Sign of the times: My news-addled friends, the ones who used to read three papers a day, have begun tuning out. I’m thinking of two in particular who, over their long careers, contributed deeply to our common wealth. One now says that, if he were starting out, he wouldn’t have kids because the world’s irreparably broken. Just as discouraged, the other is grateful to be living now as opposed to fifty years from now when the apocalypse will be in full swing.
Some researchers suggest that what my friends are calling the worst of times may, in fact, be the best. As compared to living in the twelfth century, those of us alive today face fewer wars and less poverty, and enjoy more food and social mobility. So ease up, gloom-and-doomsayers! Keep your angst in perspective.
Still, my friends deserve an answer. Given the climate crisis, they ask, given endemic COVID, a broken Republic, and a global slide to autocracy, how are we to find and maintain the strength to help in a world so intent on destroying itself? All I can think to say is, Don’t give up. Act as if the world is perfectible even if it isn’t. Act as if, at worst, you’ll help someone. Act as if you might inspire others.
An as if ethos?
I tried it out myself, starting (very) small. Last week, one of my sons called after a recent visit to ask if I’d seen his daughter’s boots. I searched but couldn’t find them. Two weeks later, my wife thought to check the busy playground where we’d taken our granddaughter and there, sitting neatly aligned at the corner of a picnic table, were the boots.
I would have enjoyed thanking every one of the parents who saw those boots and didn’t take them. I imagined our sitting down to chat—but, after a few boot-related pleasantries, about what? I live in a politically diverse town and, for certain, among these good people are some whose beliefs about, say, vaccination diametrically oppose mine. At town hall, they and I might argue with real heat along depressingly familiar political lines. But with a difference: there would always be, at the back of our minds, the knowledge that no one took the boots.
I’d be willing to bet there’s a great deal more we could agree on than not going home with boots we didn’t buy: the welfare of our kids, for starters, or food security. Who knows? If I played the As If game seriously enough and assumed we all wanted to do the right thing (they demonstrated they did, after all), I might discover that we share a broad range of core values.
An As If ethos could never pass the naiveté test. When kitchen talk gets hot, well-intentioned conversations collapse. How does one enter respectful dialogue over crises like climate change, when getting the facts wrong may doom the planet? Ditto, voting rights. Should we assume good faith all the way to the cemetery, where our enemies would bury us? Of course not. Naiveté can be the death of any and every good intention, yet this might be a moment in which naiveté can also inspire. When nothing else seems to be working, how about a little good-faith talk?
For inspiration, we might turn to the greatest deliberative body in the world, the United States Senate.
I don’t know if I’m after something large or small in wanting to find a middle ground between screaming at people who disagree with me and not talking with them at all as I spend money to defeat their elected leaders at the ballot box. I do know, if we’re to step back from the abyss of an actual civil war, we must lose the mutual rage and distrust — and talk.
We’d continue to argue, because that’s what citizens of a democracy do. But beneath every exchange, would it not be radical in these times to assume that our interlocutors are fundamentally decent people who deserve to be heard and responded to with respect? Following an As If ethos, perhaps we could lose some of the vitriol. Perhaps real conversations would break out.
My friends who’ve said no mas are gifted, generous citizens. We need them. We also need the many thousands like them who are losing confidence that, as Bill Clinton said, “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured with what is right in America.” I hope my friends can find their way back to belief even if belief entails, for a moment, wishful thinking. We bear children and persevere through difficult, even ugly times, not because this nation is a paradise but precisely because it is not — because it falls to all of us to act as if it could be and, through our work, to make it so.
Copyright © 2022 Leonard Rosen
Leonard Rosen is essayist and an award-winning novelist whose work has been translated into nine languages. After teaching high-school English in Baltimore City for several years, Len pursued a graduate degree in literary studies. He now lives in the Boston area where he has contributed radio commentaries to Boston’s NPR station, written best-selling textbooks on writing, and taught writing at Harvard University. His “deeply compelling” Henri Poincaré novels, The Tenth Witness and All Cry Chaos, follow the investigations of an Interpol agent “who reads like a literary figure in a thriller,” according to critics. The Kortelisy Escape, Len’s third novel, grew out of a fascination with stage magic.