A poem and a thought
I will start by saying that I do not like how politics has infiltrated every part of American life. Today, politics has a greater influence on day-to-day life than it ever has before except in truly totalitarian states. I think there are many reasons for this, but the two that come to mind are the oversized influence of federal policies on daily life, combined with the pervasive influence of social media. Basically, we spend every spare second surfing social media, which brings us the most extreme “takes” on federal policies over which we have no control. It all contributes to a sense of desperation and helplessness, fear, and eventually, anger.
It’s not supposed to be like this. I find myself thinking often of the rural Roman peasant of millennia past, for whom the chaos and bloodshed of the capital during the Triumvirates had only passing power over his thoughts. As smoke from rampant wildfires far to the north and west chokes the air around my house, I think of the Acoma Indians who, a thousand years ago, would have scented that smoke on the wind but would not have been pounded with images of evacuees, flames, burning houses… they would have known that something was happening, but until it came into their sphere of influence, they would not have been forced to be witnesses.
That is, I think, one of the great challenges of our time: that we are all constantly being forced to witness every evil, every fear, every danger, every crisis that plagues our planet.
That is, of course, a small exaggeration, but only a small one. In the past, we humans were only responsible for what came into our spheres. Our witness corresponded with a clear responsibility. It was not always clear what we were to do with what we witnessed. More than this, it was not always easy to live up to that responsibility. But there was, at the very least, a correspondence, a proximity with suffering that allowed us to make a choice about how to deal with what we witnessed.
Think of the rural peasants who saw the flames rising from Lindisfarne monastery as the Vikings swept down. There was terror, there was grief, there was uncertainty, there was the whole vast sweep of human emotion; and that emotion came in response to something happening right there before them. Their witness came with the choice for action: should they flee with their families before the coming horror? Stand and fight? Try to parlay? Assimilate, somehow, with the Viking hoard?
But think now of the peasants a thousand miles south. They had no knowledge of what was happening to the north. They did not have moment-by-moment photojournalism and smartphone videos of what was happening. The world was smaller—more dangerous, yes, but smaller. The dangers were tangible. The fear was concrete. The witness came with a call to action.
This is a bit rambling at this point, so I’ll wrap it up. But I believe this is a significant source of the burden of fear on our souls. We are asked to fear, commanded to fear, even told that there to not fear is a moral failing… yet usually, there is nothing we can do in response to that fear. We cannot even extend a hand and a cup of water to those immediately impacted by suffering and crisis, because they are thousands of miles away.
I think the only way to end this pre-election reflection is to say that we must find a way to bring our witness back into the sphere of our influence—our actual influence, not our perceived social media influence. In other words, we must find ways to embody our response, to bring it out of the realm of vague fear and give it hands and feet as well as ears and eyes. No matter what happens in November, a huge number of our neighbors, friends, coworkers, will continue to be swamped in anger and fear. We cannot wait for a solution from above to the overwhelming burden of our witness. We must convert it into action, every day, every minute, however we can.
Before November Third
Last night the wind tore down
the last leaves and in their place,
Overhead the last birds flee
south to escape. Soon,
it will be too late.
Some days masquerade
as a turning-point, but in truth
we rounded the corner long ago.
Quicksilver clouds fret
the night sky. Reflected, lights
bloom violet like a bruise.
Eventually, far to the south, birds
will fly north to escape
the cold. They know:
if we wait for a great victory
to drive away our fear,
we will always be afraid.