“Oh fuck,” I yelled, just moments into the start of the evening of Rosh Hashanah services.
If you didn’t know, Rosh Hashanah is the holiday of the Jewish New Year, and it’s one of the most sacred holidays on our calendar. One of our “high holies.” Yelling such a thing during services would be a big deal during a normal year, but this is not a normal year. This year, I was watching the services from my couch as our rabbi and cantor conducted them, alone, from our synagogue, which hasn’t opened to services since the COVID-19 crisis began.
Normally, yelling such an word during Rosh Hashanah services would be a big deal. But as I watched the services unfold on my laptop, I also got a news alert: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had just died. My reaction was genuine and visceral.
“What now?” called my wife from the dining room, my loving, non-Jewish and supportive wife, who was lovingly clearing the table while I watched the services so that we could share a special dinner afterward. I told her what had just happened. She didn’t react other than to say, “Keep your mind on the holiday.” And so I did my best.
I watched my rabbi and cantor guide us through the centuries old prayers, envying their blissful ignorance. While the holiday we were celebrating told us to hope for a world renewed, the future I saw looked bleaker than ever. When my rabbi read the words of the meditation before the kaddish, my emotions caught up with what I was hearing. I wish I didn’t know what the rabbi and cantor didn’t yet know.
I’ve been watching our government turn increasingly authoritarian for the past three and a half years. Now, with Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, I knew the Republicans were readying to take over the judiciary branch as well. The barrier between us and all-out totalitarianism just got that much thinner.
And yet – somehow – I have not given in to despair.
The currency of Uncertainty
When the Rosh Hashanah services ended, I ventured to social media to see what my friends, many of whom work in Democratic politics or for left-leaning causes, were saying. It was as I expected. The reactions ranged from open grief to fear to outright despair. I felt the sorrow, too, because it felt like more than just a dedicated fighter for civil rights had died. It felt like what she had fought for had died with her.
I can’t allow myself to slip into despair. It’s just not a place I want to be. So I began looking for a branch to grasp on the slide down that hill. And I turned to, of course, Spinoza. Because what use is philosophy if you can’t use it when you really need it?
Spinoza tells us that if we are truly living rational lives, neither hope nor fear are necessary. That’s because hope and fear are nothing more than two sides of the same coin, and the currency is uncertainty.
For instance, my birthday is next month, so it’s the month my licence plate tag renewal comes due. I neither hope nor fear this because it’s a given. There’s no uncertainty around it. No matter how crazy the world gets, the sun will rise tomorrow. I might not be around to see it, but there will be another day. I don’t need to hope for it or fear it will happen.
But the outcome of the upcoming election? What will happen with Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s replacement? How our country moves forward from here? When we will ever get past the COVID-19 crisis? There is a mountain of uncertainty facing us. A whole mountain range of causes for fear and hope. And whether you feel fear or hope depends on how you think it’ll all shake out.
Or as my buddy Bento says, in Book III of his Ethics:
Hope is an inconstant pleasure, arising from the idea of something past or future, whereof we to a certain extent doubt the issue.
Fear is an inconstant pain arising from the idea of something past or future, whereof we to a certain extent doubt the issue.
From these definitions it follows, that there is no hope unmingled with fear, and no fear unmingled with hope. For he, who depends on hope and doubts concerning the issue of anything, is assumed to conceive something, which excludes the existence of the said thing in the future; therefore he, to this extent, feels pain; consequently, while dependent on hope, he fears for the issue. Contrariwise he, who fears, in other words doubts, concerning the issue of something which he hates, also conceives something which excludes the existence of the thing in question; to this extent he feels pleasure, and consequently to this extent he hopes that it will turn out as he desires.
Or as he sums up in much simpler language:
There is no hope unmingled with fear, and no fear unmingled with hope.
Far better, Spinoza says, to not rely on irrational things like hope and fear. There are times we can definitely know the outcome of things. October means the Secretary of State will send my license tag renewals and staying up until 5 a.m. means I’ll see another dawn. There are times when there’s no way to divine the answer, despite all the political polling in the world, the best weather forecasters or whatever prognostications you may go by. And in those situations, it’s better to admit the uncertainty and learn to sit calmly with it than give in to superstition or despair.
Living in Strange Times
But I get it. It’s human nature to want to control the outcome of things, even when that’s impossible. We want to know how things are going to turn out. Basically, we want to know if we will be OK. Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death at this particular moment leaves a lot of us wondering just how OK we will be going forward, and a lot of people are imaging the worst.
Think: A Handmaid’s Tale.
Think: Afghanistan when the Taliban took over.
After all we’ve seen lately, it’s easy to understand why someone would give in to those fears. But hold on. The fact is, it’s impossible to know what will happen. In truth, there are any of a myriad of things that are possible:
- Republicans push forward with a replacement for RBG before the end of the year, and that replacement is every bit as awful as imagined. The GOP retains control of the Senate and Trump wins re-election. They now have a stranglehold of the House, Senate and Judiciary, making the Democrat’s hold on the House the only backstop against a complete fascist regime. With power on their side, the GOP allows Trump to use some event as his Reichstag fire and declare martial law. It’s all over, we’re headed to something akin to 1930s-40s fascism or the Hunger Games. This is the sum of all fears.
- The above, but the appointed judge doesn’t act as expected and instead is more of a moderate. Supreme Court judges often surprise that way. Justice Roberts himself has moved from a conservative to more moderate role, probably to his own surprise. I mean, even Trump’s Supreme Court pick Neil Gorsuch agreed with the majority to protect transgender rights earlier this year.
- The GOP fails to find enough votes to go forward with a confirmation. Enough Republican Senators running for re-election realize that doing this would turn off voters during a year when their election chances are already too narrow. They decide to play it safe by announcing they will not vote for any replacement before the coming election, or inauguration, should Biden win.
- The Democrats win the Senate; Trump wins the presidency. Democrats impeach Trump and Barr. Information comes to light showing impropriety between the executive office and the Supreme Court making it possible to impeach at least one Supreme Court justice.
- The GOP replaces Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat, but Democrats win back the Senate and White House in the election. They decide to “stack the court” – adding more seats to the Supreme Court bench. There’s nothing constitutionally wrong with doing this, as the constitution does not specify how many justices there should be. When it was first established, the Supreme Court had just six justices. That was reduced to five in 1801 as an outgoing F.U. from outgoing John Adams to the incoming President Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson didn’t care for that and restored it to six, and then in 1807, increased it to seven. It was increased to nine by President Andrew Jackson, and briefly to 10 during the Civil War, before falling back to seven. It was then raised to nine in 1869 and has remained stable there, despite President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s attempt to increase it as high as 15. So the number of Supreme Court justices has ranged high and low and has changed for petty reasons and utilitarian reasons. There is nothing sacred about the number nine.
- Same election scenario as above, but Democrats opt to increase their share of the Senate by adding seats. They do this by granting statehood to Washington, D.C., and/or Puerto Rico. Washington DC would certainly be a Democratic stronghold. Whether Puerto Rico wants statehood or not is more of an open question, and it would probably be less strongly Democratic than D.C. But it’s not a stretch to imagine that at least three of those seats would go Democrat.
- Republicans replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg but Biden wins and Democrats retake the Senate. Then, on one remarkable morning, Justice Brent Kavanagh succumbs to the ravages of lifelong alcoholism, expiring on the couch of his family’s romper room, can of Budweiser in hand. Upon hearing the news, Justice Alito is so shocked he drives off a bridge while on his way to pick up his morning McMuffin. News of the two unexpected tragedies hits Justice Thomas so hard that he is actually heard to utter something, a rare occurrence indeed. “Such a shock – I think I’m having a heart atta…” Mercifully, he is gone before he hits the floor, feeling no pain. Before noon, Biden finds himself having three Supreme Court justice nominations open. Is it unlikely? Sure. But isn’t everything else lately?
These are all the scenarios that came to my mind. Some are quite realistic. Some … not so much. And I’m sure I’ve probably missed quite a few. In fact, I’ve probably missed the one that will actually happen. Which is exactly my point: We don’t know.
Take another look at that list of scenarios. We could fervently hope that the best of them come true. Or we could cower in fear that the worst of them will. When we have no idea what the outcome will be, the effort we spent hoping or fearing is wasted.
Though it sounds strange to some ears, and I know it did to mine when I first encountered it, Spinoza thinks of hope as an evil. He calls it that because – as you recall – hope is nothing more than the flip-side of fear, and both of these things lead you away from rational thinking and toward superstition. Both lead people to make bad choices. Like falling into despair. Or giving up on a campaign. Or even not showing up to vote.
And I have to tell you, that’s a really hard thing for me to say. I went through some dark times when watching “Shawshank Redemption” on repeat just to to hear Andy Dufresne tell me about hope was all that got me through. I love hope, despite what Spinoza says. But I get what he’s saying, too.
This is the kind of time that calls for people to be clear-headed, collected and thinking.
We don’t have time to fall apart.
Besides, whatever happens next? It’s all necessary. More on that in a bit.