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Two words to carry around with you

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss is just one of the finest novels anyone will ever read. I picked it up again after many years and found myself mesmerised all over again. It has two words that are repeated over and over, acting as a motif in the life of one of the main characters. They first appear on page 5, thus:

‘When I came to America I knew hardly anyone, only a second cousin who was a locksmith, so I worked for him. If he had been a shoemaker I would have become a shoemaker; if he had shovelled shit I, too, would have shovelled. But. He was a locksmith. He taught me the trade, and that’s what I became…It’s not what I would have imagined for myself. And yet. The truth is I came to like it.’

Did you spot the two wise words? There they are, a complete sentence in themselves, the second-last in the the excerpt. ‘And yet.’

The narrator is Leo Gursky, a Polish Jew uprooted by the Nazi advance across Europe in the 1940s, forced to flee to save his life, losing all his relatives in the process, and becoming separated from the love of his life, never to be reunited. It’s not a life any of us would want. And yet. He makes the most of it, damaged though he is. As we all must.

And yet. These words provide a pause; a moment of reflection; an opportunity to reconsider; a different perspective. They are very powerful words indeed, and we would all do well to whisper them to ourselves when we are convinced of anything, when we are about to conclude, before we plunge in with certainty.

These words are an antidote to the recurring ailment of absolute certainty, one that we should carry around everywhere. Whenever we become convinced we know what’s going on, what something means, what needs to be done – we should whisper: And yet.

Because the truth is, life is a bigger mystery than any one of us will ever fathom. There is never just one way to think about anything; there are always two sides to a dispute. There is much that we don’t know, even as we think we know it all.

This is not a recommendation to procrastinate and prevaricate, mind; nor am I asking you to be timid in the face of uncertainty. Just to use that whisper to stop your mind from clamping shut. To know that you don’t really know. To understand that there are other ways to look at the same situation. And yet. You must get on with your life anyway, even when the path ahead is shrouded in mist.

There are so many of life’s arenas where the two words would help us from over-concluding. In the home, when judging the behaviour of our nearest and dearest. At work, before recommending a particular course of action. Or when faced with trauma and difficulty, before giving up on life. Things may seem obvious. They may appear grounded in evidence. They may look hopeless. And yet. There are mysteries still to be revealed.

Ask Corinthians: ‘Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise.’ Or Shakespeare: ‘The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.’

When we sit in judgement; when we seethe with anger; when we rush to action: we should whisper and yet to ourselves. Doing so, and understanding the meaning of pausing to reflect, will make our judgements more sound; our anger more appropriate; our actions more assured.

What we think of as our reality is constrained by so many things: our bounded mental capacity; our embedded personality traits; our inherited biases; our cultural predispositions; our genes; our brainwashing by long-dead thinkers. The only way to proceed is to keep the mind open; to remain curious; to embrace humility when errors are revealed; to remain ready to change and adapt. And yet. We must also remain ready to act, decisively when needed.

Nicole Krauss wrote The History of Love in her late twenties, publishing it in 2005. I still stagger at the thought that someone could pen a work so wise, so complex and so technically accomplished at so young an age. When I think back to what I used to spend my time doing in my late twenties, I shrink in embarrassment. And yet.

(Sunday Nation, 27 October 2019)

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