Memories are short, and world views are fuzzy, but what’s there is is firmly held.
The other day, while sitting in the clinic waiting room, the guy next to me started up a conversation. The gist of it was that things are so bad, worse than they have ever been, that it must be a sign that the Lord is coming very soon.
I asked him if he could remember a time that was better, a time when it seemed less likely that the Lord would soon come. That puzzled him. He wasn’t sure. So I asked if he thought our times were worse than, say, the times of the Hundred Year War, or the Thirty Year War, or the Black Death. He didn’t know what those were. It didn’t quite end the conversation, but it did change the subject to the importance of loving one’s brothers and sisters. That’s one of those agreeable topics that could be very dangerous if pursued beyond billboard platitudes, but I digress.
Is this the worst of times? I suppose it depends in part on one’s political world view and condition in life. Because we view all things from where we are, the universe, history, and contemporary events revolve around us. We are at the center, and what we perceive most clearly is what is within our reach. For some, perhaps like the guy sitting next to me, there was a better time when they were younger. Women ,and certain others whom we cannot now name because it is politically incorrect, knew their place; gays were hidden away in closets and only talked about, if ever, in the context of rude jokes; children were always respectful of their elders; our only real enemies were in Moscow, and maybe Beijing; and America had no serious industrial competitors. None of those things is true anymore. They weren’t true back then either, but that’s the way it gets remembered. Around here that kind of remembering is aided and abetted by the popularity of photographs running in the local paper, on the Internet, and in coffeetable books depicting romantic images of the way it was back then.
What distorted memory asserts as the solid truths and goodness of another time is assaulted by today, and everything about today. Nobody seems to know what truth is, and those who claim to have a corner on it are steeped in contentious debate with others who are certain of other truths. And so it is, at least for some people. Who are they, apart from the guy sitting next to me? I suspect they are folks whose world view is limited mostly to what has happened in their own lifetime and within their scope of vision. History, I suspect, is a vague mystery. Events in ages past are unknown and irrelevant. Walking a mile in another man’s moccasins; that is, to embed one’s imagination other cultures, lives, and times is an unlikely thing, maybe an impossible thing. If all of that has been compounded by a life that has not lived up to early hopes and dreams, if it has exploded or imploded, leaving one sitting in a pile of Job like ashes, this may indeed be the very worst of times.
My prejudice is to claim that arch conservatives are more guilty of this kind of thinking than others, but probably not. A good many of my liberal friends are equally infected. Moreover, I wonder if some of the radicals of the sixties and seventies have become the most ardent tea partiers of this decade. What complicates things a bit more are the dueling banjoes on radio and television who make their living inciting divisiveness and discord through manipulation of facts and rumors. People like that have always been around, but they have never had such instantaneous, easy, broad access to so many. Shoot, we used to rely on Satan as the big deceiver. He’s not only been demoted, he’s been put out of business. But I digress again.
Is it the worst of times? No, not from a historical perspective. But it is a violent time, a cruel time. Because we claim to be a just people, the injustices we experience and can see are more obvious. And our own complicity in them cannot be easily avoided. The myth that America could be an island of goodness, safety, and opportunity protected by oceans, above the morass of human failings elsewhere, has long been shattered. I can understand why the guy sitting next to me at the clinic wondered if it’s time for the Lord to come and straighten out this mess. I think he’ll wait and see if we can’t grow up and show a little more responsibility for our own actions.