January 2, 2018
The annual turning of the calendar is always a good time to take stock of things. To evaluate and reminisce about what happened, some looking forward and planning for things to come. In our "share everything" social media world nowadays, posting my thoughts on the occasion make me but one of many tens of millions.
But I have to confess, I could not have predicted this past year. A year that personally was full of high highs and amazing experiences like I've never had. And concurrent with a year when so many of my bedrock beliefs about being American are threatened in ways I've never imagined. It feels like a recurrence of some dystopian fever, where the dark energies of human nature have reasserted a hold on our American psyche. The scientist in me wonders if these times are merely another outlier data point in our colorful and tumultuous history, or if we are disintegrating into a new "normal" that feels like anything but.
While one party imposing its philosophies on the governed will produce some good and some bad (in this case, the tax bill doesn't look too good for folks like me), these seem to be "normal" parts of the ongoing give and take of a representative government (I guess). But the return of dark and discredited ideas and ideologies gives new power to in-group/out-group dynamics in ways I personally find distressing and alarming. And it seems clear that over-saturation in modern communications on cable news and/or social media is making it worse by making it easier to simply say "I don't believe that," as if we could choose to accept certain laws of physics and nature and reject others.
Gravity can be inconvenient, when stepping on a scale for instance, but it cannot be ignored. We cannot know the impression of the ant living in the tree, but thanks to our size we can consider the relationship of his colony and the tree. On our planet we are mostly ants in a forest, and in our universe, far less than a single cell in the ant's body. Yet these systems all behave in some way that can eventually be studied and understood.
A willingness to "suspend disbelief" is inherent to our enjoyment of entertainment. A healthy skepticism is especially necessary when considering the words and deeds of those in power, whether that power is handed down by monarchy, bestowed by the people at the ballot box, or accumulated in wealth from inheritance or skill. But this place where dissent is heresy, and the label "fake" is invoked whenever someone disagrees with a well-reasoned position or thesis, harkens back to darker times in human history where ignorance and fear ruled the day.
I don't believe that's where we are headed. I'm an optimist by nature, and curious enough about the world to consider a variety of viewpoints. Our knowledge of our own world, our own humanity and our immense universe all continue to evolve - theory, research, prove or disprove, observe new phenomena, begin the process anew. Though it is disturbing to see movements gain strength that would return us to darker times, a younger generation as a demographic appears to emphatically reject reactionary thinking.
It does make me ponder this notion of a balance between individual liberty and the privileges and responsibilities of a society that chooses representatively selected leadership. This certainly is not human nature. Our survival as a species has probably always been tied to bonding an "us" together against a dangerous "them," and individual liberties and rights are secondary to the "common good". This radical American idea of the noble and "independent" individual living in a representative democracy is almost inherently opposed to that. The proverbial square peg and round hole problem.
No wonder we move forward in such fits and starts. We are trying to accomplish something truly revolutionary, and maybe contemplating the absurdities of 2017 is how I finally grasped WHY it seems to be so difficult. Change is always hard, for groups as well as individuals. As a society and its tools evolve, there are winners and losers. To implement ways to ease the burdens of the less fortunate while spreading the successes more widely shifts that balance between individuals and the population at large. Our American history is filled with chapters where that balance has tilted one way or the other, with great ramifications.
We got treated to a behind-the-scenes tour of our US Capitol building right after Christmas. We got to see the paintings, to read the words, and hear the stories from our friend a retired Capitol police officer. It is powerful to see where some of the best and worst of our history has transpired - decisions that have freed us, and others that have haunted us. What we are attempting to achieve in this gloriously imperfect union is quite a tightrope walk, and we are bound to fall in both directions at times. I am more convinced than ever that it is worth striving for - equal justice for all, and each's right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
I still don't understand 2017. It was an awesome year, and it was a frightening year. But contrary to what it seemed living through it, maybe it was an enlightening year too. Perhaps at the least I have gained a new appreciation for the real challenges of aspiring to our American ideals.