The Best Of Times, The Worst Of Times

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair;
we had everything before us, we had nothing before us,
we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way-

Thus begins what is my all-time favorite book, A Tale of Two Cities, a historical novel about the French Revolution written by Charles Dickens in 1859. Dickens described in detail the savage brutality of the revolutionaries toward the former aristocrats. Yet in the midst of this horror, Dickens finds redemption, resurrection. He illustrates a great paradox: evil generates good. The novel ends as it begins, with regeneration.

I am currently re-reading A Tale of Two Cities and I am struck by the comparison between our current times in the U.S. and the time of the French Revolution. Our government has repeated many of the mistakes of the French aristocracy. We see ourselves as savior of the world and arrogantly try to impose our will on others. As a society, we value money and material things above all else. Our economy is held up only by the continued printing of money. The middle class has all but disappeared and in general our leaders are quite out of touch with the everyday realities of making ends meet in this country.

At first blush, this would seem to be an era of happiness. With access to tremendous material comforts we live longer and healthier lives than in previous generations. Yet on closer examination it becomes apparent that many of us are anything but happy. In truth, we live in an era of unprecedented suffering because we are drowning in a sea of unquenchable desire for material things. While this may have been an era of material abundance, much of the populace is spiritually bereft, and I am not talking about going to church on Sunday. Something needs to change. We need to get back to old values and recognize what is truly important in life.

I firmly believe that everything happens for a reason. If we are lucky, we get to look back on things and understand why they had to happen. In most instances the answer is that we could not have gotten to where we are if it had not happened. I suspect that our current economic woes will force a reexamination our lives and be the catalyst that leads us into an new era of simplification and old-fashioned values.

My hope is for a society where we do not measure our value by what we own, but by the kind of people we are and how we treat others. I saw some of this happen after 9/11. I watched image after image of people performing acts of kindness, like the grime-covered man who helped everyone in line get on the bus before he climbed aboard. I suspect this same man would have fought for his place in line just one day prior. Unfortunately, the goodness that welled to the surface after this disaster didn’t last. We forgot. We went back to living and acting just as we had before. I’m afraid we didn’t hold on to the lesson. Perhaps this time, we will get it.

In many ways, these could be considered the worst of times. Let’s hope our values change quickly so that we are once again living in the best of times.

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