Oliver Wendell Holmes once wrote: “…certainty is generally illusion, and repose is not the destiny of man.” (“Path of the Law,” 10 Harvard Law Review 466)
I first learned this quote in a first year law school class called “Perspectives in Modern Legal Thought” (yes, the class was as BS as the title suggests – it was the class I wrote this for, and the class where I argued about mythology with the professor – the same professor that then-CWY called an idiot in the comments to this guest post of mine on DovBear).
At the time, I used the quote as inspiration to write an essay based on the difference between the American legal system and the Talmudic one. The basic premise of that paper is that while true certainty is virtually impossible (as Holmes suggests) in the legal system, the same isn’t true of a legal system that is based and premised on the tenet that God’s judgement is perfect. For example, when faced with a capital murder case, the court, deciding to implement the death penalty or not, has a man’s life in his hands. They must be absolutely certain that he deserves death if they are going to kill him. One thing we can be certain about: many people have been put to death by courts without actually deserving it (in the court’s estimation, without recognition of the hand of God guiding the process). The same cannot be said about the Talmudic courts. The judges that sit on the Talmudic courts all believe that if they allow the accused to go free, even if it seems almost certain that he is liable and deserving of the death penalty, that man’s punishment will be handled by God in the due course. It makes it much easier to allow a guilty man to go free if you know he isn’t escaping ultimate justice. Which is why talmudic courts almost never executed someone, and made the process exceedingly difficult to do so.
The thrust of this post, though, isn’t legal. It about the application of Holmes to life in general, and how that line rings in my head. I have been thinking about for over four years. The truth is, Holmes was right. No matter what happens, there is always something else around the corner.
Whether it’s an electrical contractor that hasn’t come back to finish his work, even though it’s been almost a year since he started; whether it’s the discovery of a leaky shower that means more work and bathroom tiling; it’s always something when you’re a homeowner.
But not even having to do with being a homeowner. How many times have I finished a project at work, put it out of my mind, made a closing binder and put it away, only to get an email 5 months later asking me a question and seeing if there was a way to change things? I don’t know exactly, but it’s been a bunch. Things never just go away. You can never just sit back and say “done with that.” I feel like Holmes is haunting me; taunting me “repose is not the destiny of man.”
As a parent? There’s no certainty, no repose. The kids are constantly changing, growing up. They need to be supervised. Even when you put them to sleep, you worry to make sure that they are OK. You check on them, you listen to them breathing through the monitor. When they are first toilet trained, you wake them to go make in middle of the night. And just when you think everything is done, they kids are safely tucked in, and you cue up a show to watch, one of them starts crying. You can’t ever sit back. There’s no rest, no end.
And yet, we try to find it; repose. We try to fight the fact that we aren’t destined to be able to relax with any certainty or end in sight (at least not until we die). We try to plan, set up, take vacations. But there’s always going to be something waiting for us around that next corner.
Maybe this is why people say “Rest in Peace” when someone passes. Death is the only true rest there is.