Truth in Paradox: Freedom’s Eve and Freedom’s Wave

The first ever photograph of light as both a particle and wave
by Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne

On this first day of the New Year and decade, let us celebrate paradox. Both light and matter co-exist, just as good and evil, right and wrong, past and present — and, some argue, future.

Waves and particles, that’s my jam. I love the idea of it, the movement associated with stillness, the sense that as things change, they remain the same.

Quantum physics rests on that foundation, even as disagreements continue over “unified theory” — is it “string theory” or “loop theory“?

I don’t know, but I bet it’s both.

The “changing same”

Many of us are old enough now to have seen things come around, again and again. Some of these in the “social pathology” bucket are expected — nativism, racism, xenophobia, extremism, isolationism, as historian Jon Meacham tells us — especially when fear and uncertainty reign.

Others are a complete surprise. For example, high-waisted blue jeans. Lordy, I never thought I’d see those come back — and still think they belong in the past, in some dark pile of vintage clothing somewhere.

The “changing same,” as one of my wiser friends once put it, serves as a reminder that we humans are creatures of feeling and belief, that our environments contribute to, or undermine, those feelings and beliefs, and that our capacity to hold back the evil is largely linked to our sense of purpose and place in community.

Disruption and democracy’s discontent

In a digital world, that gets disrupted. Not displaced, necessarily — there are many communities on Facebook, MeWe, Twitter, and other platforms that provide shelter against the storm of words and images, created by bodies or bots. These are nurturing communities that seek to preserve some measure of human decency and respect.

But we also know that disruption generates hate-filled communities, those that feed off of fear and uncertainty, preying on grievances and turning them into weapons of mass communication. Be they part of the “dark web” or right in front of us, the solidarity of sociopaths becomes part of our asymmetric civil war, where power is amplified beyond a small group to the wider body politic.

But they will not reign.

Freedom’s Eve

The beauty of physics, and faith (mine is located where science confronts the unknown), is that temporal boundaries are illusive, that “This, too, shall pass” will always prevail. What “passed” will come around again, yes — like those nasty high-waisted jeans — but pass it will, given multiple, complex, and varied forces in the ecosystem we call the universe.

I heard this perspective put forth beautifully by Rev. Dr. Ray Hammond at Boston’s Bethel AME Church last night, at its Watch Night services. During his sermon, Pastor Ray referred to “Freedom’s Eve,” the night before the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863.

Artika Tyner, “Celebrating the 153rd Anniversary of Freedom’s Eve: A Call to Action,” BK Blog Post, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2015.

Although it applied only to slaves in rebel states — it would take the 13th Amendment to free all slaves — it was a marker of freedom that’s celebrated to this day. Using quantum physics language, you could call it a “particle” that remains, but became swept up in subsequent “waves” of Reconstruction, Jim Crow laws, the Civil Rights Movement, Black Lives Matter — and other freedom movements involving women, people with disabilities, gender preference, and the environment.

(You can view the entire Watch Night service on Bethel’s website, under “Archived Worship Services” section. Pastor Ray’s sermon begins at about 1:06:30, but the whole service is well worth it.)

Bundles of values

So as we move into 2020, let us be mindful of those particles and waves, the particles symbolizing the bundles of values we hold dear, the waves embodying, literally and figuratively, the terrible beauty of the always-moving ecosystem in which we live and breathe.

That movement is both regular and random, the late Nobel Prize-winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann once told me — another way of balancing the paradox.

History, too, is “regular” and “random,” moving in waves and particles, both personal and universal.

But the extent to which we hold firm to our “particles” — our core values, our moral compass, our ethical coordinates — and the way in which we build and sustain communities around us that nurture those particles, those bundles of values — be those communities personal, political, economic, social, or spiritual — will help determine whether or not we greet 2030 with optimism or regret.

The choice-within-paradox is ours, for now and into the foreseeable future.

Let’s make it all matter — all the particles and waves, all the strings and loops, and all the light.

Within whatever community — or communities — we thrive.

Freedom’s Wave

Whatever our place in life, let us rededicate ourselves, as I wrote on Facebook New Year’s Eve, to those truths we hold to be self-evident, that we all are created equal, endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

And let’s rededicate ourselves to the proposition that our various systems of self-governance — local and national, political AND economic — preserves and protect these principles, whatever institutional changes may be required, to maintain our “safety and happiness.”

If we can do that, we will have entered this new decade in good faith. Instead of waiting on Freedom’s Eve, we will have ridden Freedom’s Wave, despite the perilous winds that remain.

Happy New Year!

Correction: The original version of this post contained a significant error, pointed out by my sharp-eyed physicist friend, Dr. Jack M. Wilson, President-Emeritus of the University of Massachusetts and Distinguished Professor of Higher Education at U-Mass Lowell.  My reference to the similarities of physics and faith should read “where science confronts the unknown,” not “known.” I regret the error.

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