For The Transcript
Some eight centuries before Christ an obscure prophet from Judah struggled to counsel his people. Out of deep concern he asked a straight forward question that probes the depths of our existence: "What doth the Lord require of thee?" And he answered with disarming simplicity: "... do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God." The times have changed dramatically, but he provokes us to ask a similar question: "What doth the future require of thee? And all of us?"
Now nearly three millenniums past Micah our problems are quantitatively greater while qualitatively much the same. Enemies press us from the outside; greed undermines us from the inside. We ravish our beautiful land while often failing to make use of the intelligence abundantly scattered across the country. Some seek to use politics to cancel the insights of science. Regrettably this reinforces anti-intellectualism. Much life is lived in fantasy and sleep-induced visions. A portion of that sleep is filled with nightmares and some with dreams. Shortly after the American Civil War Lord Tennyson poetically suggested that, "Dreams are true while they last ..."
We have been dreaming of unlimited resources, invincibility, and now the right to change any part of the world we don't happen to like. Confrontation with reality is waking us from such dreams; the result is anxiety, uncertainty accompanied by consternation expressed in visionless aggression.
Now that the dream is fading it is easier to see what the future demands of us -- provided, of course, we want to live with honor and if we want our country to hold a respected place in the community of nations. Too much of America is frivolous. As individuals we must think independently of political parties, for they are often maudlin and naive as well as myopic. The only parties worthy of free men and women are those that put the people above personal profit. This means they are humane and honest, not given to bending the truth or distorting the facts. Clear thinking is hard enough for us all in the midst of today's confusion without distortion of facts and statistics for political advantage. Such maneuvers are cowardly and unpatriotic.
Perhaps one key to answering the question of what the future requires of us is to reflect on what we have been doing to ourselves and to our country over the past several decades. In much of America money has become God enthroning not only the yield of the marketplace but enthroning itself in the worship place as well. Too often pleasure blots out humane obligation. The middle class lives in comfort, the rich live in luxury while millions live below the poverty line. The recent flooding of New Orleans reveals a part of America we do not want to acknowledge. Our wasteful habits are scandalous. Life-sustaining soil flows in muddy rivers toward its salty grave unnoticed. Cities sprawl over precious farm land. Instability runs through our economy, venality through our politics. The "bomb" haunts us all. TV undermines both public taste and morals. This and similar inventories point the way of future obligations.
The future requires much of us. Several demands in particular, provided we respond to them with resolve, could save us from the frustrations of a congested society, from mutual abuse, and hopefully from war. And they do not cost money; they do not require legislation; they do not drag us through acrimonious political fights; and they do not require a new bureaucracy.
In the first instance we need the nation to think seriously. The American mind is trivialized with an endless flow of deceptive advertisements, commercial distractions, and inconsequential babble. Literally, "to think" means identifying problems, considering alternative solutions, choosing one, and acting on it. One trap we often fall into is reciting platitudes, and thereby assuming we have "solved" a problem. Platitudes do not solve problems; they only promote emotional gratification. Equally painful, genuine thought often presents unpleasant choices -- a fact that does not necessarily justify their rejection.
As a second requirement, the future calls for serious attention to conservation. This is a wasteful world and we are a wasteful people. We trash forests, paper, wildlife, clothing, metals, oil, electricity and millions of gadgets with cavalier indifference. Much of our buying, selling, consuming and traveling is unnecessary, motivated by the need to escape ourselves and create the illusion of doing something important. Conservation is the twin companion of conservatism.
Two more mandates from the future that may help us overcome the confusion of our existence are mature emotions and a philosophic sense. The versatile and productive French intellectual Diderot, who died a few years before the French Revolution, branded all children as criminals because they are compulsive, demanding and impatient. These qualities fit many "adults." In fact, America often acts like a nation of juveniles. We want to be first in everything, become hysterical over athletics, and are vigorous in the pursuit of alcohol, drugs, erotic entertainment and speed. Contrariwise the future tells us to act with maturity. This means to act with deliberate foresight and to subdue egocentricity. Otherwise we validate Diderot's indictment.
Equally important is a philosophic sense. This shows that our ambitions are often deceptive and much of what we want is unworthy of the effort. If we reflect on eternity we also understand that evanescence is characteristic of everything. If we want our pilgrimage on this inconsequential planet to have meaning -- and our planet is only a speck of dust in the magnitude of the cosmos -- then we will attend the needs of the future. So we should not take ourselves, our status, and our "isms" too seriously.
Obstructing a clear view of future obligations is our confused vision of the American government. Although democratic in theory it is plutocratic in operation. That the government is likely to be inefficient and sometimes irrational is all but inevitable until the public figures out the contradictory nature of plutocracy and democracy. Failure to see this scrambles our understanding of future obligations. To see it enhances the chances of a full flowering of democracy.
Lloyd Williams is a retired educator. His column runs in The Transcript every other Saturday.
For The Transcript