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.