Friday, January 02, 2009

Clean Slate

It's funny how a simple and arbitrary change in the calander date can give us all the impression that something has really started over, that we have begun a new project that is in some way really distinct from the one we were in only a couple of days ago, that the weight of 2008's patterns of habituation and sedimentation can be shrugged off more easily now. There is something about the metaphor of a "clean slate" that signifies real possibility, as if there is no restricting context, no prior plot or character development to which we have to adhere, as if anything could be written. Believing that the slate will be filled this year with a story that is better than the one last year is a kind of exercise in faith, even for the non-religious. As Saint Paul described it in his Epistle to the Hebrews: "faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." I've always been particularly fond of that formulation by St. Paul, in part because of his suggestion that hope is "substantial," that is, hope is a real thing. And the thing that makes it real is not the thing at which it aims, the thing hoped for, but rather the reverse is true. The thing hoped for is substantial only by virtue of our belief in that thing's possibility.

After months and months of the Rhetoric of Hope in this country, we are rapidly approaching the time when we will see what all that hoping has (or has not) been able to produce. In a little more than two weeks, President-Elect Barack Obama will become President Barack Obama, and although we know that the slate won't really be wiped clean, it certainly will feel like a new beginning for many of us. My guess is that "change" will be slow and hard to learn. I doubt we realize how habituated our cynicism has become, how sedimented our despondency. If only it really were the case, as John Locke and others speculated was true of the tabula rasa, that our minds contained nothing but what we derived from experience, and if only January 20th marked a real rebirth... perhaps we all could begin to accumulate experiences that trained us in the habit of hoping.

3 comments:

Chet said...

I thought you would have dispensed with this illusion, as I did, at age 12. To me, the bonds of the past are too powerful to believe that I may free myself through the arbitrary determination of a social calendar. I have always been entertained by the hoi polloi who do not grow tired of these ruses. Some ostriches/emus should not have their heads pulled from the sand.

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