As an article in The Atlantic suggests, many are beginning to feel optimistic for 2023. The article, in keeping with the author’s political views, cites the flop of election-deniers in U.S. mid-term elections. It also, like many people around the world, celebrates Ukraine’s resistance to Putin. Some think economies are adjusting to life with Covid. Others see a peak in inflation in America, and possibilities for a mild, or even no, recession.
Any of these hopes may be dashed by events. Supply chains may gum up again, new Covid variants may prove lethal, China may subjugate Taiwan, climate change casts its shadow, and we elect people who lie about their background. But many believe we were in some sort of freefall – each sensing it in their own way – and many now feel the freefall slowing down.
If our fear of cataclysmic disaster has abated, though, what are we optimistic – hopeful – for?
Do we want a return to “normal,” or at least a “new normal” that looks close to what we knew? The fact is that we have no idea how to go back. Experts are as lost as we are, working in their particular fields and hoping their expertise remains important. Political and social leaders are equally at sea, concerned somehow to retain their leadership status.
Meanwhile our daily life practices, formed as we each cope with a dislocated world, shape what comes next. If people grow accustomed to working from home, more jobs will be ‘remote.’ If dating has become a casualty of Covid, more singles will turn to online chats, porn, or perhaps to committed relationships. We are changing the world as we go. The changes leave no reason to expect a reset to the familiar.
The prospect is discomforting. But it does fit America’s strength and virtue. America conceived its identity in a rejection of ethnic, traditional roots. Received ideas of Englishness were displaced by a declaration that “we” were seceding from Britain in the name of certain abstract truths. Those are of unalienable rights equally endowed in all and government by consent of the governed. We, in our use of our rights, make ourselves by our own lights. Traditions and identities transmitted from time out of mind are now options, no longer ordained truths requiring compliance.
Shaping the future by living as we go is endemically American. We are not here to help society or government work better; rather, those exist to help us live by our freely chosen lights.
But that means we must live well, in the fullest sense, lest we show that a society dedicated to rights is unsustainable – or delusional. And to live well in our rights, yes, we have to take it on ourselves to shape society and government, both to meet the profane needs of the human animal and to validate our faith in unalienable rights.
Re-shaping the future and accepting the passing of the ‘normal’ is a huge challenge, but need not be a scary prospect. It is an opportunity to remake the world, each in our own lives as we deal with each other. We just need to be mindful. Self-indulgence or resentment, self-righteousness or callousness, if we etch them onto the future’s blank slate, will undermine our founding tenets.
Many ills that we face come from accepting the bad habits of ‘society,’ without following our own judgement in response. So travelers, if you resent airlines’ squeezing us – physically, monetarily, and service-wise – cut your flying back. Red Sox fans, don’t just complain that management is insincere about signing their superstars – don’t go to games. Voters, don’t just complain about polarizing partisan incumbents – vote them out, and vote out their replacements if they aren’t committed to the public benefit. Look for good things to take up – whether a blanket with sleeves or an inspiring book. Maintain the old car instead of stretching for the new model you saw in an ad. Look for the candidate who rejects both sides’ partisan dogmas. Build good habits: make your bed in the morning and pursue your best happiness.
For all the disorienting new ideas and events, people have more ways than ever before to make their wishes known, and more ability to choose how they live. Now, with so many old practices and habits disrupted, people have a chance to set new terms to underpin new ways. If the world is emerging from fear of freefall, perhaps it also raises hope that people can actively shape the world, less constrained merely to react to what gets served up. The opportunity is great; the responsibility is daunting. Isn’t that the way we want it? Isn’t this reason for hope as we mark a New Year?