Ortberg: If you look at the Christian Bible—again, that’s the story that I come from—you look at the Book of Job, and there’s this fascinating, open-ended question of what is the Satan? Because that’s literally the name of the character in the book. It’s called the Satan, not like the devil or Lucifer, Satan, like that’s his name. It’s just the Satan, and it means that he has a job. It’s your job. You bring evidence against humanity, and you are in God’s employ, and obviously we lost some of that over time. You remember the cartoons of the sheepdog and the wolf who would fight all day, and then they would end by swiping their punch cards? That’s been lost, and there’s just the sense of—it is this actual demonic, supernatural entity that lives somewhere in the ether and is out to get me. I think if you look at those stories, they are incredibly destabilized and all over the place, and that’s fantastic.
Rumpus: In these fairy tales is a universe that is random and tricky. You write with a real confidence, yet a lot of what you’re getting at in this book is the ways in which no one knows anything.
Ortberg: The confidence is in saying, This work is worth doing, not, I know what the work is, or Here’s how we all get it done.
There’s a lot in this interview — which is about fairy tales and gender identity and all kinds of questions which is to say read the whole thing, as the kids once said — about questioning as something to be feared. The Olds get so ragey about the gender stuff, like it’s maddening to them, “how do I know what you are?” And they’re actually asking how do I know what I am.
We are not comfortable with our own unknowns. We feel like there is some point at which we get to Know Things, and be Done. We feel like at some point we’ll stop feeling uncertain, we’ll stop worrying if we’ve accomplished enough, and sometimes we even fool ourselves into thinking this is the case. And then along comes something to upend that.
The reason this interview struck me so directly is that what Ortberg is saying is that not only is the work never done, but the work itself is the work. The figuring, the questioning, the exploring, the arguing, the uncertainty and fear, those are all the point, and if you never find answers it’s still worth shoving yourself forward. Accepting that the work will never be done, put your shoulder to the wheel anyway, and glory in the moment of being alive to do so.
How do I know what I am isn’t something you ever stop asking, even if it gets buried under all the shit you have to do to make it day to day.