by Ryan Foxley of Arlington, WA
‘Tis the song, the sigh of the weary
Hard times, hard times come again no more
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door
Hard times, hard times come again no more.
— Stephen Foster
The Unraveling that has been the last few months just continues. The pandemic rages on, with well over 250,000 dead at this writing and no end in sight. How does combating a virus that looks like eighty-three 9/11’s become a politically charged weapon of mass deception? When does denial, conspiracy, magical thinking and scientific nihilism become doctrine? Am I not my brother’s keeper? While we continue to dither and deny, Dr. Covid laughs all the way to the morgue. I try not to bend under the weight, try not to give in to the malaise. In addition to the virus, there is another contagion infecting our country, a great festering wound dividing and embittering, feeding on disinformation and lies propagated from the highest office of the land right down through the very bedrock of our society, nourished and promulgated in the dark corners of the Internet and on AM shout radio, where vitriol and hate, anger and resentment, are the guiding principles. It is easy to fall victim to these sentiments, to work one’s self into a lather over the current state of affairs. Sometimes it is good to take a step back, to look at the wider picture and reassess, to view the current political and social situation from afar, from a dispassionate place, taking into account the breadth of time, history, and human experience.
On one recent rainy morning, after spending far too much time wallowing in the news of the day, I did just that. Letting my thoughts stray into the misty past, I considered my life in the context of history, not just the history of my lifetime, or that of my parents, or even my grand parents, but that of many centuries of lifetimes. Human history is indeed fraught with hard times, times that make the one in which we are currently living seem like a walk in the park. Consider a snapshot of one such time.
The year is 60 AD and Nero, the fifth emperor of Rome is at the height of his power. After five years of successful, and even decent governance, the Quinquennium Neronis, he loses touch with reality. He exiles and subsequently kills his mother Agrippina. He becomes a populist who appeals to the basest levels of society. Populist rulers appeal to their followers by scapegoating, finding a group on which to pin blame for the woes of the people, and in their name amass and concentrate power. For Nero, the Christians filled this essential roll. He worked the citizens of Rome into a frenzied blood-lust by burning them alive, or throwing them into the Colosseum to be devoured by wild beasts. By way of excuse, he blamed them for starting the Great Fire of Rome, which some historians believe he himself may have started. This was indeed a dark chapter in human history.
But what about the stories from that time that didn’t make it into the history books? What was happening in the rest of the vast Roman Empire, that at the time stretched from Great Britain, to Northern Africa, to Turkey? What about the thousands of unreported every day events, carried out by thousands of ordinary people living out their ordinary lives?
Consider for a moment la vita quotidiana of ordinary people throughout the empire, the daily existence of shopkeepers, stonemasons, carpenters, barbers, farmers, and shepherds. Imagine you own a little farm in a fertile valley in far off Gaule, or Spain. While Rome burns, and a mad leader wreaks chaos and sows dissent, you tend your flocks, plow your fields, press your wine, raise your children. Communications and roads were quite good in the Roman empire of Nero’s day, and you would not have been completely isolated and ignorant of current events. Now and then a traveler or aquaintence will pass through bearing tidbits of news. “Ah…things are pretty rough down in the capital right now,” your traveling friend will say. “It sounds like Nero’s gone off the rails entirely; he’s not fit to govern. They say he killed his own mother! What are things coming to? All I can say is, too bad we missed out on the glory of the old Republic. In those days a fool like Nero could never have pulled off such a power grab.” The news is greeted with astonished silence, some head shaking and feet shuffling, followed by a few minutes of disgruntled banter about the state of the empire. There is another pause, a sigh, and finally your friend will ask with genuine interest, “So…how’s that new colt coming along for you? I like his looks; I believe he’s going to be a good one. Your lambs are fattening nicely this year, and that boy of yours, he’s really coming into his own!”
For ordinary people, life does go on, as it always has, and as it always will. With the 24 hour news cycle and Twitter and Facebook and all the rest, we moderns have given ourselves over to the notion that a hyper-awareness of current events is necessary and normal, (“you need to stay informed”) which leads to an overblown estimation of the immediate importance of the politics of a nation in our daily lives. For those of us fortunate enough to be engaged in agriculture, what with all the planting, ripening, fattening, birthing, cultivating, harvesting, pruning etc, there is enough immediacy to go around; enough of living in the moment to keep us in the moment for a lifetime of moments. I am not by any means endorsing complacency, willful ignorance, or the donning of rose colored glasses. History tells us things can indeed get terribly ugly for everyday citizens, and they well could again in our day. But in the meantime, we would do well to remember that even in hard times a nation must be fed, families and land provided and cared for. And for that we must be strong and resilient, and not bowed down by burdens that our not ours to bear. Daily life besets us with burdens enough. All we can do is work with the life we have, in the place, and in the time, in which we find ourselves.
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” — JRR Tolkien