Living in suspense

A few weeks ago, I was eagerly awaiting the final episode of Sanditon. It was a Masterpiece Theater series based on Jane Austen’s unfinished novel of the same name – she’d introduced the characters and the setting, but didn’t live long enough to tell the story, so it wasn’t obvious how it would end. Charlotte would surely end up with the man she wanted, but what about Miss Lambe, the young heiress Austen had described as “half mulatto”? Would she marry the duke to get the fortune seekers to leave her alone, or would the duke be free to pursue his intimate friendship with lovely Arthur Parker? And how about our more mature lovers, the rascally lawyer and the king’s ex-mistress? Or the much more mature lovers, Lady Denton and her long-lost, now rich, childhood sweetheart?

(Arthur Parker is the best!)

turlough-convery-sanditon-arthur-6435c427e6eb7That last week, it felt hard to wait for the ending – especially when the cable’s schedule said there would be a “shocking revelation” (and thankfully that was a total misrepresentation – there was nothing shocking nor a revelation, only a reasonable misunderstanding). Then I realized that with PBS Passport I could easily watch the final episode online, immediately.

I declined. I realized I liked having a whole week to wonder how things would be resolved. It’s a normal human thing to take pleasure in suspense, at least where recreation is involved. Otherwise we’d never sit down to watch or read a story at all.

And I’m accustomed to the pace of television that I grew up with, where you waited from week to week to learn what happens next, and sometimes spent the entire summer waiting for a cliffhanger to be resolved. This binging of an entire series over a few days is alien to me.

I’m not a purist – with anime shows I’m fine with watching two or three episodes back-to-back, and a few more the next night, and the next, especially if the entire show is hundreds of episodes long.

In real life, too, there are a great many ways in which it’s wonderful that we don’t have to wait and wait to find out what’s happened. I can’t imagine living in the 19th century, when if someone you loved moved away or went on a long trip or – ack – went off to war, you’d have to wait for them to write and send you a letter so you’d know they were okay. It was much better when I was a kid – if anything important happened, they could probably use the phone. Now it’s trivial to send a message instantly using that handy device we all carry in our pockets.

I wonder, though, whether this all points to a way our speeded up society has changed that we tend to overlook. If we don’t like dramatic tension when it’s only recreational – if we’d rather binge and get it all at once – then how can we bear such suspense when the stakes are much higher?

Here’s an example: racism. The United States has been a racist society since its very founding, and once white people realized this was bad, we’ve wanted the issue to be resolved. After Barack Obama was elected president, Rudy Giuliani claimed that “we’ve moved beyond… the whole idea of race and racial separation and unfairness.” Liberals also dearly hoped that the election meant we could now consider ourselves a “post-racial” society. Unfortunately, no. Many white people are no longer overtly prejudiced against Black people, but problems still remain. Yet the desire for closure on this issue is so strong that conservatives now want it erased from the history books altogether.

Another arena in which the drive for closure has been very obvious in recent years is the Covid-19 pandemic. Many were so eager to declare the pandemic over that they stopped following basic safety measures even before the first vaccines became available. How many of the 1.1 million Americans who died from Covid-19 could still be alive if they – or others in their communities – were willing to wear masks in public, to avoid spending time indoors with random people from other households, and to get vaccinated once they could?

It’s natural to want to resolve problems, but believing they’re resolved before they actually are can lead to yet more problems. It seems to be very hard indeed to recognize when our sense of closure was premature, to give up on what those before us saw as reaching “happily ever after” on that topic, with life returning to normal.

Here’s an example. My ancestors were part of a massive project to “tame” the North American continent, to claim it and settle it from coast to coast, a project they considered their “Manifest Destiny.” Of course, this land was already claimed and had been settled for thousands of years, but as part of this project, my people helped dispossess the Natives. This involved moving them to reservations, abrogating treaties made with their leaders, and sending their children to special schools to teach them English and break their connection with their own heritage. As a result, it’s become part of our national story that those people have “vanished.” If they’re not gone altogether, they’re certainly pictured as living on the margins.

Remember Standing Rock? Remember how long it took the mainstream media to notice the protests?


Here’s another example. The U.S. “won” the Cold War and became the world’s Lone Superpower. Even a “hyperpower”! But did Russia’s nuclear weapons go away? Not at all. Wikipedia says that Russia has more than 1500 active, deployed nuclear warheads; the United States has more than that. They’re ready to go, many of them already positioned on intercontinental missiles, just waiting for Putin or Biden to give the word.

But if someone mentions the threat of nuclear war to you, isn’t your first impression that we’ve moved beyond that, it’s in the past? I mean, I hope it is, obviously! But no matter what we tend to believe, we haven’t actually reached closure on that risk. And doesn’t that belief act as a damper on any effort to talk about the problem?

After all, most of us have moved on to climate change, or “replacement theory,” or terrorism, or some other existential threat. We don’t want to have to think about nuclear weapons too.

If we want to revitalize that issue in our public awareness, we will probably need to expand our ability to live in suspense – to accept that some problems haven’t yet been solved, even though we’d much rather think otherwise.

And I can’t think of a better way to practice living in suspense than to sit down with a good book. Maybe even one that was never finished?


About Laura Akers, Ph.D.

I'm a research psychologist at Oregon Research Institute, and I'm writing a book about meta-narratives, the powerful collective stories we share about who we are and where we're headed. My interests include beliefs and worldviews, ethics, motivation, and relationships, both among humans and between humans and the natural world.
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