If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same…
We live in a time when meaningful commentary about the affairs of the day faces the challenge of being overrun by ever more head-shaking events—and by the 24-hour news cycle that barely has time to chronicle those events before a new one crashes in commanding our attention.
It’s like one of those diabolical amusement park rides that no sooner dumps you out from a screeching, white knuckle series of turns than it drops you and your stomach down a precipitous descent far speedier than gravity would seem to allow.
And then the speed and lurch build up much too quickly again and you find yourself praying for the end of the ride.
The awful scenes from Syria, where the mangled limbs of children, some still alive, others mercifully not, sear into one’s brain, followed quickly by the awful question, dammit, whether the photos can even be believed. (Propagandists have made skeptics of us all, about everything—with good reason.)
This in the same week of a ramped up impeachment effort against the U.S. president who essentially claims he is above all law while he holds office, and is immune from any meaningful congressional oversight.
While proclaiming America must withdraw from playing policeman to the world as he offers carte blanche approval to Turkey’s invasion and bombardment of Syria’s Kurdish population.
While then committing American troops to bolster the extreme Muslim autocrats in Saudi Arabia who recently lured a Washington Post reporter to their embassy and then killed and cut him up into small pieces.
While fires once again rage in the southern California of my youth.
But it is also true that life goes on—through war and pestilence, hurricanes and fires, good presidents and bad. That we get up every day with choices to make about our time, our tasks, our responsibilities and frivolities…
While in northern California, a utility summarily cuts power for two days and more to some 1 million people, in order, it claims, to prevent a repeat of the awful fires from two years ago. The move, admittedly carried out with inadequate forethought and dismal public communication, causes billions of dollars in lost economic activity in the region I left barely a month ago.
While mass shootings this morning that claimed four lives in an “illegal” Brooklyn gambling hall and wounded two people in a New Hampshire Pentecostal church have gone almost unremarked upon, given the unremarkable body counts and relentless, mind-numbing pace of other shootings competing for precious media time.
While the same U.S. president mentioned above has taken to regularly uttering profanities at campaign rallies, where the besotted crowds consistently roar in merriment when he shouts and snarls “Bullshit!” and describes rival politicians as “kissing ass” and “hating America.”
While the more unhinged and vile he appears to be, the louder they roar.
While climate change threatens to make all of the above nearly irrelevant.
And yet most people in my own orbit, including myself, continue to be more happy than not.
Well-fed, able to enjoy various pleasures, meeting in restaurants and pubs, planning weekends away and weeks abroad. Improving the homes for when we return and feel the call to cocoon.
I doubt I know anyone in the 1%, but such wealth is hardly necessary to live the kind of life of freedom, choice and leisure unthinkable to the vast sea of people who have gone before us, as well as those who live contemporaneously with us in this world today, in far less advantaged circumstances than many of us enjoy.
For that, living among the 20- and even 30% more than fits the bill.
It’s true that the dark cloud of worry, the gnawing concern that things are drastically wrong and could easily get worse, doesn’t recede too far back, nor for too long.
Is this because modern life really is swirling downward, or because modern media technology is so much more capable and eager to deliver the Dark & Depressing News From All Over (In Real Time!!) than ever before?
After all, the likes of Max Roser and Steven Pinker, learned, thoughtful men full to the brim with data, both make convincing cases that the world is better and safer, healthier and more prosperous, than ever before. And it will likely stay on the same upward trajectory, despite the near constant warnings from doomsayers to the contrary.
If Roser and Pinker are right, what’s with my wobbling on the synapse between my happy and fearful selves, my furrow and worry for the very future of our democracy and our larger world? Why this gnawing in my stomach as I consider the world we are handing to my child and all those who will inherit it with her?
Part of it is my previous underestimation, I think, of the profound effect the president of the United States has on me and my fellow citizens, on the collective psyche we inhabit and draw from in our dealings of the day. For better and in the present case, for very much worse, the president serves as a kind of spiritual icon and reference point for the population at large, and at the very least, that person carries a solemn duty to comport himself (and finally, soon enough, herself?) with a modicum of dignity and restraint.
Instead, the current inhabitant of the office regularly demonstrates the id unleashed, freed from traditional bounds of decorum or responsibility for projecting even a shred of kindness and inspiration in the public square. Anger and aggression, vituperation and invective are the coins of his realm, and the projection of those values through countless daily outbursts has untold coarsening, dispiriting effects on individuals and the wider cultural conversation.
For a long time, I half-jokingly accepted the label of the Derangement Syndrome named after this president, but that doesn’t feel right anymore. I am sane as can be in feeling repulsed by his depredations, and he is the one who is truly deranged and thus deserving of that label and more.
But it is also true that life goes on—through war and pestilence, hurricanes and fires, good presidents and bad. That we get up every day with choices to make about our time, our tasks, our responsibilities and frivolities, our pleasures and duties and investments in the future.
What do we do but keep taking another step forward—or backward, if we have to, like those refugees currently fleeing Syria, with the hope, however dim and grim it might be for them, of living to go forward again another day?
It is that hope—sometimes small and barely flickering amidst the onslaught of oppression and bad fortune, terror and despair—that sustains every human life and will ultimately determine the fate of humanity itself.
Oppressors never really rest, con men spring ceaselessly from the earth like mushrooms giddy after rain, and bad things will continue happening to good people. These are givens.
Times have always been bad amidst the good, and the bad wilI persist, all our thoughts and prayers, yearnings and resolutions notwithstanding.
I do not know whether our democracy will survive the current assault on its foundations, nor assaults even more egregious, because more subtle, from less unbalanced demagogues in the future.
I do not know whether international conflicts and longstanding hatreds will one day bring an end to life at least as we currently know it.
I do not know whether humans will figure out how to flourish unlimitedly on a limited planet.
What I do know is that I get up every day with “choices to make about…”
And that so far, I experience enough others who feel similarly about those choices to give me a measure of solace, enough to sustain a “sometimes small and barely flickering” hope that is still, at the end of any given day, capable of lighting the world.
Everything Rhiannon Giddens touches…
Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.
Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
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Are we the string quartet continuing to play as the Titanic slips into the darkness?
It’s a haunting question, Kirk, and I really do not know the answer to it. I would invite others here to address it. Certainly the metaphor goes only so far, because we know the Titanic sunk, and we have no evidence we are sinking yet. But taking on some water? Can’t see how we’re not dealing with that at this point.
So what do we do? All hands on deck 24/7, in emergency mode? Do we all quit what we’re doing and go volunteer for whomever the Democratic presidential nominee turns out to be? What is right action for us at this time? How does one fit in and justify hanging with mates & friends, reading up on and watching/attending the ballgame, spending time with the grandkids and money on travel and evenings out? How does one remain happy as darkness encroaches? Should one even resolve to be happy?
…and the Dodgers lost to the Nats in five. Still…there’s always next year.
Miss Dickinson once wrote, “Hope is the thing with feathers/That perches in the soul/And sings the tune without the words,/And never stops at all…”
Piggybacking Kirk, as the RMS Titanic sank, Wallace Harvey, the great ship’s bandleader, took out his violin and led his octet in an old Unitarian hymn, “Nearer, my God, to Thee.” Its first three lines sing, “Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!/E’en though it be a cross that raiseth me;/Still all my song shall be nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!” Remarkably, defying all odds, the violin survived the salty iced North Atlantic and recently sold for more than $1.6 million.
Andrew all I can say is these twenty five paragraphs strike me as a primer or the Cliff notes for Plato, Sartre, Nietzsche, John Stuart Mill, Mark Twain and probably a touch of George Carlin. There is an entire semester of philosophy, sociology and geo-politics contained in them thar hills. Massively taxing on my challenged intellect to just comprehend all the arenas you covered. It makes me feel like Luke Skywalker dealing with the Empire and the dark side of the force on a daily basis.
There is so much to comment on it is difficult to know where to start. Like you, I suffer from the Roser and Pinker conundrum. They say things are a lot better while all my primitive Myers Briggs intuitive responses say whoa…it feels like we are on a downward slippery slope and like sociological entropy things are progressively getting worse. Having pondered the dilemma, I was reminded of something my mentor in pilot training told me. I think his flying analogy is apropos. His name was Greg Shuey and he taught me how to fly high performance jets. Captain Shuey said that, “flying is statistically safe but inherently dangerous”. Maybe that speaks to the Pinker conflict.
I was also reminded, reading your piece, of something Ben Franklin said which also seems to be important regarding the myriad of unnerving Trump issues you proffered. “Those who would trade a little security for a little liberty deserve neither and will lose both”
A brilliant piece, deserving many re-readings before I can come back with an even marginally cogent additional comment.
I don’t know the answers either, but thank you, Andrew, for striking the right chords and asking the right questions. It makes me feel more connected, less crazy, less hopeless. One thought I’ve had lately; Trump is not some alien devil; he is us. He doesn’t just appeal to our worst selves; he is our worst selves. And, unfortunately, as president, it seems he has the same power to wreak havoc on our country and the world as our worst selves have to wreak havoc on our lives and the lives we touch. I don’t know what this implies for me moving forward in the dark mess we’re mired in, other than to proceed with less self-righteousness, more humility.
Lovely post my friend – and equally thoughtful reader reflections. The older I get I am increasingly struck by how little we can directly control in this life, so much is chance/fate/luck – our parents, our DNA, etc. etc. Yet the little daily, sometimes moment by moment choices we make determine so much of our first hand lived experience. I find myself turning away from the daily/hourly outrages of our political world realizing the net result of too much “news” only serves to fuel my despair, sense of injustice and futility . Instead, those daily choices in the immediate world we can influence; engaging a stranger with a smile, enthusiastic kisses from my dog, the voice of Rhiannon Giddens, savoring a cold pilsner with a friend, and such reminds me it is being available and grateful right now that creates the hope and positive energy I need to continue “doing my part” in whatever modest way possible to, in the words of Gandhi,
“be the change you want to see in the world”. Great way to get my Sunday moving in the right direction -Thanks!
Robert, that’s quite a tale about the Titanic violin (though it’s rather sad the violin survived while Leonard DiCaprio didn’t…). Has me wondering about its tonal quality, or whether the buyer cared much if any about that aspect.
Bruce, thanks very much for both your kind words and that marvelous Captain Shuey maxim, which I will surely use again and remember always. An apt metaphor for all manner of things in life, seems to me—and for life itself.
David, you point to a key piece of the Trump phenomenon, and I have pondered it repeatedly. In the end, we really do get the government we deserve, of that there is no doubt. That includes having a population susceptible to Russian propaganda (or propaganda from anywhere, really, including America), that can sway an election. Trump indeed represents our worst selves, all the awful parts of our history as a nation, none of the good parts near as I can tell, and the worst in us as individuals as well. The problem is he has no good parts with which he can redeem himself and then call on our own better angels. One needs humility to be redeemed, and he has none. I’m reminded of any intimate relationship that, however much the parties bring out and call upon the best in each other, will eventually also call forth the worst. But the goodness, if it is there, abides; it can manage, absorb, and grow from the shadows each partner reveals, and thus help each go deeper into the other’s and one’s own flawed-but-all-the-more-beautiful-for-it humanity. But Trump’s relationship with his nation always calls out the worst in his supporters and antagonists both, never balanced by a call to humility, forgiveness, redemption from himself or his nation. All absent from his repertoire—and the nation careens. Of course it does…
Kevin, I find myself inching (or at least trying to) closer to some kind of “media diet,” in which I can attend fervently to the affairs of the day but with some kind of more regular, planned mental breaks for the kind of rest & rejuvenation that ultimately makes one a more effective citizen and advocate as well. Such temptation to rant & worry without ceasing! Thanks for sharing your thoughts, as always.
Lots to think about here — too much to put into the comments.
There’s no denying my life is good and I have way more than I could ever have imagined having as a kid, but I constantly wonder at what price.
Hopefully my grandkids and their kids won’t have to pay too heavy of a price for what we’ve had in our lifetime.
Yes, a dead serious point there, Loren, which leaves me wondering plenty myself. I suspect that acquisitiveness—the drive for greater and more of everything—is so hard-wired in us that it is virtually impossible to step back and deny ourselves more “progress” and an ever-enhanced lifestyle. Perhaps our unlimited imaginations and creativity are simply unsuited for life on a finite planet, and the fault is more among the gods that put us here rather than us as the somewhat hapless subjects mired in ambitions for more, more more and simply incapable of limiting ourselves on any useful scale.
And this goes just as much for every card-carrying Sierra Club member who dutifully recycles, plants trees and goes through all the other kabuki theater motions of environmental concern while still living the completely out of whack, carbon-intensive life most of us in the industrialized first world do (and most in the third world aspire to).
Ultimately, the very technology that has helped get us into this fix may have to get us out of it, or else widespread social breakdown will occur as humans face the grim realities of too many people competing for resources on a resource-depleted planet.
I too underestimated Mr. Trump. My standard line was that people ascribed too much power to the office of the president. I believed in checks and balances, fully underestimating the president’s intentions, and majority in Senate, to dismantle democracy. At this point, I am sustained by the belief that reasonable people and reasonable action (and justice) will prevail. In the meantime, nurturing friendships, loving family, breathing deeply, enjoying nature’s bounty is about all I can figure to do. Oh, and campaigning like a demon to pass a major political referendum to increase public funding for public education in Colorado.