The Long Arc

Dr. King famously told us that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

It’s tempting to fixate on the second half of the sentence, to place our faith in the bend, and above all the surety of justice. But what do we do when what we observe in the world is so obviously at odds with what we want to believe about how the universe works?

The hard truth is that the arc of the moral universe is long. Really long. Justice may not appear in our own time — and, even if it does, the best we can do today will someday look primitive. Not everyone gets to see the mountaintop; fewer still get to go there.

In an extraordinary remembrance and celebration of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Arnold Eisen talks about what it means to live on the long arc, doing our best to bend it even as we know we’ll never reach the promised land:

You know, there are certain things that are beyond our reach even if we’re commanded to try and achieve them. Our lives, as the rabbi said long ago, are too short. I mean, the day is long and the work is great and we’re not commanded to finish the work, but neither are we allowed to desist from it. That’s one of my favorite passages from the Talmud and I think one of Heschel’s.

The shortest route to cynicism is to assume that our efforts will finish the work. As soon as it becomes clear that we have been commanded to work toward a goal we cannot reach, the temptation is to throw down our tools, throw up our hands, and say we don’t care: after all, if we can’t finish the work, what’s the point?

The point, as the great friends and teachers King and Heschel knew, is not to finish but rather to begin, to resist the temptation to desist, and, when we do desist — as, from time to time, we all do — to begin again. And again. And still again.

We might never get to see the end, but, if we choose to conspire on the universe’s behalf, we might be able to catch a glimpse around the bend.