The Arc Of The Moral Universe Doesn’t Bend Itself

Emerging from our social doldrums will require deliberate, collective work.

I awoke to my nightmare around 2:30am on November 9th. At bedtime, Hillary’s victory seemed imminent, but dreams of a scarlet-drenched American map jolted me awake. A glance at my phone screen confirmed my fears. I shook my wife and broke the grim news. I held her silently and felt her body hiccup with sobs. In the darkness of our bedroom, I felt paralyzed. How could this have happened? A stanza of Yeats’s “The Second Coming” reverberated unspoken in the darkness:

“Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity. ” - W.B. Yeats (The Second Coming)

The next day, work was hard. My body felt leaden. I kept repeating the same sentence to myself like an ancient Hindu mantra: “The arc of moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Theodore Parker penned a primordial version of this quote in the 19th century, but the words gained more currency when uttered by Martin Luther King, Jr. over a century later. The elegance of the sentiment is undeniable and it has always worked magic on me in moments of despair.

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

During the Obama administration, my belief in an increasingly just universe had strengthened. I had come to expect progress on every front: the repeal of “don’t ask don’t tell,” the affirmation of the human right to health in the ACA, the recognition of our obligations to the earth in the Paris accord, etc. I assumed that prejudice would be slowly and steadily eradicated from society like smallpox. Consequently, the success of a vitriolic campaign that fed on primal distrust and anger left me dumbfounded. Forget the moral universe, bending my own lips into a smile felt impossible.

My Facebook feed was an avalanche of pain, anger, despair, and shock. But there were also several people who stood out for their resilience. Several liberals were ready to give the President-elect a chance and promote tolerance. Many staunch democrats were calling for unity and defending the integrity of Trump supporters. Some were taking the election result as a call-to-arms to defend their pet causes from the vicissitudes of unfriendly political currents. One of my adorably absurd friends even went on a manic donation rampage, giving generously to the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Planned Parenthood, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Mazzoni Center, the Anti-Defamation Center, the Sierra Club, and Earthjustice in a philanthropic spree.

This election is likely just a small dent in the majestic arc of the moral universe.

The indomitable positivity of my friends snapped me out of my paralysis. Like the curvature of the earth, the long arc of the moral universe is imperceptible to human eyes. This election is likely just a small dent in that majestic arc of the moral universe. And while the arc undeniably bends towards justice, it doesn’t bend itself. The truth is that we bend the arc collectively and deliberately. I had taken the righteous curvature of the universe for granted all these years. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work. Let’s rise above stale squabbles and pointless prejudices. Let’s conspire to reinstate the grandeur of simple goodness and basic decency. Let’s bend that arc together.

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