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Dare We Disturb the Universe?

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about hope. And I’ve been thinking a lot about despair. Generally speaking, I try to maintain a posture of hope because I hear it’s good for my abs. Plus, I find I feel better when I am splashing around in hope rather than in despair.

But then I see and hear what others are doing around me, how they are talking, the extent to which they are fearing, and I wonder whether spending time in hope is naive and complacent. Am I an ostrich, my head jammed in the sand? Can someone living in Hope, USA simultaneously fight for social justice? Are conspiracy theorists wiser than I? Is core strength really all that important? And the big one: When the USA is not at all U, am I–as a writer and as a human–meant to plant myself in hope or in despair?

Worried that I have no answers to these questions, I gather my towel, my Otter Pops and my sunblock and meander over to the pit of despair. Sticking my toe in, there’s that immediate, delicious rush of We’re going to die! The world’s going to end! We must tell the others! Don’t forget to put the can opener in the emergency rations bin!

And it all feels so heart-racing and TRUE.

But once I put my whole self into that pit of quicksand and experience that post-rush plummet, I long to be back in my pool of hope, splish-splashing with my feet bare, my head covered by a wide-brimmed sun hat, my tongue dyed Otter Pop orange.

That’s how I have been spending my free time lately: bouncing between the pool of hope and the pit of despair. And man, I feel so wrung out and weary. I don’t know where the world is going, and I don’t know where to stand or what to do as it goes there.

I went in search of guidance and found this beautiful Brain Pickings post [1] that helped me understand whether I–writer and human–should set up camp in hope or in despair.

The answer? Both. And Neither.

This blog post included the words of Albert Camus: “There is no love of life without despair of life,” and reading them, I felt so silly. Remember that guy on Sesame Street, the frustrated pianist who kept forgetting the lyrics to “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and he’d bang his poor Muppet head on the piano keys, lamenting his shoddy brain? That’s how I felt.

Of course love of life and despair of life coexist. Of course there is no hope without despair. How silly to think the world (and my place in it) is Either/Or. The world is simply and always Both.

“We have a bipolar system,” says artist Maira Kalman (also in the Brain Pickings post). “We hope. We despair. We hope. We despair. That is what governs us.”

Yes, and in that bipolarity, there is uncertainty. Thank goodness. Because …

(cue the writer!)

… we writers need uncertainty. We thrive on it. Our skin tingles when we find a question with no single clear answer. We become giddy when there’s the opportunity to eavesdrop on someone’s conversation because the topic and the subject and even the subtext is uncertain: Who is this messy person and what is she longing for? How did she get so messy? Will she ever get herself tidied up and her needs met? How? And at what cost?

We love the uncertainty, the tension that exists in the inky hearts of human beings. We love the questions that arise during times of chaos and uncertainty (times of chaos and uncertainty meaning real, everyday life). Uncertainty in real life isn’t comfortable. Uncertainty in story beckons us to come closer.

Uncertainty about the crime and the criminal drove me to the end of Gone Girl. Likewise there was the uncertainty about human resilience in A Little Life, the uncertainty about Hazel’s health in The Fault in Our Stars, the uncertainty about J.D. Vance’s improbable trajectory in Hillbilly Elegy.

A story without uncertainty is just a whole lot of sentences, end to end.

And in times of external uncertainty, which stories are more effective catalysts of social justice and human connection: stories that lean toward hope or those that lean despair-ward?

I’m not entirely certain.

Maybe the question is not: Better the wading pool or better the quicksand pit? Maybe instead we ask, How can I question and listen and interpret and synthesize and process and cull and gather and shred and digest all that is happening with the goal of decreasing loneliness and adding beauty and compassion to our uncertain world?

Maybe. Again, I’m not entirely certain.

The Brain Pickings post also revives one of J. Alfred Prufrock’s flabby questions in his feeble Love Song, as he asks, “Do I dare disturb the universe?”

¡Sí Señor!  íPor su puesto we dare! We must dare bigly.

Perhaps we do our best disturbing when we ask questions rather than answer them. When we listen rather than instruct. When we grapple with uncertainty rather than inform others what we have figured out. Perhaps we disturb the universe with panache and stealth when we illuminate the uncertainty that so intrigues us, when we plunk it on a dinner plate before a hungry reader. Perhaps we hand her a fork and steak knife and the salt shaker and say, “Have at it, dear Reader. Go to town. Fuel yourself.” I bet she wouldn’t even bother with a napkin.

Curious about the uncertainty I was exploring (consciously and subconsciously) in my work in progress, I uncovered some of the questions that perplex me: When is war necessary? What does love in an arranged marriage feel like? What is the future of Arctic Terns, the zippy little birds that fly from Antarctica to the Arctic and back every single year? In what natural or man-made environment can love eclipse fear?

The uncertainty we establish in our stories can feel like a hair shirt to the reader. It can also make readers feel less alone. All stories meddle in the lives of readers. All stories poke. Stories have quicksand moments where, vicariously, we experience despair. Stories also give us the opportunity to see and know others. This can lead to compassion. Compassion can lead to United. And United can lead to a hope that is neither naive nor complacent.

How about you, Writer? In what ways do you disturb the universe in your work? How do you hope to poke at and meddle with your readers? What questions are you asking in your work in progress? Which works of fiction have disturbed your universe?

(For the record I am certainly grateful for the certainty of this WU community.)

Photo compliments of Flickr’s Fitzsean [2].

About Sarah Callender [3]

Sarah Callender lives in Seattle with her husband, son and daughter. A crummy house-cleaner and terrible at responding to emails in a timely fashion, Sarah chooses instead to focus on her fondness for chocolate and Abe Lincoln. She is working on her third novel while her fab agent pitches the first two to publishers.