe is not engaged in an intentional struggle against us. If there’s any intent in the mixture, it’s our intent to overcome the randomness of the universe. Yet, when we act as if we are at war with the universe, randomness quickly puts us in our place.

The universe has not discovered its blunder with me; randomness might address the blunder, but I can and should attempt to put randomness to good use to my benefit and to the benefit of everyone in my sphere…my sphere being the planet on which I live. I struggle with more than enough weight to squash me if I let it, but I won’t let it. I’ll ponder over how it might be easier to just give in and let Sisyphus’ boulder roll down the hill and crush me, but I disregard that possibility and will choose to keep rolling that boulder up the incline, all the while keeping an eye out for random rocks I might wedge beneath the weighty stone.

My mood this morning is an odd mix of optimism and realistic defeatism. In my mind’s eye, I see a mural of inspirational posters on one wall and hundreds of hand-printed flyers lamenting every conceivable failure on another. Were I a painter, I could paint the image far better than I can describe it in words. But I’m not a painter. And my words seems to have abandoned me at just he moment I need them most. That’s randomness. Optimism with smudges and a misdirected finger. That is, I’ve gone slightly off course and I need to get away from the track before the train comes or accept responsibility for its derailment.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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