Don’t sweat the small stuff. That’s the conventional wisdom. Because obviously the big stuff is the most important.
Except not always.
What’s more important than cutting the deficit? Creating jobs? Fixing Social Security and public education and immigration and the environment? Electing leaders of integrity, wisdom and humility?
Lots of things, actually.
Government is like a Kevlar vest. It derives its importance from the importance of what it protects. The really important thing is the life underneath.
We are a nation deeply divided on a host of fundamental issues. Will we come together and change course? It’s possible. But, as Miracle Max would say, it’d take a miracle. The parallels between Rome’s last years and our current ones are numerous and haunting.
How then should we live with the realization that, prattling politicians notwithstanding, our best days are almost certainly behind us? How live with courage, hope and passionate intensity in an age of decline?
Men and women of the early Middle Ages lived through the end of the world as they knew it. (Who would ever have thought that the Eternal City could fall?) Government was in constant flux and, often, chaos. But little people, doing little things, rebuilt slowly, slowly.
Monks and nuns living in thousands of austere little cells spent their days copying out ancient texts. One slow letter at a time, they kept truth and beauty alive for a thousand years.
Politics was never going to save us. And it certainly isn’t now. Yeats could have been speaking of our leaders:
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
That doesn’t mean we should abandon politics. But it does mean, as always, that we need to focus our best energies on building the most important shelters for human beings. And it does mean we need to realize that each of us has a crucial role to play in preserving whatever is to be preserved.
It’s no accident, in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, that it’s Frodo and Sam who save the world. Not the noble or the wise. Not Aragorn or Boromir or Legolas or Gandalf. Just two unremarkable, insignificant little hobbits who keep putting one foot in front of the other and refuse to quit.
It’s us, the ordinary people in our private lives, who will do the great work of saving whatever is saved.
Husbands and wives who do the hard work of serving each other and the even harder work of creating and maintaining intimacy.
Mothers and fathers who take up the tedious, exhausting, often discouraging job of raising children: feeding and hugging and disciplining and reading aloud and playing catch and talking late at night. And, in the process, rearing children who value, not money, prestige and leisure, but family. Truth. Beauty. Loyalty. Courage. Perseverance. And love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Plumbers and neurosurgeons and stockbrokers and tugboat pilots and, yes, even politicians who work hard and tell the truth. Who don’t have jobs or even professions but vocations–callings–in which to honor God and serve other people.
Cabbies, housewives, teachers and real estate brokers who write and paint and quilt and photograph and arrange flowers and play the cello as truly and as beautifully as they can, not because it brings them money and fame but because it’s part of who they are.
Neighborhoods and communities where neighbors look in on each other and lend a hand. Friends who do coffee or go fishing: who, one way or another, keep in touch.
These will be the great men and women of the 21st century. The true heroes.
“Blessed,” Tolkien wrote:
. . . are the timid hearts that evil hate,
that quail in its shadow, and yet shut the gate;
that seek no parley, and in guarded room,
though small and bare, upon a clumsy loom
weave tissues gilded by the far-off day
hoped and believed in under Shadow’s sway.
Blessed are the men of Noah’s race that build
their little arks, though frail and poorly filled,
and steer through winds contrary towards a wraith,
a rumour of a harbour guessed by faith.
Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme
of things not found within recorded time.
It is not they that have forgot the Night,
or bid us flee to organized delight,
in lotus-isles of economic bliss
forswearing souls to gain a Circe-kiss
(and counterfeit at that, machine-produced,
bogus seduction of the twice-seduced).
Such isles they saw afar, and ones more fair,
and those that hear them yet may yet beware.
They have seen Death and ultimate defeat,
and yet they would not in despair retreat,
but oft to victory have tuned the lyre
and kindled hearts with legendary fire,
illuminating Now and dark Hath-been
with light of suns as yet by no man seen. . . .
I will not walk with your progressive apes,
erect and sapient. Before them gapes
the dark abyss to which their progress tends
if by God’s mercy progress ever ends,
and does not ceaselessly revolve the same
unfruitful course with changing of a name.
I will not treat your dusty path and flat,
denoting this and that by this and that,
your world immutable wherein no part
the little maker has with maker’s art.
I bow not yet before the Iron Crown,
nor cast my own small golden sceptre down. . . .
(You can read the whole poem here.)