For several days I found myself growing progressively more agitated about the possibility that my wife and I might join the ranks of the homeless. Job listings seemed to be getting scarcer, no recruiters were calling, and the economy was still in free-fall. Though the worst case was probably still a few months away, it was looking more and more probable. My years-long rumination about the future of the world and the satisfaction I found when my research seemed to reach some solid conclusions, were instantly replaced by trepidation about its very real implications for my daily life.
In addition to those concerns, the presidential election was coming to a head. Despite encouraging poll numbers, there was still the prospect that the worst of the choices – Republicans whose philosophy had been behind the screwing of the country and the world over the last eight years – might still win, by deceit or outright stealing. If John McCain did win and due to age or health problems couldn’t complete his term, his hand-chosen successor was likely to make an even worse mess as an amplified, if dumber, version of George W. Bush.
Then an event occurred that changed my perspective so radically that, had I still been religious, I might have assigned supernatural status to it.
Attendance was falling at meetings of a writers’ support group I headed (another disappointment); as I was getting ready to leave home for one such meeting that would possibly have no other attendees, my sister-in-law called for help. Her car had stalled on a side street, possibly because it was out of gasoline. I brought a gallon of gas to her, but the car still wouldn’t start. Deducing that the car’s incline might be interfering with the gas reaching the engine, I brought another gallon. As I was pouring the gas, a half-hour after my meeting was supposed to start, one of the brightest and most spectacular meteors I had ever seen flew by. The car’s battery was practically dead, but with some help from a passerby we were able to jump-start it.
On my way home I felt the warm glow of having done something selfless, a feeling I had felt many times in the past. But this time it had special significance because it so totally changed my mood. I was, in an odd way, happy again. Fear had been overcome by something other than its polar opposite, anticipation. The term “grace” came to mind, which I recognized as the state of willingness and acting to improve people’s lives – everyone’s – with no special priority placed on one’s own. It was a characteristic, when shared, which enabled people to come together and act together instead of pulling apart; that in a strange and beautiful way helped the individual more than self-interest ever could, but without the guilt of taking from others.
I felt that whatever the future might hold, the minute-by-minute experience of life, that in fact defined life, was what really counted. In an earlier time, I would have scoffed at such a statement or its common variant “live in the moment” as a hollow philosophy that was irresponsible or just plain ignorant; and I would have been right, if grace was not involved. With people interacting with each other out of care for each other (not just “working together”), truth and knowledge would flow freely, what I had long ago theoretically derived as a prerequisite for universal happiness. With a healthy respect for the rest of Nature, the future really would take care of itself, because the feedback mechanisms necessary for adapting to a changing environment would be healthy and functional.
Holding on to this state of mind, I was able to re-frame the conditions that had earlier lead to my fear, and better understand what drove others to embrace their fear. Simply put, we were all thinking of ourselves as being isolated in a hostile world. Substituting groups for individuals (those people like us, such as families, professions, or cultures) only partially dulled the sense of isolation that emanated from the “us versus them” approach to the world. I was seeing myself as corporations saw me, as an object (“service provider”) in competition with other objects and thus forced to sell a limited set of my “capabilities” in exchange for the right to survive. Politics is by nature competition, and I was afraid that “we” might be subject to the will of a “them” that thrived on the fracturing power of the arbitrary definition of “good” and “bad” people.
It is one thing to intellectually acknowledge, as I have many times in the past, that people are not good or bad; actions are. It’s quite another to live it. We are all hardwired to objectify our world, and I am no exception. Grace, when we can attain it, enables us to transcend this basic flaw in our makeup; what the founders of Judaic-Christian religion might have really been referring to as “sin.” This state, which I now recognize in Barack Obama and that he appears to be triggering in many of his supporters, is what may ultimately save us all, in the truest senses of “save” and “all.”