There is a melancholy to the world right now. I’ve been sensing it for some time, but it crystallized this morning when I was driving my son to camp and we had the radio on. BBC News was informing us in mellifluous London tones about the sum total of horror and death experienced on planet Earth in the last 24 hours. The boy was nervous about his first day and a story about three people burned alive in their house wasn’t helping matters. I switched to the classical station and made some comment about how, “you know, about 95-96% of all people everywhere are basically good, decent people going about their lives; dropping off their kids, going to work, coming home at the end of the day and eating dinner with their family. It’s not ‘newsworthy,’ but it’s important to remember that when you hear the bad stories.” He nodded and continued staring out the window in silence at the rain streaking past the glass. When we arrived at the camp, he perked up in the presence of other kids and jubilant counselors eager to get started on what promised to be an exciting week. The downpour outside would not dampen those moods. I was envious, but I had to leave; work awaited.
Humanity, ever the walking contradiction, is remarkable for the limitless reach of its imagination and its capability to accomplish jaw-dropping feats given enough drive and cooperation, tempered by an equal and sometimes overpowering capacity to shoot itself in the foot. Every time we think we’re finally on the right road, someone veers us back into the weeds and we take another couple of decades to dig ourselves out. Lately it seems that the foot-shooting faction has the loudest microphones (and the biggest guns, for that matter) and one is given to muse whether all those popular dystopian novels are merely prophetic. What do you do to get through the day and hope you’re never faced with the choice of whether you want to be Abnegation, Erudite or Dauntless, or with your kid representing your district in a fight to the death against other kids and holographic monsters?
Some trust in the unseen hand of a deity. But that is a path I strayed off a long time ago.
A child is not born believing anything (one could argue it is our most spiritually pure state, but one would prefer to save that lengthy discussion for another time); its exposure to religion comes entirely through the actions of its parents and family, whether enforced strictly – regular memorization and expected flawless recitation of critical verses under threat of withdrawal of dessert – or the more lackadaisical approach my clan used: remember to say grace at dinner and be sure your plaid clip-on tie is pressed for this Sunday’s service. (I did grow up in the late 70’s/early 80’s, after all.) I was, in point of fact, the rare sort who hated decamping to Sunday school mid-sermon to make paper cut-outs of Noah’s Ark when I preferred to stay to listen to what the pastor had to say, and looked forward to the day I could be exempt from the childish frivolities. I think it was more that I enjoyed the idea of not being confined to the kids’ table anymore. But I didn’t take any of what was being said to heart. At the risk of sounding like one of these literary rejection letters, the material simply wasn’t a good fit for me. Being smacked with a series of tough losses as I encroached upon and waded through my teenage years, increasingly inured me against what was being offered from the altar.
To make a potentially lengthy digression rather short, I have always had to find a different source of faith, a different path to spiritual realization. I’ve always felt a bit like a human Play-Doh set, you know the one where you shove a misshapen clump in the hole in the top, press on it with a plunger to push it through a mold, and out comes a star-shape or a crescent moon or what-have-you. I take in whatever’s available, run it through the dusty old processor upstairs and spit out some semblance of conclusion, and ninety-nine times out of a hundred it’s some variation of crap. It’s an answer, but not THE answer. It never adds up to 42.
Sometimes I wonder if there’s simply too much raw material being crammed into the Play-Doh hole (that sounds a lot filthier than it’s meant to). My wife and I were talking about this on the weekend – actually she did most of the talking since I’m a decent writer but a piss-poor conversationalist – about the value of simplifying and unplugging. FOMO makes you clench up at the first sounds of that, but then again, what is it that we’re fearing missing out on? Clickbait articles about celebrity breakups? Trending hashtags, affirmation-seeking selfies and endless navel-gazing ramblings about the nature of the universe? Um…
Anyway, the point, one supposes, is that letting yourself get overwhelmed by the noise means not appreciating the value of what is right there in front of you. One of the hardest things about success is accepting that it’s not what you think it is. Jealous hackles raised at somebody else’s million-dollar book deal obstruct the pride you should feel upon being presented with the crude pencil drawing your son just did for you. Slumped shoulders at the unaffordable month-long island getaway enjoyed by your more affluent acquaintances rob you of the serenity found in the chirping of the birds in your backyard. Ironically, moaning that everyone other than you is getting everything they’ve ever wanted in life is ignoring that some of those people are thinking the very same thing about you. More doesn’t mean better. Mo’ money mo’ problems, as a noted poet famously once said. What difference do all those externalities make once you’re done strutting and fretting your hour upon the stage?
The secret behind successful marketing is making you, the potential customer, feel terrible at what you don’t have. And we are all doing it to ourselves. Inadequacy is an emotion entirely self-imposed, and like interest, it compounds. Like a particularly insidious virus it begins to infect your worldview. You gravitate toward the morose; confirmation bias leads you to seek out only those stories that reaffirm this concept that the world is an irredeemably terrible place. Consequentially, your personality starts to change. Laughter certainly, but even smiles begin to grow rare, and what once moved you now leaves you stone and still. Something is missing, you feel, and you rush to fill the void with more stuff instead of stepping back, taking a breath and saying whoa, things being as they are, I actually have it pretty darn good. Till the day your friends and family question what ever happened to the vibrant sort you used to be – and you don’t have an answer for them. You kind of stand there, struck dumb, fumbling for a rationale that remains elusive. You can’t trace events from point A to point Z, you know only that it happened, and a lot of irreplaceable time was spent on a pointless journey into the ditch. You loaded the bullet, cocked the pistol, and fired into your foot over and over again, and now you can’t explain why it’s bleeding.
Where the idea of keeping faith enters the frame is learning, upon crawling up from that ditch, to find the value of holding faith in the faces and hearts of those who are closest to you. Because getting out of bed every day is itself an act of faith; a choice to take what comes at you instead of hiding under the covers. You wouldn’t do it at all if you didn’t know, innately, beneath the layers of insecurity and/or bravado, that you have got this. So do those 95-96% of people in the world who spend their days beneath the radar of the news, doing good, pushing humanity forward against the tide that seeks to roll us back into the sea of ignorance and stupidity. We will never hear about most of them – but we can keep faith that they are there, just as we can keep faith in the friends and family whose paths cross ours. And thank whatever god or goddess you believe in – or thank nothing at all, if that’s your preference – that they are. And learn to smile about it.
Maybe it’s not THE answer, maybe it’s not even the answer you wanted. For the moment, it answers enough. When I pick my son up later today, when he bounces into the car whooping and hollering about the amazing time he had, today’s act of faith will have been rewarded. I knew that he’d have a good time. Beneath his nerves, so did he. The storm shall indeed pass, the clouds will open, and the light will shine through. We will go on.