It’s difficult to articulate, much less to narrate the sense of loss those of us in distant places are feeling watching America’s epic struggle. I am, and have been for some time the King of Lost Places – a reign made infinitely easier by the knowledge that I and mine are only one ‘extraction’ flight away from home and safety. Jihadi bombs, Ebola quarantines, malaria and hunger – all abandoned and quickly replaced by Arby’s curly fries; Makuto’s Island where my little boy can run up and down a massive indoor play-tree; climbing the morning trails of South Mountain in the search for the mysterious jackelope. Shopping the beach-front stores of Laguna Beach; walking through Dollywood set upon the spine of an ancient ridge. Lobster and beer in South Beach; a hearty stew in the tavern where George Washington was wont to feast. To watch these days the images of bare shelves, field hospitals and unemployment lines is not something for which I was prepared.
It is not, however, something that should surprise us.
“Pride goeth before a fall,” the Bible says. Oh, yes, the Bible. Perhaps there are those who will re-read it, in their lock-down. I’m willing even to gift a #kindle copy for those interested. For we who never put it down, considering often that 4000 year old book for its epic poems and storied wisdom, it does offer some reassurances. Only last night I was reading to my little boy, as I do every night. First Lord of the Rings, to fill him with a sense of wonder, of the epic struggle of good against evil and the overpowering weight that evil has on the imaginations of men which, though this is true even now, makes the evil that much more vulnerable. And then the Bible, for he must also know the ‘deep magic’, it will make him wise and that wisdom will make him strong and resilient. “Power is best wielded with an open hand, little boy,” I told him last night. “Those who clutch at it white-knuckled are going to be very surprised in the end.” The story was about King David. “But why?” he asked. “Ah, because there is a God. And those who think they are strong will also eventually become dust. Ashes that drift away in the wind. But the soul – that part of you that makes you you, will stand before God and be asked to explain what you did with your short time here on this little orb circling the sun. Chances are those who seek power won’t have anything very good to say.” Heaven or hell – Minas Tirith’s storied halls or the dungeons beneath Barad-Dur. Those are the options, though in the heady days of hubris it is easy to forget.
But life always finds a way of reminding us of such considerations. For those of us from the lost places, confronted every day with death, it is not something that comes as a surprise. For the wealthy and powerful, it is however a startling realization. The shock that their Instagram accounts will not protect them; nor will their coveted ‘influencer’ status save them from the bug. The realization that the type of mayhem into which the world has been plunged does not discriminate between the rich and the poor, the stable and unstable. It does, however, between the foolish and the wise – the good and the wicked. The kind, and the hateful. So which have we been, we who have been blessed with so great a bounty that we made ourselves miserable with it? Who, believing recklessly in our own hubris that the ‘end of the world’ was ours – like unwitting occupants of our own ‘Matrix’ – could not accustom ourselves to our world without want, and we manufactured our own misery. We who fought over politics, because politics is about who holds the club – and who can resist a club as large as ours had become?
But did those who fought for power deserve it? I think the answer is quite obvious. Because decisions matter; experience matters; knowledge matters – wisdom matters. That comes into stark relief when dealing not with murky debates on intersectionality, studying grievance from the pristine immaculate safety of spaces. How many genders are there really? Could socialism be finally made to work? Which statue should we topple today? How do we best distribute that great bounty stolen from others? All these questions, rendered silly by the existential question, “Do we mitigate or do we contain? Do we try to arrive at herd-immunity or should we isolate and try to extinguish? How much of our economy do we sacrifice for the sick?”
Our society is singularly unprepared for these, the real discussions of the human condition. Our politicians investigating phantom conspiracies. Our media, so accustomed to hate and hyperbole that they cannot find their way to real news though they have been at last handed an epic story by fate or the gods. Observe, take risks, find out what is happening and present it out to let those who must make decisions do so? No, they cannot be trusted with so great a commission, can they? Easier to keep disemboweling our public trust – let’s just look for ratings, and live-streaming a pandemic? – nothing is like that! Is this disease even as bad as those who seek power pretend? What about the gutting of our rights, our constitution? Have the options for containment been heard? What is the role of the church? How can we safely get involved? Is it not the independent man’s role to stand and say “Hold on, let’s think about this!” – instead of running headlong following each other over the cliff? And is that debate not the sole job of the ‘news’?
Perish the thought.
All that said, I do think there is a silver lining around a storm so great as this. Death; when we are confronted with our own mortality as we look at the door handle or listen to the sneeze, it makes us think about what comes after. And that is a good thing to consider; for it centers us. And a national fight, that involves all of us, where we are all beneficiaries of the victory, might break us of the terrible downward spiral in which we had become caught. Because when this is done, one way or the other in a few weeks or months, we will need to rebuild – and we will now better remember Makuto’s Island and Arby’s with curly fries, and think “It really wasn’t so bad, before the mayhem, was it? I wonder what it was we were so angry about?”