Something Old, Nothing New

I often wonder whether, as sometimes seems obvious, we live in truly horrible times, times unlike any others ever seen. The worst of times. The absolute worst. Or I wonder (and, admittedly, this is a real possibility) if that kind of thinking is just the grumpy old bastard in me raising his bumpy old head.

I wonder if everything is as End of Days disastrous as we so feverishly work ourselves up to believe — Vladimir V. Putin, poverty, war, refugees, the entire GOP, inflation, Joe Biden’s speech pattern, billionaire business tycoons taking over, gun violence, Congress, AOC, disappearing rain forests, Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court, defunding the police, Afghanistan, red states, blue states, swing states, Mitch McfreakingConnell, Ron De damn Santis, allergies, the crabgrass in my front lawn, Netflix movies, my putting stroke, young people, traffic, traffic circles, people in traffic circles — or whether all that’s always been a little wack and the only ones who whine that “things are worse than they’ve ever been” are those over 40. Which probably always has been the case, too.

It’s an important consideration, I think, because if all is not lost, if this is just another pratfall in a predictably human stumble and not the EoDs, it’d probably help if everyone stops for a second, takes a collective inhale and lets it out, slowly. If, of course, all that breathing doesn’t contribute to global warming. Which seems to be the worst that it’s ever been, too.

Here’s an example: For years now, we’ve heard about the Death of Democracy. Some take aim at the rise of Donald Trump as the beginning of the demise of our republic. Others blame Barack Obama, the guy before Trump, the one who (Trumpers and the like say) threw a big ol’ honking wrench into race relations in this country and pushed our ever-tenuous union toward a point of no coming back.

Whatever, whenever, whoever’s fault it is, it seems that red vs. blue, North vs. South, rural vs. city, working stiffs vs. the elite, rich vs. poor, West vs. East, mask vs. no masks, strongman vs. the people, God fearing vs. “Whose God?” is now the state of the union, and it’s all at a tipping point. One — you know how this goes — that many say we’ve never faced before.

“In these times as in times before, it is true that a house divided against itself by the spirit of faction, of party, of region, of religion, of race, is a house that cannot stand,” the president said the other day in a prepared speech. “There is division in the American house now. There is divisiveness among us all tonight … So, I would ask all Americans, whatever their personal interests or concern, to guard against divisiveness and all of its ugly consequences.”

The president there is Lyndon Baines Johnson. The other day was March 31, 1968. More than half a century ago.

Truth is, we’ve always had bad guys and we always will. We’ll always suffer at the hands of those who seek to bend us to their will in order to achieve selfish and sometimes evil goals. The stubborn, blind, and stupid will always be among us, often following the loudest in the room. Thankfully, if not often painfully, we’ll always have someone loud on the other side, bringing us to some shaky stasis.

It’s dangerous, admittedly, to recognize this simple fact. Some say it’s naive and foolish. If you dismiss the bad players out there (say, your politician of choice, or that loudmouth neighbor of yours) as simply more in a long line of bad players, you threaten to minimize what they’re doing. If you dismiss any current threat as hyperbole … well, that’s what the bad guys want, right? That’s when they win.

Putin is a bad guy, after all. We are destroying our planet. Democracy is taking it on the chin right now. People sure as heck can’t drive.

But worst ever? Are we headed toward a stock market crash? Another Great Depression? A return to bread lines and dictators? Nuclear war? Fascism? Armageddon?

Everyone diving into traffic circles without even looking?

Maybe. But, again: In, out. In, out.

Complacency, yes, is dangerous. Apathy is even worse. I’m not saying we should be either. That would throw off the whole balance thing. Every bad guy needs a good guy for this to work.

But getting too frantic, as we all seem to do from time to time, is no good either. This juggling act, whether you’re talking about democracy or that guy stopped in front of you at the entrance of the traffic circle even though he just had a chance to get in there, takes patience. A little understanding. A little — I hate to say it, because it’s something that’s come to be associated with weakness — a little compromise.

I’ve been thinking about this for some time, as the bad news continues to pound at me daily. What has happened to coming together to solve the big problems? In a world of grays, why do so many people, it seems, see everything as so black and white, so unforgiving? Has it always been that way? Can we do anything about it? What is to come of us if we don’t?

I don’t have an answer. I don’t know where to find it. I don’t know where to begin.

The journalist and professor Frank Bruni, a longtime New York Times opinion writer, has this suggestion. “In our political fights, in our personal lives, all of us should ponder and factor in the limits of our understanding. All of us should accept that the world doesn’t exist to mirror our preferences or validate our prejudices. It’s richer for that,” he writes. “And peace depends on such acceptance.”

Things are bad now, sure. Sometimes, they seem hopeless. Maybe what so many of us see is true: Maybe this is the worst of times. Who knows? We all like to think that utopia is in the direction that we’re pointing, just around the bend. But as humans, as loose families spread all over the place with competing dreams and desires, we tend to point in different directions. If utopia is up around the bend, dystopia is that dangerous intersection just before that curve. After the traffic circle.

“The world has been abnormal for so long that we’ve forgotten what it’s like to live in a peaceful and reasonable climate,” the author Madeleine L’Engle wrote … in 1978. “If there is to be any peace and reason, we have to create it in our own hearts and homes.”

Peace and reason? Hearts and homes? Sounds like the bleatings of another crazed left-winger.

It also sounds like the perfect place to start.

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