I don’t like Grey’s Anatomy. I haven’t managed to embrace Facebook. I’m not persuaded that India and Africa are the only places in the world that inspire good memoirs. I generally balk at trends. Except I like fixed-gear bikes and I believe in Post-Modern sensibilities.
The story of humanity, says the Modern, is the historical progression from something horrendous – remember our barbaric ancestors? – toward something laudable – imagine: human dignity for everyone. The story of humanity, says the Post-Modern, is the creative tension of both horrendous and laudable happenings throughout history. Imagine, with the Post-Modern, all the dissenting voices that lost out to the Augustines, Machiavellis and Luthers of history.
Post-Modern philosophy identifies truth in individual experiences and de-thrones “certainty.” It allows that the Susan Anthonys, who say that women experience the world differently than men do, might be right. It supports the possibility that Columbus’ “conquest” of America might also have been a “discovery.” A Post-Modern person has to admit that Jerry Fallwell might speak truth from his own experience, but they don’t have to claim it as their own.
Our lives are stories. They are strings of events, yes, but they are more than that. What I do tomorrow depends on what I do today and what you did before class depends on what your grandmother ate for breakfast in the 30’s – think about it. What is true within my own story – say, that same-sex oriented people did not directly inspire 9-11 – may not be true in Jerry Fallwell’s case. Post-Modern thinkers do think some things are truer than others – and they all have different criteria for judging – but the thrust of post-modernity is that we cannot be certain.
I believe in Post-Modern sensibilities, and thus, uncertainty because they inspire the dialogue that is necessary to constructively rewrite our life-stories. If you think Christopher Columbus was mostly a conqueror, you might want to have a conversation with someone who thinks he was a mostly a discoverer. But your conversation will be the most constructive if you accept your own uncertainty. Your understanding, just like your conversation partner’s, has been shaped by certain truths in your life. You have heard Amerindians talk about their ancestors’ experiences. Your partner has heard her grandmother tells stories about her ancestors’ experiences.
I believe in Post-Modernity because it complicates things. I believe that life is more complex than the American Dream, Martin King’s “dream becoming a nightmare,” or my own dreams of liberation. Post-Modernity gives me the courage to describe life through its complexities illustrated as “dreams” and then to deaden the poetry by explanation in the next line. I can be a vegetarian and eat sausage once a year at the MCC relief sale because, “they make the best sausage.” I can understand voting as a fundamental responsibility of citizenship, but believe that my obsessively political friend should abstain for a few years. I can open a speech by saying that I hate the trendy features of our day and continue to give nothing but praises to a trendy feature of our day. I believe in Post-Modern sensibilities because they complicate things. They undercut our ideas that we have everything figured out. They liberate us.
I’m freer when I can remember that my grandfather is racist because of his own story growing up in the South, but repeat, publicly, that he is – indeed – racist. I’m freer because, admitting the complexity of my life’s story, I enable myself to reshape it. My grandpa’s xenophobia is a part of my story. Naming that truth does not bind me to his fear of the Other, but pushes me toward a different, more truthful, understanding of my position within the world. One turn in my story is from a racist past toward a less-racist future. The turn, for me, came when I realized my own uncertainty while discovering, first-hand, experiences of racial minorities. I believe that Post-Modernity liberates us.
I’m thankful for my life’s story. I’m thankful for the hope that it will continue to be written in new and liberating ways. I appreciate Columbus as a conqueror and a discoverer because it instigates good conversation. I like my grandfather and I like that our stories have interacted, but are ultimately not the same. And I like sausage. I hope that soon I will find a way to eat meat conscientiously (and vegetables for that matter), talk with my grandparents about marginalized people and reconsider other “truths” of our history books. And for these hopes, and for the joy in your hopes being the same and different, I thank the Post-Modern struggle.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.