My husband and I just spent three lovely weeks in Austria and the Czech Republic . While traveling, our biggest worry was whether or not the predicted rain would materialize on our hikes. We returned to an inferno, our neighboring counties ablaze.
This was just the latest in the long list of calamities, which we’d followed from afar on our smartphones: hurricanes, earthquakes, the threat of nuclear war, Trump’s latest and unending vileness in style and substance, Las Vegas, Harvey Weinstein.
Our friend Mary remarked that the pall of smoke in the sky felt symbolic of the pall over our country since the election. I want to resist the pall, to rise to the occasion—take in those made homeless by the fires, take in refugees and Dreamers, take to the streets and the halls of Congress. Or at least I want to be the kind of person who rises to the occasion instead of the person I am: someone who just wants to–and mostly does–retreat.
This is where I’ve been as the world burns. Then I came across a book review by James Wood in the 9/25/17 issue of The New Yorker.
Wood, too, had just been on vacation, in an Italian villa near the border with France, free to come and go with his family. Noticing the number of African migrants who are not so lucky, he writes:
I had read moving articles and essays about the plight of people like these—I had read several of those pieces out loud to my children; I had watched terrible reports from the BBC, and the almost unbearable Italian documentary “Fire at Sea.” And so what? What good are the right feelings if they are only right feelings? I was just a moral flaneur. From inside my speeding car, I regarded those men with compassion, shame, indignation, curiosity, profound ignorance, all of it united in a conveniently vague conviction that . . . “something must be done.” But not so that it would disturb my week of vacation. I am like some “flat” character in a comic novel, who sits every night at the dinner table and repetitively, despicably intones, without issue or effect, “This is the central moral question of our time.” And, of course, such cleansing self-reproach is merely part of liberalism’s dance of survival. It’s not just that we are morally impotent; the continuation of our comfortable lives rests on the continuation—on the success—of that impotence.
Wood captures precisely what I’ve been feeling. Something must be done, though I don’t yet know what, or even how to wrestle with my preference for doing nothing much. But I feel comforted that Wood is on to me, in a way that my friends who reassure me that I do plenty are not.
Do you know what I’m talking about? How are you feeling? How do you handle it—or not?