I've been thinking about the state of the world more than usual because I'm sending our 18-year-old out there. A world in political, economic, spiritual and environmental turmoil. When I was 18, I had high hopes that I could help make the world a better place. The fact that the world is in such a mess isn't all my fault, of course. But dang it--I wish my sons were inheriting better circumstances.
Get over it, some might say. The world is always in a mess. It's a ruthless old place, and our kids better be prepared to deal with it. The prescription: grab up as many resources as you can to keep you and yours safe. That looks like driving around town in a Humvee, living in a gated community, attending a megachurch and sending your kids to private school, or better yet, homeschooling them.
My idealism has waned and waxed. As I've faced personal and professional challenges, I might have been convinced that yes, indeed, the world is a tough place and I'd better put up my dukes. But along the way I've also happened onto more than my fair share of truth and beauty: the births of my babies, the outpouring of sunshine, birdsong, the kindness of strangers, rain in the desert, the blazing beauty of trees in autumn, the bounty of summer vegetable gardens, the shy presence of deer, startling displays of talent, and the healing of disease.
I'm going to share a secret for preserving hope in a world with a serious shortage of the stuff: I'm always on the lookout for more of this sweetness, the kind no man makes, that is there for us as surely as dew on the lilies of the field. An outpouring that usually appears at those moments when we most expect it.
In the 80s I worked in the prep room of the Swan/Heavenly Goose Restaurant in downtown Santa Cruz (later leveled by the 1989 earthquake). I was chopping vegetables below a barred window facing onto Front Street. Front Street was a rough place by Santa Cruz standards, and nearly all the businesses along there had installed bars on their windows. A transient walking by stopped to stare at me.
"Lady," he said, "you're in prison."
I was too stunned to speak, so it was up to my co-worker to respond. Franco had more life experience, and it didn't hurt that he'd grown up in Brooklyn.
"Hey, pal," he said, waving his cleaver, "the bars work both ways."
No doubt Franco would have said he was just a street-smart guy chasing off the riff raff. His words have stuck with me because, like Springsteen's in my previous post, they're so true. The bars work both ways. On the one hand the bars kept the business safe from thieves and vandals. On the other hand there are people with electronic security systems in their homes who are imprisoned by their fears about all that could threaten them. Their vigilance is focused on filtering out the bad. But if the filter's too fine, the good, the truth and beauty, can't make it through, either.
Creating a better world is still a good idea, even if pursuing it too often feels like sandbagging against a rapidly rising stream. In my experience, cultivating eyes and hearts to expect truth and beauty is a recipe for lasting security.
Here's Emily Dickinson saying it poetically:
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I've heard it in the chilliest land
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.