by Rich Manieri
Sometimes, I catch myself, as I explain to 19 and 20-year-olds what life was like before Al Gore invented the Internet.
“In my day, if you wanted to read an old newspaper, you had to walk over to the library.” I actually said this.
I’ve never said, “I had to walk a mile and a half in the snow to get to school” even though this is technically accurate. There was no school bus in my neighborhood so I legged it.
The point is, I think, every generation believes it has the market cornered on hardship. I can remember my great- grandmother, not known for her sunny disposition and optimistic outlook, saying in the 1970s, “This country is going to hell in a handbasket.” I wasn’t sure what she was on about – Vietnam, hippies, clouds. I was about seven at the time and I remember asking my mother, “What’s a handbasket?” I’ve yet to receive a satisfactory answer.
I confess that even a brief scan of any news website today can lead one to despair – war, pandemic, violent crime, chaos, inflation, gas prices. The list goes on but none of this is new.
I can remember – I’m dating myself again – the gas lines of the 1970s. Of course, my father, who drove a Pontiac Bonneville Brougham, which was about the size of Noah’s Ark, was singlehandedly responsible for the fuel shortage in our neighborhood. However, we had no air conditioning in the house so we did our part in balancing the energy consumption scales.
My parents lived through World War II, rationing and air raid drills. Their parents survived the Great Depression, soup lines and 25% unemployment.
Hand wringing over the current state of affairs is understandable, but also unproductive. The question, “What’s wrong with the world?” inevitably directs our focus outward and away from the mirror.
In the early 1900s, the Times of London asked, on its opinion page, “What’s wrong with the world?” Writer and philosopher G.K. Chesterton responded, “Dear Sirs: I am. Sincerely, G.K. Chesterton.”
In his full-length treatise not coincidentally titled, “What’s Wrong with the World?” Chesterton takes on a variety of society’s ills – greed, hypocrisy, the impact of secularism, personal responsibility. “Most modern freedom is at root fear. It is not so much that we are too bold to endure rules; it is rather that we are too timid to endure responsibilities,” he wrote.
It was difficult to argue in 1910, as it is today, against the reality that we would rather cast blame for our personal and societal deficiencies on external circumstances rather than acknowledge our own predicament. The Judeo/Christian tradition identifies this predicament as sin. The Bible shows us ourselves and it also shows us a Savior. Yet, we seek salvation in all the wrong places – in our politics, in our possessions, in our status. How much time do we spend on social media, or elsewhere, trying to show the world how wonderful and well-adjusted we are?
It seems to me that I have to acknowledge who and what I am before I begin pointing out society’s flaws and foibles, as much as I am naturally inclined to believe that I’m really a rather loveable fellow and everyone else has a problem.
Robert Murray M’Cheyne, a Scottish minister who died at 29, famously said, “The seed of every sin known to man is in my heart.” A young man only comes to such a realization on his knees.
As a Christian, I’ve undergone a spiritual “before and after.” You might ask, “OK, so you’re a Christian. What’s so great about you?” My answer would be, “Not a thing.” But you didn’t see the “before” version of me and I might be absolutely intolerable today if not for God’s mercy and forgiveness. I might be pretty intolerable anyway, at least if the emails I receive are any indication.
We do have a choice. We can bemoan the struggles of our age or we can realize that we live in flawed, fallen world and that strife and conflict transcend generations. That doesn’t mean we do nothing. We can get involved in a number of ways and on a number of fronts.
For me, the mirror might be a good place to start.
Rich Manieri is a Philadelphia-born journalist and author. He is currently a professor of journalism at Asbury University in Kentucky. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.