Timestop: Musing on Impossible Desires

Superhero Meme courtesy Imgflip.com
 More than a year ago, we were having one of those typical dinner conversations with a six-year-old and a three year old, and my son asked us each to name the superhero we would most want to be. I didn't have to think long before coming up with my hero: Timestop. She would have the power to pause everything and everyone around her. Somehow she would be able to keep going, moving among the people and objects of the world. Sometimes she'd fix things. Sometimes she'd just relax and enjoy the peace and quiet. 

At the time, I'm pretty sure I was motivated by the realities of my long commute. Wouldn't it be lovely to stop all the traffic and mute all the noise and just float on over to my destination?  But lying awake in bed last night, I realized that this fantasy goes deeper for me. As a public historian, I specialize in telling stories that help people make sense of the past. I trace the threads that run through our shared experiences. I try to untangle the knots that lead to confusion in the present, and I know that I'm motivated by a desire to stop us from making the same mistakes over and over again. But underlying this desire is a need for there to be a tapestry that can be isolated long enough to grab ahold of the threads. For stories to be stories, they need to begin, and to end. 

And yet, history doesn't work like this. Every origin story has an origin story. And we keep making history, every day. Time doesn't stop. And neither do people. We act, and react, and react again. We hurt, and we heal, and we hurt again. 

In my striving for a reflective practice, I've come to recognize a false assumption at the root of historical thinking in the Western European tradition. Our interpretive and analytical goals are based on the idea that we can isolate the past in order to study it. Although much has been written about the impossibility of history as a true "social science," especially given the inability of historians to conduct controlled experiments or repeat each other's findings, the desire for these things to be possible remains. I feel it in my own frustration with current events. "Stop!" I want to yell. "We haven't even made meaning of the past yet. Don't add new complications to the story!"

My work with students this semester on an exhibit about historical relationships between (and among) Black and Jewish communities brought this tension into stark relief. How do you tell a story that isn't over yet? Does it have chapters, or merely themes and variations? In the end, I think my students and I were able to rise to the occasion, which is all we can really ask of anyone. Among other things, our research and curation revealed a central tension around the nature and disposition of the state of Israel, and it shed light on the questions at the heart of national identity and belonging that remain relevant in Israel, the United States, and around the world. Can a nation that is built on an exclusive form of heritable peoplehood also assure civil and human rights to all of its inhabitants?

As I write this post, this decade's fragile peace in Israel and Palestine is teetering on the verge of dissolution, and the peace within our own communities (especially Jewish communities) around Israeli politics is sorely taxed. Even my own CBH synagogue, which has been a bastion of the most civil online conversations I've seen over the past year around issues of racial legacies, white supremacy, immigration, and sex and gender identity rights, saw fissures and scars rising to the service when members began to talk about what's happening now in Jerusalem

And I found myself wanting to climb into a phone booth and turn into Timestop when I thought about all the young people who are waking up to worlds of disappointment in their elders, fear for their safety, anger over a sense of being told false narratives. All the analysis of the past that we can provide doesn't change a present that refuses to deliver, a present where people keep making new mistakes, and real people get hurt, get angry, and hurt each other again.

But it's time for me to acknowledge that Timestop's superpower is neither possible nor desirable. The only antidote to history is death. Instead, life goes on in all of its inscrutable emergence. I will never stop seeking understanding through stories, and new stories will never stop being born. Instead of trying to stop it all so I can gain a sense of control, I can only yield to the beauty, and the horror, and the beauty again, adding what thread I can to the ever-growing tapestry. 


Adina Langer said…
A Muslim-Jewish call for peace shared with me by a CBH member: https://theshalomcenter.org/civicrm/event/info?id=44&reset=1