I admit I’m thinking this through as I write. My thoughts are a bit raw, but here they are: I had counted on New Years Eve to hold back the new year. It was an artificial barrier, like all barriers, like walls that, even if built—of bricks, chicken wire, or the mind—don’t really hold anything back.
A more positive-sounding metaphor is “milestone.” We set them to signify change. Jerry’s back brace will come off in two weeks. This will be a welcome change. And here comes the new year. We’re two days into it now. We’ve taken down our old calendars, chosen between a National Wildlife or Nature Conservancy one for 2017. Jerry’s transferred over all the birthdays—children, grandchildren, sisters, brothers—to the new calendar with a red pen. And, we’re getting older, but not by calendar increments. It’s been happening since we were born.
Forgive me if there’s been no Christmas letter. Forgive me if there’ve been rare blogs. First of all, I’ve been struck speechless by the election. I read what so many others are writing and think, okay, I don’t know how to position myself. I am deeply worried and have no foothold. I’ve worried about that, too—the fact that I hardly know what to think or do. But then, when I keep looking, it’s very
Also, I’ve been spending a great deal of time (Note the implicit barrier-setting of the words “spending” and “time”), taking care of Jerry as he slowly recovers from his back surgery. We’re both hoping that after these three months, he’ll be able to put on his own socks and shoes, dress himself, drive himself. I’ve written very little lately. At least it feels that way. At least my routine, my artificial time-barriers, have been utterly disrupted. Tomorrow instead of sitting in my study, I must do the laundry, take Jerry to the ophthalmologist, take ornaments off the tree so I can stuff it into its box and take it to our storage unit for next year.
Every year at Christmas and New Years, the past ones come crowding in on me. It is hardly accurate to say that they’re gone, since they’re still so present. I wish they wouldn’t haunt me—sometimes I get depressed. A lot of people get depressed this time of year. Depression is another way of setting up barriers, as in, “I was depressed but now I’m not.” As if anything were that clear-cut. What seems more true, at least for me, is that there is a rotation of moods, feelings, and sometimes one feels more dominant. The mood of the country, the mood of our friends, right now—we often call it depressed, but I would say it’s more tentative than that. It’s poised, alert. Which is why I feel silent. Time to stay unsettled.
Which actually feels like a good way to live, in general. No, not “good way,” but the only authentic way. Not that it’s possible. I scramble for any foothold. Opinions are good footholds. So are actions. I do have opinions, and I do take action.
So, my aspiration for this year and for my life is to avoid flinging myself into opinions and actions. Sometimes I have to take the great risk of action when I don’t have all the facts (I’ll never have all the facts). And I may feel the need to act when I’m not absolutely sure what’s right (when will I ever be?).
As I said, I’m trying to think this through. Trying to get this clear in my own mind: surety is powerful. Our president-elect thinks he’s sure. Dictators take power by the sheer force of their certainty.
Standing up to that kind of surety requires equal surety, but I think it must be of a very different sort. It’s more like trust. But what I mean is that a dictator’s confidence comes from building reinforced-concrete barriers in his mind. Closing down. Seeing only what he wants to see. The force of opposition must come from keeping all senses open, keeping the mind open.
Years ago, I was deeply moved by Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic book, The Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran minister who staunchly resisted the Nazi dictatorship, was involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler, and was eventually hanged. Cost indeed. You can imagine how he must have hated the idea of murder. Yet he followed a lodestar he couldn’t entirely see, but trusted. (Don’t misunderstand me: this is an extreme example.)
It’s hard to resist tyranny when we keep our senses open, because we’re able to see some good in even the worst. We have to go forward with fear and trembling. We know we don’t see everything or know everything. I think we have to trust that the force of compassion, of true openness and—okay, let’s call it love—are working with us. Not “on our side”—the old battle cry of “God’s on our side”—but more like just plain “at work,” no matter what.
P.S. I’m reading Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance. It is an astoundingly helpful inside look at what’s happened to our country in the last few decades. I can’t recommend it highly enough.