(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, December 9, 2016)
KAMPALA, UGANDA ✦ The story of 2016 is the story of surprise.
Surprise isn’t always the worst thing in the world. When all goes as expected, day after ordinary day, it’s hard to remember what matters in life.
Shakespeare said as much about human nature. And the world’s political surprise of 2016, Donald Trump winning the American presidency, is one story of Shakespearean heft. As a Ugandan told me, America’s president is “president of the world.”
In early November, another story about winning unfolded in fashion usually reserved for the pages of fiction. It’s the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series in dramatic extra innings of a Game 7. It wasn’t the Jays. But the lifting of a 108-year curse that had apparently doomed the Cubs to never-again-champion status is something to marvel over for just about anyone.
Both stories came into my African home just past sunrise with technology (half-broken as African internet is) that nobody in 1908 could have imagined. In 1908, the last time the Cubs had won the World Series, the world was a very different place.
American civil war veterans and former black slaves still walked the streets as reminders of that festering wound. Suffrage hadn’t yet given women a voice. Cheap labour came on the backs of children. Blacks couldn’t even play professional ball. Through industrialism, times were booming, sure. But the times were bandaged and hobbling on crutches.
There was a certain romance to the era. You could get to Africa in record time, two weeks, by steamship. The trains were refreshingly slower than today’s. But the trains were, you know, slower. And harder. With fewer destinations and more boundaries.
I think of it, I suppose, because I’ve taken the train across swaths of America, twice from America’s southwest to the north of Chicago, a city once burned to ashes before it was rebuilt into a most remarkable place.
It’s anyone’s wildest guess what any traveler or writer might say four years from now, let alone 108 years from now. As cycles of history go, the world may be entering another dark era. You’ve likely heard the predictions, looking at the gathering storm clouds. (Then again, clouds can appear and rumble, then disappear swiftly, like clouds in rainy season in Uganda.)
Other people – certainly white Trumpeters and Trumpeteers who elected America’s new president – are expecting something brighter and bolder. They’ve apparently been searching for it
And we do search. Each of us. We search for home, even as we search for purpose. With some courage, we search for truth. And love. If we’re lucky, we search for forgiveness. We search, also, for things that can’t be found.
Like the mirage of returning a nation – in this case America – to some greatness of yesteryear without having an entirely accurate memory of yesteryear. Yes, it’s easy to romanticize the past. But the past is never as sunny as we remember, not any more than the future can ever be as perfect as we like to imagine.
This isn’t to discount the power of dreams. The great American experiment is itself a dream. It’s a very fine dream. Nor is this to minimize anyone’s desire for good times. Or winning. Or certainly a decent job.
But amidst its freedom, humanity still lives with sun-up-to-sun-down forces that are beyond mortal control. In that sense, no mortal can roll back the stone of time. History has always been in larger hands.
To imagine our leaders holding that sort of power is to turn them into gods. Or devils. Or both on different days of the week. Which happens often enough, but doesn’t help anyone’s understanding of reality.
In this, it’s the losers of the world who may have the better grasp. Because, as with winning, losing is about more than meets the eye. Some losses, eventually, bring a release that’s so liberating and illuminating that nothing else in life can ever compare.
This too can be a surprise. Which is why the poets say ‘the way up is down.’ It’s into humility and a connection with things otherwise never known. Beautiful things.
In my travels among ordinary people who have lost one thing or another, I have seen this too. And it’s been profoundly moving.