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No Point in Prophecy, No Time for Despair

Who can foretell the things that will fell us, who can count them?

What I mean is, why bother? It’s not just that prophecy for some millennia now (since the destruction of the Temple, R. Yohanan says in the Talmud) has been reserved for children and fools. It’s that 2010 begins sourly, and there is nothing beyond the season’s good cheer to sweeten it. I will spare you the litany, but it seems safe to say that we will spend 2010 muddling through.

Gone the fantasy of comprehensive repair of our broken health care system, gone the hope that there will be a respite from war, gone the belief that the end of the recession would quickly lead to the end of unemployment, gone the belief that the Obama administration’s early targeting of peace in the Middle East would soon lead to productive negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Fading fast, the bloom off the Obama rose.

Talk about bubbles that burst, such as the housing bubble: Think back to last January 1, three weeks before the Obama inauguration, and what a giant bubble we were in, nearly giddy with expectation though we already knew the economy’s bad news. Who back then imagined the potency of the tea parties and the birthers and the deathers and the tenthers? Who appreciated the importance of the 60-vote requirement to pass legislation in the Senate? Who gave a thought to the possibility that on the virtual morrow of an election we understood as a game-changer, as heralding a new beginning, the right would be energized, the neocons would have risen from the dead and “moderate Republicans” would sound oxymoronic?

January 1, 2009 was not exactly, not even approximately, the best of times: Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Fannie May and AIG were far too fresh in our memory. But neither was it anywhere near the worst of times: Change was in the

air, hope was alive. A year later, the gleaming new paint of “the fierce urgency of now” has been chipped and dinged and rained away, revealing the briefly disguised yet all too familiar jalopy below, not fierce, not urgent, and maybe some day but not now, not yet.

Now hear this, please: This, too, is not the worst of times. By which I do not mean that it is not yet the worst of times, that just around the corner the speed and downward slope of the treadmill become so marked that there’s no getting off on the way to perdition. The heartening truth is that anything is still possible. It is late but not too late.

I write these words and ask myself: Are they a statement of blind faith or do they have a material foundation? And the truth is that I am not sure — which is why I eschew prophecy. Before there was a Bernie Madoff, few if any of us had imagined a Bernie Madoff. Who knows who or what now waits in the wings to make a shocking entrance? Then again, not all entrances presage shock.

Sometimes as the door to the backstage opens briefly we glimpse a rainbow. Here comes a Muhammad Yunus, who invents micro lending and founds a bank in Bangladesh that ripples across the world, or a Norman Borlaug enters and a Green Revolution happens, saving a billion people from starvation, or Bill and Melinda Gates and Bill Clinton transform philanthropy, bring nearer the eradication of devastating diseases; sometimes there is a Pope John XXIII or a Leonard Bernstein or a Seamus Heaney or a Nelson Mandela or a Melissa Weintraub or a Bono or an Aung San Suu Kyi or a Martin Luther King or an Ada Yonath or a dozen or a thousand more people who sing a new song and who help the rest of us learn how to listen, tens of thousands, millions actually, whose courage or creativity or wisdom or decency make so large and comforting a difference to our sense of the possible.

Yes, there will be disappointments and threats old and new, there will be new charlatans and hypocrites and false witnesses and thieves. In 2010 there are still the Iranian menace and the ever-murkier Pakistan and there is, of course, the stalemated Israel/Palestine peace process, a peace process about as nourishing as processed cheese. We’ve been here, more or less, before, and we will be here, for sure, again. That is why the year ahead does not seem new; it seems tired already, weighted down.

Yet that is also why we do what we know best to do, seek to impose ourselves on history, to bend its arc. For we are not characters in someone else’s drama; we the stem-cell researchers and the soup kitchen volunteers, are authors. Each a page, together a book.

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