Thursday, December 24, 2009

The best things

Cassandra has written an amazing post, rich with themes to be explored. She writes of the political and the cultural and she is concerned but hopeful. Not so two of those she links: Vanderleun talks of national diminishment; InstaPunk talks of despair, of an existential crisis. The distress of both those writers is driven by politics in general, by Obama in particular.

Yet, at this moment in my life, I read Cassandra’s words not as a call for political solutions but as a reminder of the need for private virtue independent of what our government or our neighbors are doing. Cassandra writes:

What if the malaise that seems to have taken hold of America is not the disease itself but the cure for what ails us?

If we are able to turn this malaise into a cure, to grow larger than Vanderleun’s smallness, to replace Instapunk’s crisis with opportunity, it will not be because we elect a different President or Congressman or Governor; because we successfully pass a particular piece of legislation or successfully thwart it; because we write the perfect editorial or post; because we make the most cogent argument. If we as a nation are able to regain our energy, our surefootedness, our faith in our ability - and our desire - to “continue improving our lot”, to “leave the world a better place than we found it” we will do so based not on what we do in the political realm but on what we do as individuals, how we each live our lives.

Twenty-one years ago, I read an essay in Time magazine. I tore it out and it has traveled with me ever since. The entire essay is worth reading; written by Alan Paton, the author of Cry, the Beloved Country, it pays homage to the power and beauty of words. But despite my own love of words that’s not why I treasured it.

I’m not particularly religious; I’m not even sure I’m particularly spiritual - whatever that means. And yet one of the quotations from Paton’s essay resonated so strongly that it has lived on my bulletin board for all these years, transcribed by me in fading purple ink on fading purple paper. Its impact has never diminished and it remains for me a remarkable description of courage and faith:

In the year 1652 when throughout England all things sacred were either profaned or neglected, this church was built by Sir Robert Shirley, Bart., Whose special praise it is to have done the best things in the worst times and to have hoped them in the most calamitous.

Merry Christmas.