It seems the older one gets, the more one becomes aware of that intrepid march of time, the way hours, days, years, suddenly seem to be rushing by with a whir of intensity. And so I can awake on a Sunday morning, feeling as if I have all the time in the world to sip coffee and listen to the chorus of birds raising their anthems to the day, when all of a sudden the noon hour is upon me.
Similarly, society faces that same dilemma, with events of a much larger magnitude piling upon themselves. It’s a mark of my age once again, I think, the way change seems to be happening faster and more furiously with each passing year, and while I once considered many of these advances good things, now I’m beginning to wonder if we aren’t outpacing ourselves with change for the sake of change, bringing our nation to the brink of possibly devastating consequences.
My thoughts have turned in this direction because of March, the novel I’m reading. Many of you have read it, but in case you aren’t familiar with it, author Geraldine Brooks has taken the character of Mr. March, (the father of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women), and expanded his story, filling us in on what happened to him during the time he was away from Marmee, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. Alcott tells us he had gone to serve as Chaplain to Union soldiers during the Civil War. What Brooks gives us is the fleshed out portrait of man with deeply held, forward thinking convictions about civil rights, the enviornment, and education.
I’m only half way through the book, but one thing that strikes me is how chaotic American society is at this point, nearing the end of the war. The Southern way of life (gentility and leisure, bought from the hard labor of slavery) has all but vanished, leaving in it’s place devastation and destruction of property and people. Newly freed slaves have no idea how to live or make a living, and few citizens of the north feel moved to assist them.
Most of these boys aren’t down here fighting for the slaves,” March’s Colonel tells him frankly. “Why, they’re about as many genuine abolitionists in Lincoln’s army as there are in Jeff Davis’s. When the boys in this unit listen to you preach emancipation, all they hear is a pack of ragged baboons is going to be heading north to take their jobs away…”
So when I look around America today and start to worry about the myriad problems we face – unemployment, inflated gasoline prices, losses of homes and businesses, the crisis in health care, plus the decline of American interests on the international scene – reading March reminds me that this country has weathered hard times before during it’s brief life as a nation.
Last week a photograph appeared in the New York Times of Barack Obama carrying a copy of The Post American World, by Fareed Zakaria. Much has been made of Obama’s choice of reading material, pundits taking it as a sign of his forward thinking and his gathering of stategies for change. Zakaria once wrote (in 2003) that “America’s power was unprecedented” in what could “only be called a unipolar world.” In the five ensuing years, years that have sped like lightening across the face of this country, Zakaria now maintains “the distribution of power is shifting, moving away from American dominance.” Moving, as he puts it, from “the West, to the rest.”
“America has become suspicious of the very things we have long celebrated – free markets, trade, immigration and technological change,” Zarkaria writes. As the nation moves forward, he advises we should become a kind of “global broker,” forging close relationships with other countries, exchanging the role of didadtic superpower for one of “consultation, cooperation, and even compromise.”
The character of March was based (by Alcott and Brooks alike) on the real life character of Bronson Alcott, Louisa May’s father, a transcendentalist philosopher, educator, and abolititionist, who traveled in the same circles as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Alcott, though a learned man, was willing to “put his money where is mouth is,” establishing the first integrated classrooms, as well as a commune we would today classify as vegan, where no animals or animal products were eaten or used.
During every crucial period in the history of a society and its people, survival requires men and women with innovative ideas as well as the wisdom to express them and the bravery to enact them.
Challenges and changes are inevitable results of the march of time. It’s how we respond to them that determines how time will march forward into the future.
Now tell me, what have you read lately that’s affected your outlook on the world?
by Geraldine Brooks
pub. 2005, by Penguin Books
by Fareed Zakaria
pub. 2008, Norton & Co.