It was an August day so miserably hot that biblical scenes of judgment plagued me. All Elizabeth wanted was an ice cream cone. She did not whine but she did mention it with such longing that no father could have resisted her. She was as cute then as she is beautiful and brilliant now. What I remember almost every day of my life is what she did after she finally had the sweet miracle in her hand and promptly dumped it on a dirty sidewalk.
She stared wordlessly at the tragic mess, gripped by an eight-year old’s sense of cosmic injustice. Then, tiny hand to forehead, —and with the weariness of the ages in her voice—she declared, “This is the worst day in history.”
It was the despair of a child deprived. It was dispelled by a double scoop of chocolate and a sugar cone. Dispelling the type of despair that has attached itself to our generation will not be as easy.
We hear the voice of this despair every time some cable news expert confidently claims that we live in the “worst of times” or that our economic sufferings approach those of the Great Depression or some other similar nonsense. Such complaints are offerings on the altar of self-pity, refrains in the overwrought mourning of the historically uninformed.
Yes, I’m being harsh. This kind of vanity disgusts me—particularly when it is mine. John Updike once wrote, “History buries most men but then exaggerates the height of those left standing.” In the same way, our fashionable self-centeredness diminishes the hardships of other generations and exaggerates our own. It makes us resentful, small and unfruitful.
I asked a man who insisted that ours is the worst of all ages when he would have preferred to live if given his choice. He said that 1918 was his idea of a better time, just as the First World War ended and the “Roaring Twenties” began. It was a year with some appeal, but it was also the year that nearly a quarter of the world’s population was infected by influenza and as many as 50 million died. A woman who told me she hated being alive in an age like ours said she would rather have lived in the “wonderful Middle Ages.” She had seen too many movies. The average lifespan then was only 30 years. Few could read. A single plague killed 75 million human beings. Superstition raged. There was much to admire about the Middle Ages, of course, but very few people today would choose to live then rather than now after reading even a single book about that time.
The fact is that there has never been a golden age. There has never been an age free of hardship and misery. Pain and struggle is simply part of the human condition—not everywhere and all the time, but certainly somewhere on earth at any given moment in history. To expect to be immune from the adversities common to all men is a cowardly brand of pride.
It gets worse. What many people living today see as astonishing hardship is really just inconvenience. We think ourselves cursed because things aren’t easy, because the devices that allow us to live with ease sometimes fail us or because the price of our magical electronic world rises a bit. We should admit what is true: we live as kings compared to any other age.
We should also be grateful. We should be generous. We should live simply, not out of fear but because it is good for the soul and leaves us more to give. We should also own a sense of duty. We talk a lot about calling and destiny these days. Sometimes the needs around us are all the call we get.
Life is sometimes hard. It always has been. A life willingly surrendered to despair is harder still. Rejoice. God yet rules and there is much to do.