You’ve no doubt heard the notion that the arc of history bends toward justice, whether it be from Martin Luther King, Jr. who proclaimed the ideal throughout his public ministry or Theodore Parker, the abolitionist who first coined the idea in 19th Century. The idea here is that no matter where we find ourselves and regardless of the situation in which are placed, our trajectory is one that leads us toward ultimate reconciliation and understanding of one another. The beauty in the phrasing is not in its sweeping distillation of our human story, but in the geometry and physics of its imagery: an arc.
An arc is not a straight line. It has two endpoints and, therefore, can be traced from beginning to end. While its beginning and end may lie at the same longitude or latitude, to follow the arc’s course requires moving into other elevations with different coordinates. No amount of methodical plodding in one direction will lead to the end. To trace an arc requires a compass. To figure its length requires calculation and some knowledge of the mathematical constant π. A simple mark of the ruler cannot offer the length or shape of the arc.
An arc may be a portion of a circle, but it must not be confused with the circle itself. In a circle there is no beginning and end. To draw a circle is to start at one point and return home. The purpose of a circle is to be complete, to make beginning and end indistinguishable from one another, to fully enclose. An arc, however, remains open and ensures that beginning and end remain distinct from one another. Following an arc’s path will not take one back to the starting point. It will end up in an entirely different location.
It is also not a winding path. Winding paths, like the courses of rivers, flow wherever the path is easiest. Some paths require switchbacks to make their route palatable while others take travelers far off course in order to avoid obstacles. An arc does not go anywhere it pleases. It goes where the constants that define it lead, regardless of any impediments or inconveniences.
It is fascinating to me, then, that Parker and King use the imagery of the arc. There seems to be a conscious choice in this imagery – one that rings true decades after their introducing the idea to us. If we believe that this point in time that we find ourselves in one within the trajectory of an arc bent toward justice, then there are several things that we can affirm:
1) There must be a constant which guides our path. Our grasp of that constant helps us determine the trajectory of our path and our propensity to ignore that constant fools us into thinking we’re in travelling upon something that is not an arc – a straight line, perhaps.
2) Where we started will not be where we end up. We cannot look backwards to find out where me might end up. Tracing where we’ve been will only leads to where we’ve been before. It will not take us toward our new destination. We can, however, look back to see where we’ve been and use that information to guide us on our way, but in order to do so, again, we must have some understanding of the constant in our midst.
3) We are, and will continue to be, unable to avoid the obstacles in our path. The constant that guides our trajectory will takes us directly through whatever is in front of us no matter our efforts to stray. We may want believe we’re on a winding path that will help us avoid the conflicts in our way, but if we’re truly on an arc we must face them directly.
At any point on the arc, if we are to stop and look straight ahead, we will not see the end. We may see a great deal as we look out, but what we gaze upon now is not the end. If we turn around and look straight behind us, we also cannot see the beginning. If we do not remember where we were, when we look back we can see only the things that are tangential to our path.
From this vantage point on the arc, the view may be bleak. We can feel separated from where we’ve been and the journey we made thus far. It can feel as though we’ve made no progress. The view may also be uncertain. We may be able to hear around the bend, but we may not be able to make out the sounds. From where we are the sounds may seem terrifying only later to learn that those sounds were the sounds of band welcoming us with open arms. They may also be a siren’s song calling us away from our destination.
We are where we are supposed to be. The obstacles in our midst must be dealt with in order to move forward. They may make us feel uncomfortable. They may make us feel disoriented, longing for a previous life. They may seem like ones we’ve already faced and should have dealt with by now, but they are not. They are new and they are the result of our having come further down the arc. Knowledge and experience can make us feel uncomfortable. They can force us to reconsider what we thought we understood to be true. They can also prepare us for the obstacles that lie ahead in the arc of our lives.
Are we where we want to be? No. Do we see the obstacles in front us that block our path toward this destination? Yes. They are standing right in front of us. We may long to go back down the path to a time which we now know and understand in hindsight because it feels safe, but going backward will not help us reach our destination. Neither does going full circle. Both will take us far away from justice, the ultimate end of this arc of our story.