One of humanity’s unifying experiences is that anticipatory feeling we often call a sense of impending doom. This type of mental speculation about what might happen often has various physical manifestations: insomnia, feeling sick to one’s stomach, etc. As distinguished from the fight-or-flight reaction we have when we see a car suddenly swerve out of its lane and into ours, or spot a vicious dog running towards us at full speed, this type of anxiety is arguably much worse, for the simple reason that it lasts much longer.
In fact it is so common an experience that it is often examined in a literary context. Think for example of Edgar Allen Poe’s classic short story, “The Pit and the Pendulum”, about a man trapped in a torture chamber, or the magnificent novel “The White Guard” by Mikhail Bulgakov, about the fall of Kiev to the red army. Sometimes the protagonist in these stories is saved, as is the courtier Dionysus in the ancient Greek legend of the Sword of Damocles, but sometimes they are doomed, as in Tennyson’s epic poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade”.
I raise this observation because increasingly, we live in a culture where we have come to expect the worst – and oftentimes we are not disappointed. Science for example presents us with new monstrosities on a regular basis, such as engaging in Dr. Frankenstein-like experiments with unborn children. Entertainment providers celebrate and encourage behavior on the part of psuedo-celebrities that our grandparents would have considered obscene, or worse. Members of our religious institutions fail to act in accordance with the teachings which they are morally bound to uphold, while our government leaders make calumnious statements or enact outrageous policies seeking to actively prosecute those who disagree with their views.
As difficult as it may be to accept, one reason that these things happen is that we are failing to look in the mirror: we need to ask ourselves not why these things happen, but rather why we personally are allowing these things to happen, and what exactly we are doing about it. Tolerance of other opinions is all very well, but the insidious influence of relativism in persuading many people of good will that there are no absolute truths, or that there are no blacks and whites in life, only shades of gray, had led to the embrace of a kind of endemic passivity. Rather than inconvenience ourselves, we tend to take the easy way out by simply rolling our eyes or shrugging our shoulders. We may shake our heads and say, “What is the world coming to?”, but we do not actually DO anything to stop said world from circling the drain.
This passivity stems from fear: a fear of rejection, or of reprisal, real or imagined, that to us seems a more immediate threat than that of the longer-term sense of doom we perceive. If I speak out against something which I know to be wrong, I may be attacked for doing so right here and now. If I do nothing however, even though I know the wrong will simply continue to compound itself and make things worse, perhaps things will remain tolerable for quite a while yet and I can kick the can down the road. Strange and paradoxical as it may seem, because I am afraid to say “No”, by not saying anything at all I am in fact saying “Yes.”
This fear of saying, “No,” is why we are seeing financial problems in developed countries such as Greece, Spain, or even the United States, which have created gigantic economic entitlement messes as a result of engaging in immediate, bread-and-circus politics, rather than acting with long-term prudence. It is why countries like China and Russia, who for generations encouraged or actively forced their citizens to have as few children as possible, are now beginning to experience demographic problems which will negatively impact every aspect of their societies. It is why when you go to the cinema, turn on the television, pick up a magazine, or visit a museum, more often than not a reasonable man is appalled, rather than entertained or enlightened, by what he sees, in a celebration of the tawdry, the transitory and the immediate, rather than of the lasting, the eternal and the universal.
I am by no means suggesting, gentle reader, that you must go move into a tent city built out of anti-capitalist protest placards and reeking of the unwashed. Yet at the same time, there is something about this type of behavior, however anti-social in its nature and flawed in its reasoning, which ought to make us feel uncomfortable about ourselves, and our relatively fat and flabby, overly passive attitude toward the downward spiral of our civilization. At least Nero fiddled while Rome burned: the best those of us in our 20’s and 30’s seem to be able to do is to type 140 characters posting a link to something someone else has done, as we shove another unhealthy snack down our throats while watching the latest mindless, amoral garbage on television or online.
Not all of us are equipped with the bravery of a Rosa Parks or the brains of a William F. Buckley, but all of us can and ought to be doing more. How you go about doing so will depend on you taking the initiative in your own life to say, “No.” Perhaps you live in an area where you cannot regularly attend events like lectures, protests, and so on, but if you are reading this blog post then you are hardly cut off from active participation in your own society. When was the last time you wrote a letter to the editor of a newspaper or magazine that published a deeply offensive article or editorial? When have you called your cable provider or television station to complain about an immoral or unfair report or program? These are just two easy examples that any of us could engage in, wherever we live, but more often than not we leave this to others.
Engaging in a dignified way, and not rising to the bait of the screaming, hair-pulling tactics employed by those who would rather descend into anarchy, is an indication that you are an adult, and that you are taking responsibility for the world you are about to inherit. It is time that we stop blaming older generations for the (admitted) mess that they made of things, and start asserting ourselves as adults, rather than continue to behave as whining, overgrown children. Each of us has to make that decision for himself, facing our individual fears of what might happen to us in the present, and realizing that they are as nothing compared to the fears we should collectively have for the future, if we sit back and do nothing.
Detail from “The Sword of Damocles” by Richard Westall (1812)
Ackland Museum, Chapel Hill, North Carolina