Hope and monsters

“Glade jul” by Viggo Johansen (1891) from Wikipedia

The news in these hectic days leading up to the solstice, Christmas and the renewal of New Year’s has been tough going.

The shootings in Connecticut, the painful spectacle of gridlock in Washington DC, the sputtering economy.

I’ve spoken to many people — friends, colleagues and acquaintances — who seem particularly burdened by events of the last few weeks.

And no wonder.

Watching Wayne LaPierre, the NRA spokesman, in his press conference this week, talk about “monsters walking the streets,” you could see how deeply he believes.

Believes, that is, that we live in a world haunted by darkness and malice.

In a way, I suppose, he’s right.  There are, in these days of winter when the nights are long, plenty of things to fear in the world.

I’m a parent.  I feel the intimate trepidation that comes every time my son is late getting home.

But in a much more meaningful way, I think LaPierre — and my own nervous fears — get it exactly wrong.  Profoundly, sadly and even dangerously wrong.

The truth is that the world has always been a sharp-edged place, a place with shadows and teeth.  But together we humans have slowly and steadily pushed back the darkness.

Events like these can eclipse the fact that our communities are profoundly safer than at any other time in history.  Crime is lower.  We as a people have learned how to care for our fellow citizens better.

We inflict less pain on one another.  We have better strategies for coping and sharing succor in times of crisis.

Yes, we argue and tussle and disagree — and we still have moments of real horror.  But the profound change isn’t that horror still exists.  What’s remarkable is that these nightmares are so blessedly, thankfully rare.

Not so long ago, much of the world was ruled by monsters.  The Hitlers and the Stalins and the Maos and the Mussolinis gave free rein to the darkest human instincts.

During my childhood, the planet lived under permanent threat of nuclear destruction.  By contrast to that era, the world of 2012 absolutely shines with hope and progress.

As LaPierre pointed out, accurately I have no doubt, there will always be monsters.

But we’ve learned from long experience that there are things that the rest of us can do to minimize the harm, reduce the pain, and expand the circle light.

The rule of law, the care of civilized people, the slow accumulation of compassionate acts, the stubborn exercise of hope and goodwill.

In moments of pain, these can feel like inadequate and even paltry tools.

Yet when we look back, we see unambiguous evidence of our progress.  We see the monsters shrink, decade by decade, from the stature of dictators  and tyrants to the paltry size of frightened, mentally ill children.

The real danger, I think, lies not in the fact that terrible things still happen.  Or that terrible things will always happen.  It is not our place to change the nature of reality.

The real danger lies in the possibility that we will, as a people, will despair.

We may someday give in to our fears.  Lock ourselves behind walls.  Arm ourselves.  Make fortresses of our civic institutions and fortresses of our minds.

If that happens, the slow, grudging progress will sputter to a halt.

Somehow, though, I don’t believe it.  Maybe it’s the season, or a personal bias, but I think the vast majority of Americans get it.

We are, in the end, a stubbornly optimistic people.  We understand grieving and hardship, but we also understand hope and hard work and healing.

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16 Responses to “Hope and monsters”

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  1. Michael Greer says:

    Thanks Brian. May we build the kind of future that we really want to live in.

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  2. Rancid Crabtree says:

    I don’t know what insular, fantasy land you are living in Mr Mann, but I fear reality is going to turn around and bite you in the face. The monsters are still there, they are breeding and multiplying. They have different names now, but they are there and our ability to fight them back decreases each day. Just look around, look at the debt we’ve saddled our grandchildren with and no one in gov’t is even pretending to care about addressing that.

    I’m sorry, I see less and less kindness, compassion or good will. Our collective soul is dying. People are too afraid, too self absorbed, too stressed, too beaten. The last good chance for change we had was 9/11 and we blew that one big time.

    I will pray for a better ending than the obvious one, but I think the forces of evil are firmly in control now.

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  3. Pete Klein says:

    I totally agree. Things simply aren’t as bad as we sometimes make them out to be.
    Life is often one step backward after taking two steps forward. But we need to focus on the two steps forward.
    I would rather live now than 100 years ago.
    Maybe much of our problem is that peace can be a bit boring and violence can seem exciting.
    Another problem could be the entire news media. We have many more sources of news now than in the past. News media focus on problems. The old expression, no news is good news but the news media knows good news doesn’t attract as much interest as bad news. This is not meant as a condemnation, only as a fact.
    So – Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

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  4. The Original Larry says:

    Keep banging the gun-control drum, Brian, this is what you’re contributing to:

    “Brownells, World’s Largest Firearms Supplier, Sells 3.5 Years Worth Of AR-15 Magazines In 3 Days”

    I don’t think this is a good thing but it is indicative of how Americans respond to anti-gun rhetoric. The heavy-handed, imperious manner in which anti-gun people go about their business makes Americans nervous about the anti’s ultimate intentions and this is how they respond. Continuing to ridicule and dismiss the NRA and its leadership only contributes to the hysteria. Turn down the volume and start being the “reasonable” people you’re always talking about.

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  5. Brian Mann says:

    Crabtree -

    I think I’ll let my argument and the facts that I’ve laid out speak for themselves.

    Adam Lanza did a lot of terrible harm. But he can’t touch the harm done by monsters in the past, when people like him really were in control.

    Mostly, though, I’ll wish you the best this holiday. I hope you’re surrounded by good people and that you find reasons for hope in this season.

    –Brian, NCPR

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  6. Brian Mann says:

    Larry –

    I didn’t ridicule Wayne LaPierre or the NRA. I acknowledged sharing some of their fears and spoke respectfully of their views.

    The number of Americans rushing out to buy assault rifles after the shootings in Connecticut is certainly troubling — but it represents a tiny, miniscule percentage of our people.

    I like to think that most people listen to better angels at a time like this. Again, I acknowledge that this optimism may represent a blind spot or a bias on my part.

    –Brian, NCPr

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  7. Anita says:

    My mantra: we are the most fortunate people ever to have lived. With this core belief, I am agreement with your post above, Brian. So many of our current problems, like the fiscal cliff, are of our own making for short-sighted political reasons.

    For everyone thinking that we live in the world that LaPierre depicts, I suggest a book: “The Gift of Fear” by Gavin de Becker. It will take you to a place that you don’t expect.

    My wish for the world and for ourselves: longer sight, and the courage to act for what is best in the long-term.

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  8. I had an early appointment this morning and drove to it through woods caped in fresh snow. I was mentally carried back the days of my youth walking to a one room school on winter mornings, watching the snow flakes fall and enveloped in the glorious silence of a winter morning. Yes, much has changed since those days, many of the memories are enough to make me despair at the change but then I remember the scrapbooks keep by one of my grandfathers who was fascinated with the stories of horror that he found in the newspaper. Back then, by the time we read about it in the paper, spare reports of just the details due to space limitations, it was over, an event of the past and far away, a world apart from today’s electronic, in-the-moment reporting complete with video complete with of anguished interviews with witnesses. If I compare the stories my grandfather saved with the events of today the major difference is the way we learn of them, then silently read about at a distance in time and space, today instantaneously with video and sound, not much has changed.

    Yes, there are more such events today. There are more of us humans, as we noted in another recent thread, and it follows that there are more making the choice of evil. We are creatures with free will to choose between good and evil. There are not a lot of things I ‘believe’, things that I accept without proof, but one thing I do believe it is that the triumph of good is inevitable, it is programmed into creation by whatever power that brought forth the universe and sustains it. I believe the system and human nature is ‘rigged’ for good in the end.

    I do not believe in a God who magically impregnates women any more than I believe there is a real Santa Claus living at the North Pole. We know that the designation of Dec. 25th as the birth of Jesus (not his real name) was an arbitrary decision several hundred years after the fact that has only a one in 365 chance of being right, but it is what the various traditions symbolize that is important, (re)birth and renewal. At this point in the year when the ancients saw the day shrinking and figuratively dying, it begins to lengthen again, to rise anew. That is what we celebrate, that no matter what we do, good or evil, the cycle goes on.

    Turn off your TV, pull the ear plugs of your iPod from your ears, stop reading the paper and, for an hour at least, go out and walk in the snow listening to the silence and feel the cycle renewing. Peace is still there. It is you that went away.

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  9. Pete Klein says:

    Those people buying guns out of fear the right own a gun or out of fear for the lives have mental problems and probably shouldn’t be allowed to own a gun.
    Fear is the cause of much of the violence in the world.

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  10. Lucy Martin says:

    “…go out and walk in the snow listening to the silence and feel the cycle renewing. Peace is still there. It is you that went away”

    Beautifully said James, and oh so true.

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  11. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Hey Brett! Happy Holidays! Have an eggnog and everything will start to seem just a little bit better. I could probably find a little something to put in your pipe that would make you feel a whole lot calmer but I guess you don’t approve of that sort of thing. Anyways, get to sleep early ’cause Santa’s coming tonight!

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  12. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Oh, sorry. I meant “Mr. Rancid”.

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  13. Rancid Crabtree says:

    You’re wrong again Knuckledragger. But you go ahead and smoke your dope. I’ll tell him you said “High”

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  14. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Crabtree, it’s been a long time since I smoked any dope, well except once last year. But Merry Christmas to you too!

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  15. Mervel says:

    Merry Christmas! What is the message, the message is that we indeed have nothing to fear! Brian is certainly right about that. This is only Good News!

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  16. jeff says:

    I think I let the Sara Ann Wood event affect me more than I “should” have. It happened before I was married. The priests in the Catholic church who failed the church and the congregation weren’t helpful. I think of how far I traveled by bicycle as a teenager, alone. And to things that were offered me that I, thankfully, didn’t persue. My children haven’t explored as far as I did, because of my concern. My children have been cloistered by comparison but the electronic world has intruded and brought less activity and more malice because I don’t know its content and cannot offer counsel or critical discussion.

    Yes, Jim, a change of environment can be very worthwhile. Variety offers broader learning and better ability to cope with new situations.

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