“Fits and Starts”

“Fits and Starts”

Slow and unsteady

            There’s nothing I hate worse than stop-and-go traffic. I’d rather go 1 mph than stop and start and stop again.

            But that’s the way of the traffic world sometimes, isn’t it? Something about the weird hive mentality of too many drivers in a knot means that progress is a stop-and-go affair.

            That’s an annoyance, but it does make an excellent metaphor for the ways in which humanity pushes forward into a better future. If you believe as I do that humankind is destined for something better, and that God is working in our individual and collective lives to bring that better about, you have to accept that it comes in fits and starts. And you have to accept that God is playing the long game – that our impatience with the status quo reflects our distrust that God will transform our world over the long term. (Pretty much par for the course for a God who worked through the fits and starts of evolution to grow us into our big brains and opposable thumbs.)

            It’s easy and tempting to believe the opposite, that the world is going to hell in the proverbial handbasket. I think that’s the impetus for a lot of misguided nostalgia these days, a longing to return to an imagined better past. An old-timey diplomat named George Ball once said, “Nostalgia is a seductive liar,” and I’m with him there.

            And I have to admit my own complicity in creating a woe-is-us culture. As part of the media industrial complex for a long time (I was a line editor at The Buffalo News for 19 years, basically working an assembly line at the paragraph factory), I bought into the assumption that bad news is what ropes ’em in. Ten thousand airplanes landed safely yesterday, but nobody cares about that – they want to know about the big crash.

            As a person of faith, though, I should do better, and one way to do better is to remind myself that we have plenty to celebrate over the long haul. I saw a meme the other day noting that it was only 60-some years between the Wright brothers’ wobbly first powered flight at Kitty Hawk and the first moon landing. In the space of one lifetime, an incredible leap of achievement.

            David French, a veteran New York Times writer I admire, has a new memoir that makes this point. He has covered wars, famines, all sorts of calamities, but he says what gives him hope are the stories of heroic achievements that make great strides in moving humanity forward. Huge advances in reducing the human suffering of AIDS and tuberculosis and guinea worm. More countries governing themselves democratically, sometimes because of courageous resistance to tyranny. Longer life spans, way less infant mortality, a huge reduction in global poverty. The list goes on.

            Certainly we continue to struggle with climate change, racial and income inequalities, Grand Guignol acts of violence. All sorts of ills. But they’re not of an order of magnitude greater than anything humanity has fumbled its way through before. What must it have been like to live through the existential crises of the Civil War or World War II? We’re not anywhere close to that now. Progress and problems are the two horsemen of the unfolding future. God’s future. Coming in fits and starts, like the frustrating traffic jam. But moving ahead just the same.

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