In a Fearful Moment, We Are Honored by History

Like many other Americans, this weekend I encountered a cavalcade of slow-rolling, flag-waving pickup trucks and other vehicles on my local highway – which, in my case, was the Beltway surrounding the nation’s capital. They weren’t American flags. They were blue-and-white Trump banners, an attempted show of insurrectionist force for the presidential incumbent. That rough parade was either the harbinger of an angry future or the last hurrah of an authoritarian’s impending fall from grace. Or, very possibly, both.

Right now, millions of people are fearful about the election and its aftermath. Trump’s defeat, while probable, is not certain. Even if it comes, there is a strong likelihood of continued civil unrest and political violence. But the fear is a signal. It tells us that moment connects us in an unbreakable thread to so many of the generations that came before us and came after us—generations who fought invaders, resisted slavery, challenged colonialism, and fought fascism.

Like us, the people of these generations lived in uncertain and critical times. We aren’t taught that in history class. Schoolbook history has an air of inevitability. It gives the impression that justice always wins, and that our predecessors struggled in the sure knowledge of eventual success. But while they lived, they were at least as uncertain about their future as we are about ours. As the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote, “Life can only be understood backwards, but it has be lived forwards.” We don’t know how the story ends.

That’s a tough path to walk. But it’s our path, as it was the path of so many that came before us. And here’s the good news: it means we have been honored by history. We’ve been given the greatest gift history can give any people. We have been born into a moment where what we do will shape the human future. Our lives are rich with meaning, and our fear reminds us of that honor.

History is a dialogue between humanity and time. Like any conversation, it has two sides. We can’t speak for time, or for the forces that shape our moment. But we can do our part, and cast our lots with whatever form of faith we can shape about the future.

At this hour, just before the votes are counted, my guess is that the Democrats will prevail. (For what it’s worth, I was one of the few people I knew who thought Trump could pull it off in 2016.) But that’s not promised. And even if the Democrats prevail, the times will be tough and scary. There will be hate, anger, sabotage. The Democrats will be under enormous pressure from Wall Street donors and Republican side-switchers to ease back on urgently-needed action: on the environment, health care, economic hardship, and so many other issues.

In the meantime, we will be struck again and again by unnatural disasters: environmental, medical, and economic. Our unsustainable path will lead us toward potential collapse. What will we do? How will we bear the weight of the moment?

“Pascal’s wager” is an argument by 17th century French thinker Blaise Pascal. He said, in effect, that it’s impossible to know whether or not God exists, but the safest best is to act as if He does. I can’t defend the theology, but it seems to me we can make our own Pascal’s wager with the future. We can’t know if our efforts will matter or not. But we can act as if they do, and that act will give our lives meaning and hope. Besides, who knows? We might even be right.

As for those parading Trump supporters: yes, they carry the seeds of totalitarianism. But many of them are filled with fear, too. Many have been abandoned by our ruling elites. Like us, many are searching for meaning and purpose. We have failed to give them that. That’s something worth thinking about. We must stop them. But what does hating them give us? I don’t want to cancel them. I want to redeem them. Perhaps, in the process, I can also redeem myself.

These blue-flag wavers, like us, have been honored by history. It’s up to them whether to accept  the honor or not. But we can embrace it, and do our best to be worthy of it.

This moment, and those that will follow, won’t be easy. But if we want our lives to matter – as most of us do – these tension-filled moments reflect honor and opportunity. As we struggle with the fear, let’s not forget to be grateful.

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