The Triumph of Death, 1562
by Pieter Bruegel (about 1525-69)
Never Have Things Been so Bad
The most influential men in America gathered in Boston in response to the wide-spread crisis facing society: a breakdown in civility, morality and piety. They decried an increase in lawsuits (individuals were "provoking and abusing one another in publick Courts"), in drug abuse (intemperate use of alcohol "is become too general a Provocation"), in immodest dress (and "more abominable, naked Breasts"), in gambling, in inordinate greed, and in indolent youth. It was also acknowledged that "most of the Evils that abound amongst us, proceed from defects as to Family Government." Stripping away the strange sounding seventeenth-century language would provide us with headlines for today's newspapers.
The language style points us to an earlier age. Actually, the year was 1679, only fifty-nine years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth. The colony was living in a difficult time. The first fifty years on the new land had been relatively prosperous. But, in the mid-1670s, King Philip's war with the Indians resulted in one-tenth of all military-age men dead, along with many women and children. Additionally, fires took their toll in several towns. Even more, hostility from the British king made political life uncertain and difficult. Such turbulence, many reasoned, was the result of a moral and spiritual breakdown.
Community troubles and a perceived internal moral decline brought dire warnings that could be avoided only by repentance and moral renewal. A call for spiritual renewal and moral reform was issued.
History tells us that continually, throughout the three centuries since that 1679 meeting, alarmist warnings of 'never have things been so bad' have been with us. We are told that we live in the most degenerate time. We are told that we must become a repentant people if we are going to survive. We are told that not only society, but nature itself, will suffer the consequences of our degeneracy. At times this is pictured as God's wrath inflicted on all creation. At other times, secular alarmists paint the same picture, absent God's presence.
Need there be concern about our society? Of course. Need we work and struggle to face the hurtful aspects of human life and to moderate the baleful effects on individuals? Without question. But to paint our time as the worst the world has ever seen is ridiculous. The most recent expression of this concern I found in a mailing announcing a day-long conference to help "with a simple but powerful purpose: to educate, train and equip parents to intentionally pass on a solid spiritual heritage to their children."
What we experience in our lives and in our society is the on-going human struggle to maintain a sense of morality and stability in a world that keeps eroding the values we struggle to maintain. Because present troubles loom large and touch us personally, they blot out that on-going human struggle.
I find comfort in knowing that I am not an exception, that current troubles are part of the human condiiton, that I join the rest of humanity in our common human struggle. The endurance of others, through the centuries, gives me strength and courage in the midst of the human issues of today, often the same issues faced by those who have gone before us.
No, we don't live in the worst of times. Even if we did, we would carry
on, as did our ancestors.
Go to Mind Matters Table of Contents Page.
Go to Bob and Maggi