The Times once sent out an inquiry to famous authors, asking the question, “What’s wrong with the world today?” and Chesterton responded simply,
Yours, G.K. Chesterton.”*
I know you’re worried about what’s happening in the world. We all are. The politics of divisiveness. The epidemic of gun violence in our communities. The world refugee crisis. Growing economic inequality. The Zika virus. Regardless of your particular concern(s), the end result is the same: we are worried, frightened, perhaps angry. What are we to do?
In our increasingly polarized world climate, we are surrounded by voices haranguing us to engage in finger-pointing, telling us to shout down those with opposing views (or worse, “punch him in the face” as one presidential candidate indicated he’d prefer), insisting that we fall into lock-step with any one of a myriad absolute ultimatums promulgated by various “parties”. (My friend, Randy Greenwald, writes eloquently about his experience of this as a Christian pastor, here.)
In Drew Dellinger’s poem, Heiroglyphic Stairway, he says it’s 3:00 a.m. and he lies awake because his great-great-grandchildren ask him “What did you do?” when you knew the Earth was being plundered? As it happens, a lot of us are having difficulty sleeping. I mentioned my own recent insomnia to four acquaintances the other day and was stunned to discover that three of them take nightly sleep aids.
In the face of such overwhelming issues, what are we to do, other than medicate ourselves?
G. K. Chesterton’s famous response, above, may be a good place to start. I know: it is so much easier to focus on everyone else, to give in to the urge to fill our heads and ears with “news”, to focus our feelings on an ever-changing horizon outside of ourselves. It may be time, though, to focus inward, to look at our own internal battle lines. In what ways do my choices contribute to what’s wrong with the world? How is my thinking adding to the negative spin?
The first step, they say, is to admit there’s a problem. I recently read this quote that stuck with me, “We are the only author of our thoughts — the only thinker in our lives.” (Rev. June Kelly) Recent advances in science suggest, and are offering proof, that our thoughts have real consequences in the world. But even if we aren’t into the latest scientific studies, we know internally that what we dwell on in our thoughts has an impact on our own behavior and mood. And those two things definitely impact the world we move through in our daily lives.
If it is true that “I am” is the answer to what’s wrong with the world, it is also true that “I am” can be the answer to what is right with the world. Choosing to address your own thinking, and the actions you take as a result, can have huge positive consequences, too. Truthfully, we don’t have to engage in the mud-slinging, polarizing, visciously close-minded rhetoric – the interpersonal violence – we are being pushed toward.
As with so many key concepts in life, this is so much easier said than done. I know. I fight my own first reactions all the time – but gradually, we get better at it as we practice hitting the reset button. I’m trying to hit that button every time my immediate impulse is to dash off an angry retort, paint whole groups of people with dismissively colored adjectives, or raise an angry fist in the air. I’m not saying there is nothing we should be angry or concerned about – just that when we recognize that we, personally, contribute to the problem, we can begin to address how we do so. And when we start to correct that how, we move from making it worse to helping make it better. The same way anything gets better – one person, one thought, one action at a time.
Ultimately, we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it towards others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will be in our troubled world.
— Etty Hilesum