It’s hard to have much love for 2020. This year–which, I remind myself when I am feeling down, is only about 77% finished–feels like a self-reinforcing system of catastrophes. I suspect I would find this a tough year even without the basso continuo of a global pandemic: the corner of the world I live in has suffered the most ruinous wildfires in decades; the president of the United States has announced his intention to replace democracy with authoritarianism and minority rule; his party, long ago one of the great intellectual traditions of the country, has shown itself to be led by nihilists, cynics, time servers, and predators. I’ve awakened in the middle of the night more than once this year overcome with the thought that life as we know it is ending, to be replaced by something more solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
Perhaps my 3:00 am dread is an accurate picture of what is to come. Perhaps, like Job, “the thing which I greatly feared is come upon me” and we are watching the collapse of the American experiment. Or, perhaps, what we are witnessing are the beginnings of the wholesale collapse of the entire human experiment, as the planet’s many life support systems go offline one by one. These outcomes seem possible: the beginning of the end of the republic by next month, the end of human civilization by the end of my children’s lifetimes.
And yet, what wakes me at 3:00 in the morning is not the certainty that those are our fates. Rather, what wakes me is uncertainty, the sense that much of what I could count on for the first half of my life can’t be counted on today. A related dread is the knowledge of the limits of my influence: I can work towards a civic renewal and towards ecological restoration, but the outcome of my work is out of my hands.
Paradoxically, this cloud of unknowing is also where I have taken some comfort. Old things are passing away–because of the pandemic, because of climate change, because of the presidency of an authoritarian strongman. It does not necessarily follow, however, that what will follow must be worse. The United States of America still purports to be a democracy. It is not impossible–if we vote, if we participate, if we work towards it–to build a more just society than the one we live in today, a healthier society, a more sustainable economy, a restored ecosystem.
By whatever name you care to call it–providence, karma, feedback loops–we are in a moment when the world itself seems to be pushing back on the outrages of the last four years, or four centuries: not just the fires and the supra-alphabetical roster of hurricanes, but Donald Trump’s own infection with COVID-19. Because he is a public man, his illness and suffering take on symbolic dimensions, as though he were a character being punished for his hubris in Dante’s Inferno or the Book of Daniel. Trump’s posturing about his strength, even when it’s obvious that he is in pain and struggling for breath, only goes to show that he is as unprepared for his life as a metaphor as he is for his life as President of the United States.
The times are cataclysmic, but they will pass. A new day may be closer than you think. And there will be a moment on the other side of the cataclysm that calls for new balances. It’s time to vote Donald Trump and his enablers out of office. It’s time to push. It’s time to work.