The image above captures Blaise Pascal’s ( 1623-1662) scribblings made during his ‘night of fire’ when he converted to Christianity. He writes,


Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace.

Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy

During our morning walk last week Lynda told me she felt anxious, worried, distressed. When I asked her to help me understand what was going on, she elaborated.

“So many things feel precarious and on such a huge scale.”

This wasn’t anxiety over workplace dramas or family matters. This was a sort of grand anxiety that almost seemed to dwarf the personal worries that keep so many of us up at night. What she described was the inescapable anxiety arising from merely being within earshot of the daily news. The war in Ukraine; the threat of using strategic nuclear weapons by Russia; the intractability of inflation, and the stick in the eye from the OPEC Plus Cartel promising to reduce not increase oil production. Then there is the madness of our political divisions and the normalization of lies as a legitimate strategy to win elections. The acceptance of racist language to pump up crowds at political rallies. Threatened violence against those whose opinions differ from your own. The unanticipated quickening pace of the real-life destructive impacts from climate change. There was no disputing her anxiety was justified. As we continued on, Lynda wondered, “Do you think our parents felt burdened by this sort of anxiety or that this is unique to our time?”  

“Well, there was the Second World War”, I suggested. Both our parents’ attitudes and beliefs were shaped quite dramatically by the depression and the impacts of the Second World War.

She shrugged, adding, “Yeah, I suppose that’s true.” Her manner suggested she was prepared to accept the unsatisfying bromide that each time has its own troubles; that in the overall scheme of things, today’s problems are not unlike those each generation must attempt to balance against the broader scope of history. My mentioning WWII was not intended to end the discussion, because as I considered the comparison, it felt woefully inaccurate. Born six years after the end of WW II, my childhood was filled with stories of what life was like during the war. While its influence was pervasive, my impression was and is what people felt then was entirely different and less insidious than the emotional discomfort that plagues us today. So, before Lynda and I dismissed the topic I backed away from my WWII remark.

“What’s happening now is different, I think. In some ways, maybe it’s worse.” This was not an effort to romanticize the war years or minimize the worries that must have preoccupied American’s thoughts. There is nothing romantic about war and, of course anxiety levels ran high.

But wasn’t there something uniquely different between life in this country during the Second World War as opposed to life as we live it now?

When our country was dragged into the war a common cause united people in a powerful manner. Throughout the war, the vast majority of Americans were unified by a common purpose, a common caused which buoyed people’s spirits. So many willingly sacrificed even the most basic things because their sacrifices were for a greater and shared purpose. This common cause or shared purpose helped create greater resilience, less self-pity, a ‘can do’ spirit and a strong sense of interconnectedness that shaped what some have called “the greatest generation”. Why this is so may be due in part to the absence of television, internet, and social media, so news (especially bad news) circulated at a much slower pace perhaps allowing one to digest smaller amounts in more manageable ways. One didn’t sit down to dinner confronted by the images of war casualties in living color as we did during the Vietnam War. Even so, limited access to information did not wholly stifle division.  In the run-up to the war, Charles Lindbergh, who was lionized for his transatlantic solo flight founded the “America First” movement long before Donald Trump and aggressively campaigned to keep America out of the war. Popular nationalists who were blatantly sympathetic to the Nazi cause such as the ultra-popular Catholic “radio priest”, Father Charles Coughlin had thirty million listeners tune into his weekly show. In spite of sizable differences, once attacked, the country was united by a common cause. Importantly, it was also a cause people understood. It was not vague or nuanced. It was simple and blunt akin to the common cause embraced by Ukrainians today. People are more likely to set aside personal (or selfish) ambitions, make sacrifices, and even endure intense stress and suffering if they understand and believe in the cause the higher purpose they are collectively defending. I have mentioned Viktor Frankl before who formulated what he called existential psychotherapy while a prisoner in Auschwitz. He posited that many of his fellow prisoners were overcome by despair and gave up on the fight to survive because they had no cause to live for. Frankl came to believe that he must survive for the sake of his family from whom he had been separated. This, he believed, offered him a measure of protection from the despair that consumes us when we feel our struggle, anxiety, suffering is without reason or purpose.

It is hard to miss the absence of a common purpose widely shared among the American people today. Suggesting we have devolved into a collection of tribes, each with its own unifying cause has become popular. Why this is occurring, is hard to say but one might account for growing division by considering how we shape and re-shape our common cause. Most of us learned that common cause is shaped through consensus. It is a process, and as a process, building consensus necessarily takes time, persuasive powers, deal making, compromises, and thoughtful discourse. Consensus building is foundational to democracy. But the lessons of history and our own experience teach us that because consensus building is time consuming, burdensome, and often strains patience, it is becoming increasingly viewed as inefficient and even a waste of time. It often gets little more than a symbolic nod in decision-making processes when the outcome involves high stakes. We are more interested in outcomes than processes, ends not means. The consequence of this has been to create a faux consensus-building process designed to generate the outcomes desired by the powerful. Whoever controls the process, controls the outcome. This being the case, it is no surprise to watch the attempts to seize control of a key tool for identifying consensus- election processes. In politics, as in so many arenas, power is derived from possessing the resources to seize control of the processes from which are derived a common purpose. The amount of money spent to create the illusion of consensus has become gargantuan.

No wonder so many are concerned! No wonder so many are anxious and worried about the current state of affairs. We may look at it all with a nostalgic eye seeking the restoration of genuine consensus building, but “how” we do this seems to elude most everyone. We can’t get the Genie back into the bottle…the toothpaste back into the tube. Going back is no solution but imagining a path forward is either naïve or truly fraught.

Finally, we should be clear-headed about what it takes to change people or institutions deeply entrenched in the status quo. Radical change rarely comes about through reasoned dialogue, passive proposals, or sudden enlightenment. No. Real change- the kind that emerges from a genuinely new understanding of “the way things are” comes about more dramatically. The Greek word metanoia which literally means “to turn around” has long been associated with dramatic change and may be useful here. It is often used in the context of describing a conversion experience of the sort that St. Paul is said to have had on the road to Damascus. But the term metanoia is also used to describe a psychotic collapse and subsequent healing. Both of these definitions capture the dramatic features of a real change of heart. Metanoia occurs when you arrive at a Dead-End sign on the road you just knew was the right path for you. It happens when a stick is slipped into the spokes of your bicycle as you were cruising toward a misguided goal. It is as people often describe it, “being brought to your knees”. I appreciate that none of this sounds like good news. But in the humility engendered by the experience of being brought low, we may be compelled to explore how to do things in a new way. In the darkness of discovering we are without an answer, a gimmick, a big chunk of cash, a trick, a slick speech, a believable promise… in the darkness of having run out of options emerges the potential for something new.

So long as our common cause is defined by others who failed to perform the burdensome task of actually building consensus, such cause cannot be commonly possessed. History reminds us that the arrogance displayed by those whose cause is not commonly held but imposed upon us will ultimately lead to a bad ending. Who knows what that bad ending will look like and how we may be impacted. In the meantime, what remains essential is to hold fast to the belief that endings- even bad ones- may finally create room for new beginnings.


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