The Time and Crises of Today
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
We’ve all been there – talking with friends, colleagues, family, and the subject turns to how good people had it before us. We wish we had this president again, or that time of goodwill. If only they hadn’t enacted this policy, or followed that one through! This sense of nostalgia at times seems like it wants to engulf us – we’re creatures of the present eternally rooted in the past. Yes, we undoubtedly have ties to the past – we are creatures of time and space, after all. But there’s something important and worthwhile about being grounded in the present.
In his book The Fractured Republic, Yuval Levin talks about our nation being stuck in an “age of nostalgia”. Levin writes:
“Our political life is now exceedingly nostalgic. The ambitions of most of its various partisans begin with calls for a reversal of some portion of the great diffusion of our national life that has defined the American experience for more than half a century. This nostalgia is at the core of the frustration that so overwhelms our politics now. If we could see our way past it, we might gain a much better grasp of the nature of the problems we face and the shape of potential solutions.”
Levin goes on to reflect that most of us are stuck in either a hope to return to the 1960s or 1980s, depending on our political persuasion. But both, he thinks, are not thoughts focused on the present. We’re in a completely new age and social paradigm, and what we’ve done before doesn’t set a precedent now; simply sending a letter to someone via snail mail would be considered a rude replacement for a phone or Skype call.
This doesn’t mean we ignore the past in some Hegelian blindness that sees only the present age as the “end times”. No! We have roots in the past, and learn from it – but it’s about taking those experiences and learning how to apply them to the present moment. In arguing for the new Constitution, the Federalists used examples from history to illustrate how they had learned from the past, reflecting on the failures of Sparta and other ancient Greek city-states to show how their new Republic would be different. It’s okay to miss the past and hope for the good that was – it’s often because of something good that we yearn for a past time at all. Levin writes “Nostalgia, after all, is by no means bad. And the analysts, scholars, journalists, and politicians who bemoan how things have changed in this half-century are pointing at some important truths about both the past and the present. We must be careful not to dismiss what they see, but also not to ignore what they miss…to learn from nostalgia, we must let it guide us not merely toward ‘the way we were’, but toward just what was good about what we miss, and why.” We don’t want to cut ourselves off from our forefathers because they had some truths about ourselves that we could learn. But it’s up to us to actually digest these things and then see how we can apply them to our present time. Why? Because our present time needs us very, very badly.
St. Josemaria Escriva once remarked that “These world crises are crises of saints. God wants a handful of men ‘of his own’ in every human activity. And then…’pax Christi in regno Christi – the peace of Christ in the kingdom of Christ’.” Two ideas can be pulled from this saying of his: that these crises require saints to face them; or, that these crises occur as a result of a lack of saints. Either way, it's easy to ponder what would have happened during the Cold War if Pope John Paul II had not helped topple the USSR? Or if Rudolph Hoess (commandant of Auschwitz) had decided to do better with himself? If we are indeed creatures of time and space, why aren’t we doing something to change the time and space we live in?
Ultimately, why should we care? Who cares if I’m holy, if I’m pursuing the true, the good, and the beautiful? Who cares if I pursue a relationship with Love or not? The famous economist Milton Friedman had a theory about an idea known as “the neighborhood effect.” This effect boiled down to the idea that when someone did something good, other people would indirectly benefit. Say for example you decide to invest in repairing your local soccer field so your kids have a place to shoot goals. You’re not doing this at face value for your neighborhood, but as a result of your hard work, the rest of the neighborhood can now enjoy playing soccer. The same goes for us if we pursue holiness in the times given us.
Don’t look for the next crisis. The next crisis is now, here, today. It starts with you, in smiling at that person who’s being a particular kind of something this morning. It starts with you being patient with that coworker who’s maybe taking longer to understand a concept that comes easily to you. It starts with you. Frodo was welcomed as great by those around him – yet he didn’t slay any mighty beast. He didn’t even throw the Ring into Mount Doom at the end. But he did persevere in his small steps, day after day. He persevered so that while he was unable to cast the One Ring into Mount Doom, someone else was (albeit on accident). Abraham Lincoln wasn’t born in the White House – he was born in a little log cabin in the middle of nowhere. He worked quietly, silently for many years, preparing. So don’t be let down if you’re not at the center yet. You will be one day – it may not be where or when you were expecting, but it will happen. The question is, will you have used the time given you well so as to be ready for the time then? What will you decide to do with the time given you?