The past half-dozen years have been nuts—and have driven a lot of otherwise normal, good-hearted folks nuts.
We started off in 2016 by electing Donald Trump president of the United States, which touched off four years’ worth of paroxysms of fury, hysteria and just plain lunacy in Washington, among the media and from millions of disenfranchised Americans on both sides of the political divide. The whole experience was surreal at every level.
But President Trump was only the beginning.
We also got the worst pandemic in 100 years, made worse by the mutual mistrust and rivalry of our two political parties—not to mention an endless succession of virus variants. We got the #MeToo movement. We got the killings of Black people by cops and the sometimes violent demonstrations that followed. We got a climate that seemed to devolve by the month. We gave up in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Now we’ve got runaway gas prices, a freefalling stock market, the highest inflation in decades, constant mass shootings, a war in Europe, a U.S. Supreme Court that’s turning everything upside down and the January 6 hearings.
If you’re like me, you’ve come to dread checking the news feed on your phone when you wake up—and yet find yourself unable to stop checking it every 10 minutes the rest of the day, thinking, “Good grief, what’ll happen next?”
Fortunately, I was trained early in life for surviving an era such as this.
I grew up glued to the television in the 1960s and ‘70s.
Here’s what I witnessed during my childhood and adolescence: the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which the whole planet was nearly blown to smithereens; the assassination of JFK; bloody Sunday at the Edmund Pettus Bridge; urban riots; mass demonstrations against Vietnam; the assassination of RFK; the assassination of MLK; the Pentagon Papers; Watergate; the ignominious retreat from Vietnam.
That’s the short list. If our current moment is bad, and it is, that era was worse.
In fact, we’ve gone through extreme cycles over and again in our nation’s history. For my parents it was the Great Depression, followed by World War II, followed by the Cold War.
Like many others, I keep trying to make sense of our current crises, though, hoping to navigate my way through. Here are a few tentative observations about times such as these:
First, even when the stakes are real and genuinely high, as they are now, the worst outcomes rarely happen. The Cuban Missile Crisis didn’t touch off Armageddon. Trump didn’t overthrow democracy. Dry and hot as the Earth is, it hasn’t erupted into a fireball—yet.
Again, this isn’t to diminish the dangers we’ve faced in the past or face now, but to remember that we seem to have a knack for escaping most cataclysms. The odds probably are in our favor this time, too. So don’t panic. Keep walking forward.
Second, cycles are cyclical. As I’ve repeated way too often here, the good times don’t last, but the bad times don’t last, either.
I feel almost fortunate to remember skyrocketing gasoline prices, gas shortages and stratospheric inflation in the 1970s. They seemed so scary. Then they gradually went away. Until the next time. Bad things happen, then good things happen. Then bad things happen, then good things happen. Sooner or later life improves. Until it gets worse.
Third, as someone else said, crises don’t forge character so much as they reveal it. We find out who we really are during difficult times far more than we do during easy times. It’s no problem to be optimistic, peaceable, honest, reasonable and merciful when everything is going dandy.
The challenge is to exhibit those virtues when the economy is swirling down the drain, a new COVID-19 variant is surging and your half-baked brother-in-law is dressed in militia fatigues, toting an AR-15 around his front yard and shouting threats against the government.
Today might be your chance to decide to not be overcome by evil, as St. Paul said, but to overcome evil with goodness. Let the best that’s in you rise to the forefront.
Fourth, whatever its faults, faith is a bulwark. A young Jewish woman I knew long ago told me nihilism is the easy way out—it’s faith that takes guts. Amen.
Faith is worth the effort. In difficult periods, it helps us find meaning amid chaos. It tells us life consists of more than the Dow Jones Industrial Average or the latest political poll or the tirades of Vladimir Putin.
It comforts us. It assures us that someone greater is still in charge, despite the dark circumstances. It tells us that if the worst does actually happen this time, we still have a future and eons of better times to come.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You can email him at email@example.com.