In a time unprecedented during the 50 plus years of my life, I am trying, again, to redefine myself.
Or I am still trying to redefine myself, despite the pandemic and the attempted insurrection and the fascism and hatred spread by the United States president of the last four years.
Some people need change and uncertainty. They like sitting in a different seat each time they come to class, something I never did as a student and disliked as a teacher. They travel alone, enjoying the possibility that they’ll strike up a conversation with a stranger and end up spending the day together. They deliberately go shopping in the week before Christmas, looking for deals, buzzing with the energy of the crowds.
I am not those people. I’m an introvert who likes to plan my interactions with other people. I like routine. I like to know what’s going to happen. One of the things I loved about teaching for 25 years was that I knew how the semester would play out. My job was divided into semesters and academic calendars and all that had to be set up well ahead of time.
I hate trying to reinvent myself. I hate the thought of it and the process itself, the uncertainty and the lack of deadlines and the lack of a societal framework for who I am and who I should be.
It’s been five years since I was a college professor, and I still don’t know who I am now that I am not one.
This country doesn’t know who it is, either. Today it is supposed to shift smoothly from one president to the next, power and responsibility changing hands with cordiality and the fulfillment of duty. For the past fifty years, past presidents have stood at the next president’s inauguration. They have wished the next man well, left letters in the Oval Office.
None of this will happen today. Instead, the outgoing president will leave while still claiming to have won the election. He will leave and state and federal agencies may file criminal charges against him. No one knows if he will stay and face these charges, leave the country, move to a compound where he will surround himself with the followers who have already shown they will commit violence on his behalf.
President Biden will speak about reuniting the country. He will say the violence and division is not who we are, not what America is. He will ask us to redefine ourselves as people who can compromise. He will spend years trying to redefine the presidency as well as this country itself.
But we still have millions of people in this country who very vocally hate those who disagree with them. They call us libtards, say we have been brainwashed by the evil Democratic conspiracy. They openly hate people of different skin tones, people who don’t speak as they do, people who don’t worship as they do. They carry guns and glorify the killing of 6 million human beings in the Holocaust. They threaten and bully and boast.
How can we hold out our hands to those people, those of us who believe in equality and science, in small sacrifices for the common good? How do we embrace those who purposely make us feel afraid, those whose cruel actions have made us angry and despairing? How do we help redefine America while also caring for our traumatized selves, while also speaking up for kindness and compassion, against bigotry and violence and children in cages?
Uncertainty is excruciating. Ask the cancer patient waiting for biopsy results. You just want to know, even if the answer is the bad one. To have things settled. To be able to stop pacing and sit down, even if it’s just to put your head in your hands.
Some of the uncertainties in my life are the same as the uncertainties in yours: will I or someone I love contract COVID-19? Will it result in an expensive hospital stay? Will I be a “long-termer,” one of those who struggles with the illness for months? Will the inauguration go off without violence? Will our politicians and the people who work with them be safe? Will our democracy survive? Will I and the people I love be safe from partisan and racial violence? Will we address climate change in time to prevent (more) catastrophe?
I could go on. I could switch to my own personal uncertainties, my existential questions about whether and how my life has meaning now that I am not doing what I planned from the age of 21 to do: teach college students, have an office on campus, mentor young people, provide one avenue of thought and inquiry that might serve them as they went on to their own adult lives.
But I am going to make a choice, right now, as I write this essay. I am going to make a different choice.
I am not sure that choice is about hope. I’m honestly not sure I’m ready for hope yet. But I can ask different questions, as we sit here with uncertainty beside us on the couch as well as out in the street and on all the screens we look at.
When will I and my loved ones get the COVID-19 vaccine? How will President Biden and Vice President Harris improve this country? How will we express our collective relief to have more politicians in power whose ideas are closer to ours? Will we turn the energy no longer drained from us by dread and fear into something good, powerful, and creative? Will we recognize the value in ourselves as we recognize it in others? Will we invent new ways to interact online, so the conspiracy theories and outrage machine have a harder time dragging us in? How will we keep reminding ourselves to think not just of what is, but of what could be?
Because uncertainty is also possibility. To be undefined is to have potential. What is lost is unlikely to come back, but there’s a door marked tomorrow behind which—who knows?—there could be something good.