2020 has been a year of profound uncertainty, and uncertainty is something we humans just don’t like. The year has been full of challenges, obstacles, mental stress, economic misery and spiritual anguish. Do you have days when you feel like your head is going to explode? I do. 2020 is a year historians will be pondering centuries after we are gone from this earth. Some people have managed to rise to incredible heights despite the obstacles. Many more have hit absolute bottom, and I imagine the majority are nervously treading water or feel themselves slowly being sucked into an abyss.
Uncertain times is when the value of unpopular culture is greatest. It will sustain us in the most important ways, if we let it.
Everything in popular culture tells us to be afraid — afraid of disease, afraid of economic collapse, afraid of the climate, afraid of political opponents, afraid, afraid, afraid. But unpopular culture says the opposite. Many know that the most often-repeated phrases in the Old and New Testaments are admonishments against fear. When the disciples are baffled by circumstances, feel helpless or perceive physical threats and destruction, Jesus tells them to not be afraid. Do not be afraid: the opposite of what every instinct we have tells us to be in 2020.
When I reflect on this, the lesson is this: If we put our trust in the Lord, our souls will be healthy and no worldly pain, or even death itself, can stand between us and eternal life. It is a question of perspective. If we are ruled by the movements of the world, there is uncertainty, because there is no way to know which way the wind will blow tomorrow. We will always be waiting for the other shoe to drop.
You can see this reflected in art through the ages. Modern art is images of broken bodies and frightened souls. Medieval and Renaissance art show that despite our brokenness, we can have confidence, if we lift our eyes upward toward something better — toward God. Art and entertainment in general have shifted from testing the heights of what is possible to testing the lows of what is permissible, from instilling courage to encouraging fear.
The painting to the right, El Greco’s The Tears of St. Peter is a wonderful example of how faith sustains us and gives us confidence even when we have gone astray.
About the Soul
Everything in popular culture tells us to ignore our souls — “separation of church and state,” acquiring more stuff, gaining more power (especially political power these days), and indulging the senses have become the creed of our time. But even setting aside the awesome question of eternal life, the condition of our souls, the spirit with which we meet the day, is by far the most important defense in any world, especially an uncertain or hostile world. A healthy spirit is how we keep our heads about us when everyone else is losing theirs. It is the thing that compels us to help others rather than dwell on our own problems. It is the thing that empowers us to radiate love rather than hatred.
Nurture the spirit and every successive day of uncertainty or hostility becomes easier to bear. A suggestion: Replace one hour a day of exchanging snarky social media potshots with one hour of reading/viewing/reflection on soul-enriching media. Be it a passage from Scripture, the writings of a spiritual master or a simple prayer, your soul will be nourished and strengthened, I promise you. And there is something new in unpopular culture I heard about from a subscriber — The Chosen. It’s a crowdfunded miniseries about the New Testament, and it is spectacularly done, stirring and enriching.
Everything in popular culture pushes us to extremes. People with another point of view are deemed enemies. No allowances can be made for differences in political or moral positions, or even in what words we choose to speak. Culturally, we are a body at war with itself.
You don’t have to be a genius to figure out where this situation leads. And again answers can be found in unpopular culture. Most are familiar with St. Paul’s teaching about one body with many parts. If we seek to destroy our political enemy, we might as well be trying to destroy one of our own legs. If we regard a person with a different moral outlook as an impediment, we might as well be tying our hands together behind our back.
Compromise is the recognition that the time, talents and treasures of everyone have value. That while we may disagree on many important things, we need each other to function as a healthy society. I think the root problem with achieving compromise is pride: We think ourselves capable of assessing the value of another person or another point of view, whereas in fact, these matters are far too complex for us to get our heads around. Approaching problems in warfare mode increases our tension and anxiety. Approaching problems with a willingness to listen makes positive outcomes actually possible.
Interdependence, not autonomy, leads to healthy bodies, be they our human bodies or the body politic. The Medieval guild system was built on interdependence. We should study that. Distributism, a very interesting economic system that stands as a principled middle ground between capitalism and socialism, is another subject worthy of investigation. The point here is this: Compromise requires an openness to different ideas and a willingness to learn. In uncertain times, we have a tendency to hunker down. That can be bad if it prevents us from moving.
Popular culture has perhaps always been a dumbing down, but it’s certainly gone into hyperdrive now. Popular entertainment is its usual mindless self, but institutions of higher learning have shifted from teaching students how to think to teaching them what to think. We’ve taken to the streets to erase cultural heroes deemed unworthy — rather than critically read and reflect on the history that tells us why these people were considered worthy to begin with. Also dumbing us down: “Research it” has been replaced by “Google it.”
Googling it skims the surface. Similarly, if we take at face value what we experience in entertainment media, news media and even the hallowed halls of academia, we will not get the full picture, or anything close to it. Understanding — the process of getting closer to worldly truth — gives us intellectual confidence in the same way religious reflection gives us spiritual confidence.
These days, getting all worked up over facts as presented on the surface is sure to make us overreact and also to ignore issues of greater importance. The only way to avoid feeling like a pawn on the world’s chessboard is to better understand the moves. You can coast mentally when times are good and the world seems certain, but in 2020, coasting is just not an option. One of the upsides of the COVID lockdowns is that at least some people have finally woken up to how lacking our educational system has been, and how difficult and important it is to teach well and learn well. This bodes well for the future.