Sure I'm Sure

Posted by rebecca.mcswain on May 27, 2013 at 12:45 AM


He was distinguished for ignorance; for he had only one idea and that was wrong." - Benjamin Disraeli


About 24 years ago, on a sunny California morning, I was driving a blue Subaru station wagon down the Costa Mesa Freeway (California Highway 55) headed for Irvine. I worked there, transcribing medical reports for a company that contracted to LA County Hospital. In the back seat was my 4-year-old son, properly restrained. And we flew along, essentially bumper to bumper at about 60 mph. There in the midst of the oleanders and the fumes, and the other drivers applying makeup or even reading their morning papers (there were still newspaper readers then), my son, having apparently followed some internal musings to an impasse, asked, “Mommy, do we wake up again after we die?”


Around that time, we were all dealing with the terminal illness of my father. One day my son had said to him, “Grampa, I’m sorry you’re dying.” We were, as a family, several months away from acknowledging this reality, but the 4-year-old saw through all that and got right to the heart of the matter. Now he wanted to know (I assume): what would happen to his grandfather next?


So what do you say to this existential question, hurtling along a highway in control of a couple of thousand pounds of metal, the lives of a number of people in your hands? If some bureaucrat had ever thought about it, surely there would be a law against trying to enunciate complex philosophies while driving. My husband and I did not have, and had not given our son, any cozy, pat, simple, and positive answers to life’s big questions. So neither “yes, when Jesus comes we’ll all wake up” nor "yes, Grampa will wake up surrounded by 72 virgins"  was an option for me.


What I said was, “We don’t know, but I think God takes care of us.”


Now 24 years later, I’m still okay with that response. It leaves unanswered many deeper issues (such as what is “god”? what does “take care” mean?) but it works fine for a 4-year-old worried about mortality. It expresses my (possibly mistaken) idea that in the long run, all things considered, the universe is Good. Anyway, it was the best I could do – still is. Life is uncertain and so is death. I’m sure of that. Well, pretty sure.


This morning I sat on the back porch reading a good book called God’s Jury, by Cullen Murphy. It’s about the Inquisition. I feel no need to explain here what “the Inquisition” is – it’s one of the few cultural referents that everyone understands at some level. Such is the enduring fame (or infamy) of that 700-year system of absolute Church certainties played out in the political realm. Murphy points out that the roots of such systems are deep in human nature, and he notes the unsurprising connections between the Inquisition mind-set and the certainties that underlie today's modern security state. He’s not the first to make these points and he won’t be the last. Not that such point-making will have any dramatic effect on the unstoppable expansion of the security apparat. Nor will it change the minds of those who are certain that government should be based on the Bible or the Koran or Science.


In between reading I was watching birds in the backyard. This, it turns out, is the Year of the Great-Tailed Grackle in our little environment.The first summer we lived here was the Year of the Curved-Bill Thrasher. The second summer was the Year of the Bat: swimming in the evening, we’d be dive-bombed by our resident bats swooping down for their dinners. This year, no thrashers or bats in the yard, though I see and hear them elsewhere around the neighborhood. This year in our walled yard, it's all grackles. They’re a quarrelsome bunch. The males strut, black feathers gleaming, heads up, tails dragging like royal trains, beaks half-open, uttering their strange, very loud, squeaking cries and chasing one another. The females, who appear far more sensible in their modest brown dress, occupy themselves with pecking in the damp grass. Do grackles struggle with certainties and doubts? Not that I can tell. The males seem very sure that they’re doing the right thing, no hesitation, no cogitation apparent. Just the strutting and the squeaking and the chasing. "My territory, not yours," is probably the operational philosophy. Certainty must work for them, evolutionarily speaking. In this town, at least, the grackles are thriving.


For humans, maybe not so much. Frankly, certainty worries me, like my kid worried about death at age 4. I mean all brands of intellectual self-confidence, whether it be Bible-believing, genetics-believing, green-believing, foodism, Sufism, historical determinism, or blind faith in The Rolling Stones. Certainty is dangerous, like a loaded gun, or a deadly bacterium, or nitroglycerin. Some degree of certainty is necessary, sometimes. In order to live, we have to act, and before we act we like to be as sure as we can be about what we’re doing. But that doesn’t make certainty any less dangerous, and we ought to be as careful with it as we are with guns, bugs, and nitro.


Am I sure about that? Sure I’m sure. And if I ran the world and my eavesdropping on your phone calls and emails indicated that you didn’t agree, why, I’d just slap you into detention and waterboard you until you came to see things my way.

No, just kidding. I think.


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