The Magic Wears Off
Up here in the Great White North (and it truly is white these days, caught as we are in the grip of a wintry blast!), the media has been having fun with our dear Prime Minister’s “peoplekind” comment delivered at a recent town hall in Edmonton. Some young woman made the calamitous error of using the word “mankind” in her essay-length question, and, as luck would have it, our fearless leader deigned to correct her. “We like to say ‘peoplekind,’ not necessarily ‘mankind.’ It’s more inclusive.” Well, yes. “Mankind” is a perilously uninclusive word (I know “uninclusive” isn’t technically a word, but if our PM can make up words, so can I). Also, “peoplekind” is much more 2018, much more fitting for our enlightened, unshackled times. Granted, a white middle aged man telling a young woman what words she’s allowed to use doesn’t sound very feminist, but I suppose I’ll have to defer to those more knowledgeable about such things.
The story was, unsurprisingly, picked up around the world. Nothing goes viral faster than stupid and awkward. It even made an appearance in esteemed pages of the New York Times. But it wasn’t the story itself that caught my eye in the Times article. It was a sentence buried near the end. After talking about Trudeau’s meteoric ascent to popularity, about his good looks and his charm and his all-around progressive, photogenic, sunny goodness, we read:
But the Trudeau magic has worn off…
Well, yes. This is, in my observation, what magic tends to do. Particularly in these days of overheated rhetoric and grossly inflated expectations and microscopic attention spans. The magic wears off. Rather quickly, it seems. Within a year or maybe sixteen months, we realize that this leader or batch of politicians isn’t so very different from the previous one. Sure, the causes they champion and the language they use differs here and there. But the economy hasn’t turned around because of “sunny ways.” Gender and racial equality hasn’t magically materialized “because it’s 2018” or because the new PM endlessly mouths the words, “diversity is our strength” as if just saying it out loud often enough and with enough sincerity makes it so. Our nation has not—surprise!—suddenly morphed into our particular ideal conception of it within half an election cycle. The magic wears off.
And not just in politics. It seems this is true in so many domains of life. We start a hash-tag, we pass a law, we protest a law, we stage a rally, we raise awareness for our pet cause, we get excited about something that the church is doing or isn’t doing or should be doing, we discover an exciting exercise regime or a new diet…. And we get swept up in the movement and the moment and the grand importance of it all. And then the magic wears off. Nothing changes as quickly as we would like. We get bored and impatient and frustrated we move on. And we still have to get up and go to work. And the kids still stress us out. And people are still annoying on the Internet. And we worry if we’ll have enough money or if our jobs are secure. And the news of the day is depressing. And we really should get in shape. And we wonder what’s on Netflix…
The new social order we believed was coming turned out to be more than a click or a vote or a protest away. The new administration gradually came to have the look and feel of oldness to it. The body we’ve always wanted strangely doesn’t appear after a few half-hearted spins on the stationary bike. The church is, well, still the church. Turns out there really doesn’t seem to be anything new under the sun.
I’ve been reading Alan Kreider’s excellent book on the first three centuries of Christianity called The Patient Ferment of the Early Church. Kreider makes the case that the chief virtue that accounted for the explosive growth of the early church was not evangelistic zeal or relentless social activism or strategic marketing or political manoeuvring. It was patience. Patience in worship, in witness, in daily life patterned after Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount as a tiny inconsequential sect on the margins of the Roman Empire. A settled conviction that God could be trusted, that the future was not theirs to engineer. A willingness to wait. An expectation of suffering and a willingness to be faithful even unto death. And, above all, an unshakeable conviction that deeds must match words. As Cyprian, bishop of Carthage in 256, said:
We are philosophers not in words but deeds; we exhibit our wisdom not by our dress, but by truth; we know virtues by their practice rather than through boasting of them; we not speak great things but we live them.”
We do not speak great things but we live them.
It seems to me that we who live in and contribute to impatient times could do with a recovery of this virtue of patience. We who imagine that we’re going to change the world or educate the ignorant masses (or at least shame them into silence). Can we recover patience as a way of being in the world? Can we do good without fanfare, even if it’s not rewarded? Can we be people of peace in chaotic and cacophonous times? Can we embody the way of Jesus without forcing ourselves on others, without demanding that the state enforce our values? Can we worship and hope and love and work amidst the revolving door of political leaders and movements and hashtags and crises (real or imagined)? Can we be more eager to live great things than to speak them?
This is no plea for apathy, nor is it an apology for the status quo. It is not a failure to understand that social change is possible. It is not a blithe expression of privilege or an inability to consider how things look from the bottom of the social order where the need for change is most acutely experienced. Perhaps it is simply a recognition that the magic always wears off. And the world needs more than people who rely on the magic to sustain their faith, hope, and love over lifetimes. It needs people whose lives proceed from a settled patience—a conviction that there are chapters yet to be written in the story, that the arc of history is long, and, perhaps above all, that God can be trusted to enliven our best efforts and to make up for all that we will inevitably leave undone.