I read once that the historian’s admiration for authority affects his assessments of civilizations past — that oppressive regimes, with their monuments to state power, will draw his eye and his imagination more readily than a nation of citizen farmers. That’s probably true for most people; we can’t help but watch the parade’s prancing exhibition of the admirable and abnormal. It is memorable precisely because it is not ordinary, at least until we achieve a level of wealth and dissatisfaction so great that even parades are commonplace.
So it makes sense when thinkers who consider the past year or decade focus on the triumphs and mishaps of plastic people, national economic power, and political events. They really have no choice, being paid to observe the national parade, after all, and what’s more, being themselves baton twirlers at the tail-end of it.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with reflecting on the state of the nation, of course, except insofar as our reflections don’t reflect the state of us, which can only ever be gotten at sideways with attention to elections and the number of smart phones we’ve managed to sell and whether or not Hollywood will get its groove back.
We pay attention to such things because they are in the parade, and because clever people tell us we should. But somewhere, in our remembrance of months past and our resolutions for the year and decade ahead, we should each of us ponder not just economic strength, but the strength of our relationships with one another, not just national diplomacy, but the presence or absence of peace in our own homes and souls, not just the comings and goings of kings and potentates, but the coming of a King we are mostly embarrassed to mention outside our churches, and half the time even within them.
The state of the U.S. doesn’t really matter, after all, when the state of us is in disarray. All these broad measures of our success — our wealth, our military power, the ease with which we churn out beauty and vulgarity in equal measures — depend, in fact, on the things that go largely unmeasured — man’s civility toward man, man’s willingness to sacrifice for family, man’s trustworthiness, man’s capacity to think generationally, man’s sense, however ill-formed and half-wrong, that he is not the measure and end of creation. Strip away community and family and Church, in other words, and see how long you can make pretty little widgets.
It’s not just a matter of national greatness, of course, which Conservatives would do well to remember. A nation is truly great when its people live in peace with one another, and themselves, and God. You and I, while we may never be great, are only really happy when we have people we love more than ourselves, and are likewise loved.
That, I think, is a reflection and a resolution, though it will be forever unknown to The New York Times and NPR and the people who know more about the intimate lives of celebrities than they do about their own neighbors. Have you loved sacrificially, which is to ask: have you laid down your life for another this past year, this past decade, ever? More important still: will you?
I mostly have not. But it’s the first day of a new year, and I am still breathing, and you are too, which means there’s still time. There’s all the time we have left. So let’s make this resolution, you and I: that we will learn how to love others more than ourselves. That we will start in our own homes and workplaces, and set aside our precious lists of wrongs and debts and grievances, and simply — love, which is not feeling, but action regardless of feeling, often in spite of feeling.
It’s a frightening thing, isn’t it? But we have to give it a try, in the year 2010. We have to re-learn it, or learn it for the first time. I know I do. That’s the state of me. How’s the state of you?