The best of times…or the worst
No,“M” Mountain is not a volcano, despite the explosive outbursts coming from there. Just in case, though, I’m staying inside, to avoid any lava in my front yard.
French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty once said that “one earthquake does more to demonstrate our vulnerability and mortality than the whole history of philosophy.”
Volcanoes, earthquakes, tornadoes — we live in times when everything seems to be moving and quaking. We feel vulnerable, all right — like Sumo wrestlers in a ballet class. It’s not just the weather. The deficit debacle, the Arab spring, wars and violence, the loss of jobs, decaying infrastructure, environmental and fuel crises, riots in London — the list goes on, and the earth is moving beneath our feet.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…the spring of hope…the winter of despair…” These words of Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities,” written in 1859 and memorized when we were back in school trying to stay awake in English class, seem to describe us today more than ever. It is “the worst of times” part, though, that has riveted our minds and burdened our expectations.
Thirty years ago art historian Jamake Highwater noted “the first shock waves of a cultural earthquake awakening Western humankind, arousing in us the possibilities of Western transience and fallibility.” Call it a seismic shift on a grand scale — even bigger than “M” Mountain.
Asked “How did you find America?” after their first tour, the Beatles answered, “We just turned left at Greenland.” Finding the true America today may not be so simple. The World Health Organization and the Harvard Medical School found that 9.6 percent of Americans suffer from depression or bipolar disorder, the highest rate of the 14 nations surveyed.
What has caused the upheavals, says economist Thomas Friedman, is “the fact that globalization and the information technology revolution have gone to a whole new level,” putting jobs at risk and changing the rules of the game.
So, yes, we want politicians to compromise; we want to show greater confidence, so that the markets perk up; we want to realize that it’s the task not just of congressmen but all of us, since we all equally share responsibility. We want to create jobs and infrastructure by rational spending, and only then to solve the deficit problem (though some will disagree.) We want to quickly wind down our wars and our world-wide empire apparatus, before it’s too late.
Then there’s the other possibility. It could be we’ll never take action. We’ll never decide to compromise and will cling to our ideologies, refusing to accept that others may have it right at times. It may even be too late to stop the slide since, as Chalmers Johnson has always said, our wars and empire building were sure to bankrupt us, if not contained. It may be too late.
And if it is? Then we cling to our values anyway, focusing on what is right and not just on what we want. We’ll probably never have all that we want — and neither do the four million people who are starving in Somalia — but to continue to help them and to do what is right far outweigh our own needs and worries.
Of first importance, we want to work for justice and the common good — this above all else. As a people, we want to recognize how immigrants are our treasure, how the environment and our energy sources are trusts to be managed, and how our children and the poor and needy must be cared for above all, even before our own security and well-being.
It’s been said that after 45 years of age, we begin to harvest our lifestyle indiscretions and pay the price with possible health problems. It may be that America is doing the same. With age, though, come the blessings, if corrections are made. It is those we hope to attain, as our nation comes of age and we set things straight once more.
Kozeny has worked as a teacher, counselor, and in pastoral ministry. He can be reached by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.