Math is full of surprises. This past week, I met a type of function for the first time and realized, shockingly, that Taylor series don’t always converge to their functions. Broadened contexts often conditionalize prematurely generalized assumptions—and surprise ensues.
Oftentimes in math, the surprises are what we look for. Sometimes the seeking is clumsy and directionless, through fogs of uncertainty—like when I work on proofs with theorems and definitions that are new and unfamiliar to me. Other times, the seeking is more delicate and focused. As a math student, it is a constant goal to practice refining my processes of questioning and formulating solutions, to learn how to approach uncertainty more gracefully and acutely. I imagine that writers and artists face a similar challenge as mathematicians, a similar ongoing goal to refine their questioning and processing of uncertainty with and to the point of grace.
“I imagine that writers and artists face a similar challenge as mathematicians, a similar ongoing goal to refine their questioning and processing of uncertainty with and to the point of grace.”
As I write this, the election results are not final. Regardless of who wins, it’s uncertain what the next few weeks and months will look like before this presidential term ends. No one knows when COVID-19 will be “over,” whatever that even means at this point—when we have a vaccine? When we can hug friends? When we can pass someone on the sidewalk without jumping into someone’s yard or the street to make sure you’re six feet apart?
With any uncertainty, sometimes the feelings of incompleteness and frustration are needless—motivated by an obsession with control or a delusional faith in the provisions of certainty. Other times, however, the unknown deals so precariously with what is precious and beloved that it is impossible to avoid feelings of desperation and agony.
Aside from following the election this week, I’ve also been slowly making my way through Martin Scorsese’s three-and-a-half hour documentary on Bob Dylan. The question I always have when I watch real-life stories of people whose talent later becomes widely recognized is how they deal with the uncertainty of their own future—especially at the moments when they are becoming more certain of their own abilities and have inclinations of success before their reality solidly affirms that. What did Bob Dylan think of in the days after his high school principal stopped his performance in the school talent show because it was “unsuitable”? Was he so confident in his own abilities by then that he was completely unfazed? Did he compare himself at all to the other students performing on stage? What did he think of in all those hours spent learning as many songs as he could while living in practical poverty in Greenwich Village? What was he thinking about on the train ride home to Minnesota after being gone for a few months? What did he talk about with his closest friends, what did he tell them about himself? The closest answer I got from the documentary is when Bob Dylan talks about writing his first song as a tribute to his idol Woody Guthrie, which he describes as a sort of compulsion he had, as something he knew he had to do.
All of us have spaces of understanding and creating embedded deep within us, sometimes only with room enough for oneself. When there, we are able to rip off a chunk of the madness in the world and examine it for ourselves within the limits of our contexts and imaginations. The greatest writers and artists are able to expand and beautify that space for us, and to chisel out corners in which we can accommodate others besides ourselves.
“The greatest writers and artists are able to expand and beautify that space for us, and to chisel out corners in which we can accommodate others besides ourselves.”
While we might not all have artistic compulsions, we all have compulsions to create in other ways that come from those same spaces—in personal aspirations, in our relationships with other people, in our care for our land. Perhaps at times we have uncertainty with regards to the strength and value of our efforts in acting upon those compulsions. How might we persist? How might they sustain us?
Perhaps we must be led on by the certainty of these compulsions—even when the certainty is affirmed only by our own leanings and an awareness of our own abilities—tilting forward into each moment of infinite possibility with grace.