6 Moments in History That Remind Me Anything Is Possible

In these dark days, it can be helpful to keep a list of unexpected and pleasant surprises.
Civil Rights Bill.jpg

President Lyndon B. Johnson shakes the hand of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the signing of the Civil Rights Act.

Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

It’s not possible to know what’s possible. For me, these words spell freedom. On this Thanksgiving, I’m particularly grateful for their truth: that living in our world of continuous and interconnected change, uncertainty is certain, and good things can come from unexpected places.

Appreciating uncertainty can be either scary or liberating, of course, but I try to stay with the latter. Reminding myself that it’s not possible to know what’s possible sets me free to aim high, and even stretch beyond my comfort zone at times. Who knows? I just might succeed.

The trick, I realized some years ago, is keeping a mental list of advances I’d never have thought possible until they happened. Pretty regularly, I review it, just to remind myself that if these things happened, how I can possibly know what the next heartening surprise might be.

Right now, here’s my short list.

Racial justice from a racist?

While I was growing up in Texas, it seemed obvious that the future President Lyndon Johnson was a racist. During more than 20 years in Congress in the 1940s and ’50s, he’d stonewalled every civil rights measure that came his way, and as young man he enjoyed taunting Blacks. But because citizens stepped up en masse with enormous dignity and courage demanding change, this same human signed into law the lives-changing Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Former communist satellites leap ahead of the U.S. in democracy?

I also grew up learning that the United States was the world’s leading democracy. Don’t we claim to have invented it? Of course, we do. During my youth, America positioned itself as the opposite of the U.S.S.R.’s totalitarian communism, which tightly gripped many central and Eastern European countries. Yet, less than three decades after the Soviet breakup, more than a half-dozen of these newly self-governing countries already rank higher than the U.S. on an index of “perceptions of electoral integrity” judged by experts worldwide working with the Electoral Integrity Project. Starting with the highest ranked, they include: Estonia, Lithuania, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Latvia, and Croatia.

A Big Oil state leads in clean energy?

I also learned from growing up in Texas that Big Oil was in firm control, and later that President George W. Bush’s first job out of college was in the oil business. But wait! In a 1999 law, then-Gov. Bush called for 2,000 megawatts of renewable power capacity in Texas by 2009. The state surpassed the target and Bush’s successor, Rick Perry, raised it even higher. And guess what? It’s now predicted that if Texas were a country, by the end of this year it would be the fourth largest wind-producing country worldwide. (And, by the way, some environmentalists also praise Bush for other little-known environmental protections.)

One woman plants seven trees and billions grow?

On Earth Day 1977, in Nairobi, Kenya, Wangari Maathai planted seven trees honoring Kenyan environmental leaders. Soon, she’d founded the Green Belt Movement, led by village women fighting desertification. By the time I visited Maathai in 2000, this movement had planted 20 million trees. I was impressed, and in 2004 even more impressed when she was given the Nobel Peace Prize for her work. Soon, a German 9-year-old, Felix Finkbeiner, proposed a worldwide effort called Plant for the Planet,  and Maathai backed the campaign with her newly enhanced stature. Last time I checked, 15 billion trees had been planted. I could hardly believe it.

The Arab Spring triumphed and in one country democracy actually took root?

Tunisians triggered the Arab Spring in 2010, and uprisings in five other countries followed. Soon, images of peaceful demonstrators in Egypt’s Tahrir Square sparked hope worldwide. But violence followed, and hope began fading by mid-2012. Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and elsewhere experienced large-scale conflicts. Despair returned.

But not everywhere. Tunisia, Arab Spring’s initiator, continued to strengthen its democracy, including giving a much greater voice to women. A new law requires political parties to include an equal number of female and male candidates on their party list. In all, the quality of Tunisia’s electoral laws are rated well above those of the United States by the Electoral Integrity Project. Rights expanded too, as the new constitution recognizes citizens’ right to health care. The right for labor to organize and strike is in the new constitution, as well.

Of course, democracy is a journey, not a destination, even in Tunisia. This September a bill pardoning corrupt ex-officials was passed by Parliament, despite citizens’ two-year battle against it. On the hopeful side, notes the Washington Post, this long battle “gave rise to a versatile, dynamic and intelligent street protest movement” and now “Tunisian youths are organizing on social media and gathering to discuss options for running for office.”

Revelations by courageous women create seismic shift in American culture?

If anyone had asked me the likelihood, even a few weeks ago, of scads of American women speaking out against high-powered men who’d sexually harassed them, from Hollywood to NPR to Congress, and that they’d be believed and that the repercussions for some would be grave, I’d have said, “Nah, not in my lifetime.”

These “tricks” to keep myself open are based in the conviction that despair is debilitating, whereas consciously cultivating a sense of possibility is liberating. With it, we can move boldly toward what we really want, unbound by what we “realistically” calculate is within reach.

While the future is uncertain, a few things are certain: Fear makes us do stupid things, whereas hope is a form of power, helping our brains imagine solutions. So as a motto for our time, I’ll hang on to “It’s not possible to know what’s possible.”