When the decades begin to pile up and the sand at the top of the hour glass seems to flee more quickly to the bottom, we often can’t help but look back over the paths we’ve walked. Sometimes that reflection brings a smile; often it doesn’t.
But here’s something that seems constant to those of us much closer to the end than the beginning: It seems as though tension, concern, unpleasantness — even violence — have been a part of our lives since we were old enough to be aware.
We remember the threat of the Cold War, the testing of the atomic bomb being carried live on NBC’s Today Show with Dave Garroway, drills that told us to take cover under our school desks, lest the Russian Bear come to call with bombs of his own.
In the midst of all that we add the alleged “missile gap,” which wasn’t real by the way, and the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr. Then there was the anti-Vietnam War violence in the streets, the civil rights rallies that turned into scenes of dog attacks, clubbing and water cannons.
Now we live in a time of conspiracy theories and school shootings; of official mendacity and alleged “fake news.” Suddenly despots and dictators are in favor with some in Washington and the words on the side of the Statue of Liberty have been all but rendered meaningless.
It’s enough to make a person despair.
There’s a song in a little-known Broadway musical called “The All-American,” which captures the melancholy and ennui that seem to come with the times. It says, in part:
“How the breeze ruffled up her hair,
How we always laughed as though tomorrow wasn’t there.
We were young and didn’t have a care.
Where did it go?
Once upon a time, the world was sweeter than we knew.
Everything was ours, how happy we were then.
But somehow once upon a time, never comes again.”
Here’s the thing, though: The song is wrong. Not necessarily wrong about the mood it captured — we’ve all experienced that kind of tortured remembrance. But it’s wrong about the future; wrong about a world “sweeter than we knew” never coming again.
How do we know? Jesus and his disciples have told us so. It’s written in The Word.
For instance, in a letter to the church in Corinth, St. Paul, aware that there was trouble and dissension brewing, reminded those early followers of God’s promise.
“Grace be unto you,” he wrote, “and peace, from our Father…”
And he wrote of problems that can be applied not just to followers of Christ, but to our society as a whole. He pleaded with them for comity, for decorum even as they considered their differences.
“Now I beseech you, brethren, that you all speak the same thing and that there be no divisions among you.”
Granted that given the noise and clatter of differences we hear and read about daily that last part might seem impossible, but we know — if we were attentive to recent Sunday readings, that it’s not. We know that the true peace we should all seek comes from God. It’s a promise; a gift.
It may be that warring factions across the face of the globe will never come to terms with one another. It may also be that Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals might never find common ground — though there’s plenty to be had.
Yet we can find peace with one another from the lessons offered in the Bible. We can disagree without malice or hatred; we can debate rather than argue. We can shake hands rather than exchange unpleasant salutes.
And in the midst of all of this, in our efforts to find the elusive peace we all seek in one way or another, we can practice what has been preached to us from the time Jesus walked the earth to now. It all sounds so simple, yet we’ve made it as complicated as a calculus textbook — written in Mandarin.
Those of us counting the grains of sand should also realize that what lies ahead might be cause for contemplation, but not consternation. Mark Twain once wrote that the most valuable thing a person can possess is their last breath — and it’s true that considering the end of our time on earth comes, for most, with a bit of uncertainty and trepidation. But perhaps it shouldn’t.
Songwriter Jackson Browne writes mostly about life’s sad situations, lost love and lost loved ones. Just can’t help himself, he admits. And when it comes to the end of life, Browne also admits to his own case of confusion:
“Don’t know what happens when people die;
Can’t seem to grasp it as hard as I try.
It’s like a song I can hear playing right in my ear
That I can’t sing, but I can’t help listening.”
It just might be that he’s been looking for help in the wrong places. For despite all the turmoil, meanness and disharmony that surrounds us, if we turn to what Jesus told us, we can’t help but feel better about things. Follow me, he said, and I will give you peace. Love one another and you’ll come to know life everlasting.
We should all take hope and comfort from that.
Record Editor Emeritus