February 26, 2020
Hope in Ambiguity
So much of what challenges us in life is a perpetual decline in absolutes. Often the more we know, the less sure we become
Years ago, I had a sagacious colleague who regularly told his students that the ideal outcome of a liberal education was a rich awareness of how little each of us really knows.
As a musician, I had a realization around the time I turned 30 that I was finally hearing the way my teachers had. To a small extent is was a matter of enhanced technique from sustained practice, but to a much greater degree, it having heard enough to have amassed a capacity of context. I had listened with intention to enough music to begin hearing compositional architecture in a meaningful way.
As that capacity grew, my awareness of the music I had yet to hear grew exponentially faster. New unknown pieces became progressively easier understand and appreciate.
What a remarkable privilege each of us has when we are asked to consider the imponderable. We have the opportunity to face an infinite natural world and nearly boundless realms of human achievement, good and bad, and we are challenged to identify our place in that limitless expanse.
We must come to terms with the ambiguities that define human existence. For many the result is helplessness, or worse hopelessness. Charting a course in a world of uncertainty requires a leap of faith.
As Francis Bacon wrote: “If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.”
A liberal arts education bolsters the faith required to make bold leaps. It prepares us to understand and appreciate the unknown and to use what we do know as polestars to navigate the void.
Monday evening, we had the great privilege of hosting Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland, as this year’s Pope Shade Lecturer at Susquehanna University. She spoke about how her religious faith has guided her life of service in the law, then government, then human rights, and now as an advocate to stem climate change.
Our failure to adequately respond to the climate crisis is the result of business and world leaders ignoring long-term consequences for short-term gains against a backdrop of helplessness borne from the seemingly infinite scale of the problem.
If only, more of our leaders would develop the compassion and intellectual heroism necessary to embrace the bold changes needed to navigate the abyss of the conspiring environmental conditions we have created.
President Robinson pointed out that the early effects of climate change are most manifest in the regions of the world least responsible for creating them. These same regions are least empowered to effect the scale of reform required to prevent a cataclysmic future.
Many Inuit communities and island nations find their ways of life and even the persistence of their literal places in the world under immediate threat.
As William Gibson said, “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.”
These communities are the canaries in the collective coal mine that is Mother Earth.
There is much we do not know, but we do know the irrefutable scientific work that exposed and explained the problem of anthropogenic climate change. We need to muster the ethical courage to use the knowledge we do have to guide us as we charge into the void to avert the tragic future currently in our view.
There is no time for hesitation. We must hold tight to what we know and zealously embrace the ambiguity that surrounds it. Right now, that is where our best hope resides.
Francis Bacon: The Advancement of Learning (1605), Book I, v, 8.
William Gibson: The Economist, December 4, 2003