By Susan D. Harris
And what rough beast, its hour come at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
(From “The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats)
Has the “quickening” already begun? Is the pace of life so hectic, hellish and hedonistic that its reverberations are already heralding the end of days?
Something unnerving is afoot. Believers and unbelievers seem to share a general feeling of stress and anxiety about what each new day will bring. Is it some kind of Web Bot awareness of things to come, or a psychological reaction to the carousel of life spinning out of control? Are we awaiting an economic collapse or a collapse of the electrical grid? Or are we awaiting our own mad descent into a time when the fight for food and survival will drive us to do unspeakable things?
There is a belief in certain theological circles that time is speeding up as the world approaches the Biblical end of days. The book of Matthew tells us God can and will shorten time.
Additionally, the book of Daniel tells us that the pace of life will increase dramatically in the end times: “Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased.” Some Christians who believe this prophesied whirling dervish of progress has already begun refer to it as “The Quickening.” (Not to be confused with the “Highlander” films.)
Until the industrial age, man had been living in much the same manner he had for thousands of years. When the railroads came, those who scorned “progress” refused rights of way to developers. When automobiles arose from the dusty streets like some sort of rattling bones in Ezekiel – they were scoffed at. Like George in The Magnificent Ambersons, some proclaimed: “Automobiles are a useless nuisance! Never amount to anything….They had no business to be invented!”
Then radio, film and television spilled out in rapid succession. Civilization seemed to be progressing faster than history could record it. But look at us now – standing in line to upgrade our iPhone or Android every few months. There are no grand debates about advancing technology, no protests of progress, just hedonistic lust to keep up with the Joneses or fulfill our own selfish indulgence for the next gadget. No time to debate the ethics of technology when you’re sexting.
When I was younger, I had an esoteric teacher who spent a class session teaching us that when we’re born, we begin the circle of life. After completing our circle halfway, we begin to see the beginning of the circle more clearly again, including the eternal realm from which we came. I’ve thought of it often as I’ve watched my elderly relatives joyously recall adventures of their youth, while events that happened the month before seemed clouded by the passage of time. Contradicting this theory however, nostalgic yearnings formerly reserved for the “old folks at home” are now popular among 20- and 30-somethings pining for the old days. Could it be that they too sense a quickening pace even though they haven’t been in the race that long?
It’s man’s nature to look back. As we grow older, it’s natural to survey the landscape we’ve traversed instead of the path ahead. The tendency for individuals to look back or live in the past has often come during or immediately after times of great social upheaval or war. Author and Civil War historian Alice Fahsdocumented the rise of “literary sentimentalism” during the civil war as popular culture tried to compensate for unprecedented slaughter, transformed lives or unbearable losses.
Oftentimes however, those who look ahead into the vast gaping hole called “the future” are hailed as “visionaries,” while those who dare to look back are maligned as “sentimentalists” who risk being turned into a pillar of salt. That doesn’t stop us; like Lot’s wife, we can’t help but look back.
Perhaps my teacher was right. As we complete our circle, we see ourselves clearer at five than at 40. I look back to Memorial Day parades, veterans marching, bands deafening our ears and colorful banners strung across the streets. I see my father’s homemade ten-foot flagpole, the envy of our neighbors, proudly flying the Stars and Stripes. I see a mother who was employed as a homemaker, providing a sense of security generations since have rarely known. I see a town sitting in silence as businesses are closed for the Sabbath; people scurrying to church and returning home for Sunday dinner and roasted chicken. The Sunday paper was the main attraction, and “the funnies” were the most wrinkled pages as each reader passed them on snickering something like, “That Snuffy Smith is never going to learn!”
Those days seem to be gone for much of America. Yes, there are small pockets of civilization that still cling to the old ways, but they are in the minority.
To make matters worse, from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Gulf Stream waters, the parking lots, strip malls and chain stores make it hard to distinguish one town from another. A subconscious sense of ‘circling the fishbowl’ adds to our uneasiness.
Watching a video of a Memorial Day parade 3000 miles away, I couldn’t distinguish it from my own city. Lines of people walking in a parade with T-shirts and rumpled shorts – waving to bystanders as if they believed they were somehow worthy of applause simply for showing up. Gone are the days of uniforms, suits, colorful dress and costumes. We’ve become too informal, to mundane, too apathetic. We don’t enjoy being together anymore. We would rather run home to our video games, text each other, or update our Facebook page with our coolest “selfie.” We’d rather watch others’ reality on TV than experience our own.
Unlike those who struggled through the great upheavals of the early 20th century, the generations that came after have had to deal with radical changes in their collective morals and belief system. If your son announces he wants to date the boy next door, you have to be okay with that or you are labeled a “hater.” If your cousin has three different “baby daddies,” you have to respect her as a “struggling single mother.”
After nine months of carefully planned vitamins, nutrition and sonograms, social convention dictates new mothers leave their precious bundle with strangers at a daycare center. When the child begins school, he is automatically chuted into an after-school program. Having spent the majority of his formative years bonding with strangers instead of family, he is told it was a necessary sacrifice so he could attend college. Finally there, he or she receives a (supposedly) sound education and goes on to have children that will need to be dropped off at daycare and placed in after-school programs. Thus the cycle of Burke’s “flies of a summer” begins again. It’s like an inconceivably faster version of Thornton Wilder’s The Long Christmas Dinner.
It seems indisputable that a national anxiety is rising – along with stress, loneliness and a general feeling that we’re “running out of time.”
Whether it’s an illusion caused by the exponential acceleration of technology; being forced to rip down our morals in exchange for new ones as if replacing old drapes; the breakdown of the family; general anxiety from the treadmill of life; or the beginning of the end…only time will tell. Ah, the irony.