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Shelter From the Storm

Can I be honest with you, reader?

There is nothing I want to talk about less right now than politics.

That’s why I haven’t written here in months. Not because of a dislike of writing – writing is a hugely important part of my life. Nor is it because of writer’s block, necessarily.

But it’s hard to know what to express when all you feel, looking at our modern political landscape, is emptiness and disgust. And if I’m honest, that’s how I feel. Who wants to hear about that?

The thing is, I’m not the only one. There are many of you out there, like me, who are aghast at what has become of our politics. You don’t understand why vicious rhetoric rules the day and real discussion of policy is pushed far underground.

As someone who has spent a considerable part of my life engaged in writing about, researching, teaching about, and even making public policy, the frenzy of our modern politics makes me dizzy. It’s also woefully ineffective at actually getting anything done.

This isn’t about Republicans or Democrats or Trump or Pelosi. It’s about the average American who, emotionally stirred by some news story or another, lashes out at people who are “other” than themselves. This didn’t used to be the case – at least, not everywhere. There was a time when you knew most people would help you if you were down and out.

Today? It feels like in order to be a friend to someone, they have to share your view of the world. That breaks my heart.

Recently I read J.D. Vance’s extraordinary book Hillbilly Elegy, released to great acclaim several years ago. What struck me about his life story is that, even in the midst of a hectic and unstable family life, there always seemed to be someone who cared. Perhaps the caring hand was itself bloodied and bruised, but it was outstretched nonetheless.

At one point in the book, Vance finds himself leaping from the car to flee his mother’s rage in a rural part of Ohio. He comes across a house where a woman is relaxing in the pool.

Almost without thinking, the woman jumps out of the pool and rushes to his aid – at least, for as long as she can. You’ll have to read the book for the rest of that story.

But she helped. She helped. She got up and did something. She didn’t pause to judge Vance, or ask where he came from, or why he was in such a hurry. She didn’t instinctively distrust him. She helped.

So too did Jesus, when a woman caught in adultery was about to be stoned by the gathered mob. Jesus did not deny her sin. He pretended to ignore them, and then asked who among them was without sin?

Not a one. They all had their own issues, too. Christ knew this, which is why they left with their heads held low. They left, and he absolved the woman, and bid her farewell, urging her to sin no more.

The insanity of our present age cannot be explained away as owing its source to any one person, movement, tweet, whatever.

Instead, it’s worth looking at our drift away from a sense of objective morality, and the institutions that preserve a sense of it. Churches, as maligned as they are in popular culture, serve as important bastions of constancy in a changing world.

Families, though now redefined to be whatever anyone feels like they ought to be, have traditionally been their own stable institutions in which people could find a respite from the craziness.

Communities, be they a street in a neighborhood that gathers to grill on the weekends, or a town that supports its residents as they fall on hard times, also have served this role in the not-so-distant past.

These institutions once served as reliable shelters from the storms of life, and most certainly from the faraway bogeymen of Washington, foreign aggressors, or whatever else occupied the news. They were at the center of lives that did not revolve around the chaotic din of punditry and prognostication emitting from an always-on television screen.

Today, these institutions are eroding, and society is less stable. We should not be surprised.

Our political rhetoric is a symptom of this breakdown.

And if, like me, it has you feeling aloof from the process – perhaps you, too, are clinging to the hopes and dreams of a world that has, at least for now, largely passed us by.

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