Cultural Revolution Correspondent, Washington Post; Author, Radical Evolution

The Human Response To Vast Change Will Involve Strange Bounces

I am an optimist because I have a hunch Mark Twain was right when he portrayed Huckleberry Finn as an archetype of human nature.

In the pivotal moment of "his" novel, Huckleberry Finn considers struggling no longer against the great challenges arrayed against him. He thinks about how society would shame him if it "would get all around that Huck Finn helped a nigger to get his freedom":

"That's just the way: a person does a low-down thing, and then he don't want to take no consequences of it. Thinks as long as he can hide, it ain't no disgrace. That was my fix exactly."

Huck decides right then and there to abandon a life of sin, avoid eternal damnation and for once do the right thing by society's lights. He decides to squeal, to write a letter to Jim's owner telling her how to recapture her slave.

Then he gets to thinking about human nature:

"I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn't do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking – thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me, all the time: in the day, and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking, and singing, and laughing. But somehow I couldn't seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I'd see him standing my watch on top of his'n, 'stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me, and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he's got now; and then I happened to look around, and see that paper.

"It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

" 'All right, then, I'll go to hell' — and tore it up.

"It was awful thoughts, and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head; and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn't. And for a starter, I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog."

This line of rampant and pugnacious human perversity surfaces in our best stories again and again.

In "Casablanca," Rick is ensconced in a cozy world of thieves, swindlers, gamblers, drunks, parasites, refugees, soldiers of fortune, genially corrupt French police and terrifying Nazis. Rick's cynicism is his pride; he sticks his neck out for nobody.  His only interest is in seeing his Café Américain flourish. And then, of course, of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, Ilsa walks into his. The rest of the film concerns him betraying his own cauterized heart in service of a higher purpose. As Rick says, "It's still a story without an ending."
The most phenomenally successful film series of the recent era – the "Star Wars," "Harry Potter," "Matrix" and "Lord of the Rings" movies – are all driven by a faith in human cussedness, from Han Solo's grudging heroism to little people with furry feet vanquishing the combined forces of Darkness.

If the ageless way humans process information is by telling stories, what does our belief in this recurring story say?

It is an instinct that the human response to vast change will involve strange bounces.

This assessment of our species displays a faith that even in the face of unprecedented threats, the ragged human convoy of divergent perceptions, piqued honor, posturing, insecurity and humor will wend its way to glory.