Good News, Everyone!
The World as We Know It Ended Six Months Ago, and We’re Still Here
The west coast is on fire. Two-hundred-thousand Americans are dead from the pandemic. The economy is in tatters. And the president keeps openly talking about remaining in office indefinitely. If you, like me, spent any time at all in the back-half of the twentieth century, it feels like the world is en route to ending. But fear not! It ended six months ago, and yet, we’re still here.
I don’t mean to be flippant (well, perhaps a little). We’ve endured and are continuing to endure what feels like close to five solid years of nightmares that started back in the middle of March. A photo shared around the internet last week offered a pretty accurate snapshot of the state of things: a baseball game played by men wearing face masks under a blazing orange sky in a stadium full of cardboard cutouts. It was a bewildering thing to see, all the more so for how unsurprising it was compared to how we would have reacted to such an image back in, say, November of 2019. We’ve been desensitized — one might even say immunized — to the effects of the apocalyptically absurd.
These things, together, paint a picture of a world gone mad. And to a degree, it has. But that was to be expected, and we were always misleading ourselves by not doing so, because nothing, literally nothing, lasts forever. The illusions of control and permanence have always been just that: illusions. All that arises passes away. But I think we can, and should, and must, face this reality with not only optimism, hope, and sober-mindedness, but with pure, unspoiled excitement. The world as we knew it really did end in March, and what we’re living through now is the new one being born. Embrace that.
I used to read history books with no small degree of jealousy at people who got to live in these formative moments in time where revolutions large and small give shape to unimagined futures because they got to shape those futures. Think back to 1776, or to 1918 and 1945, or to 1989. Those days swelled with energy and potential and wild experiments; the United States, for example, or the United Nations, or the troubled rise of democracy in eastern Europe. In each one, the simple reality that the old world could not and would not continue forced radical change. And if you had any doubt that there was no going back, I would only point you to the massive institutional failure on the part of what we once called “the indispensable nation” in the face of a pandemic that has already claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. The United States, for seventy years, stood astride the whole world as the beacon of prosperity, safety, security, and democracy, a reputation that held fast both domestically and in international politics. But those days are done. That world has changed.
Which means we’re looking at something new, untested, and unknown. America no longer sets the terms for the world, and even within our own borders, Americans can no longer feel safe traveling from state-to-state. Whatever happens next is going to be a reaction to the flowering of long-simmering crises best summed up as the collapse of institutional trust. But that means new institutions are waiting to be born. New customs, new norms, a new status quo that we, here and now, get to help define for ourselves and for future generations. The times have found us, and we will meet them.
Think about what’s in flux for the first time in decades in American politics and culture, if not for the first time ever: what is America’s role on the world stage? Does our constitution still work? Do we need the police in the roles we’ve given them or different ones? Is healthcare a right during a pandemic? Do Americans deserve a form of universal basic income? What must we make of our history? How do we make sure all Americans, and especially Black Americans, have a seat at the table? What about gender? What makes a man a man and a woman a woman? What do we expect of our neighbors? What should we expect from ourselves? What is the basic dignity of work? Will the Union survive our political cleavages? Can it? Does it even deserve to?
These questions ought to excite and energize you, because they’ve needed asking for a long time, and in this moment, we get to answer them. We get to build a future where those disputes, for better or worse, are settled, at least for a while, and each of us — yes, you! — have a role to play. The flipside to the end of the world is the simple fact that it stubbornly refuses to stop spinning. In his Metamorphoses, classical poet Ovid wrote, “omnia mutantur nihil interit;” everything changes, nothing dies.
Here in these seemingly apocalyptic like days, I’m asking that you remember that, let it settle in your mind. The world comes and goes, never ending, constantly churning, each us with a small part to play. Face your days knowing that now, more than ever, we have the power to change it. Don’t fear the end of the world as we once knew it; it’s already done and gone, and nothing we can do will bring yesterday or that old world back. We’re changing. And for the better is very possible.
Instead, look! Do you see it off in the distance? A flash of light from over the horizon, with faint pink streaks in the sky? Fix your eyes there once you find it, and don’t waver.
Life goes on. The sun is rising.