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Disaster overload

We can’t do everything, but we can do something


Disaster overload

For many Americans today, glued with horror as they are watching the sad news out of Ukraine—after a two-year-long roller-coaster ride of a global pandemic—it is hard to know how to respond. No wonder articles have proliferated offering trite advice for “how to cope with anxiety” in the face of such upheaval. After all, the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 seemed at first like a crisis of almost unendurable proportions, a year so fraught and so zany that it could not possibly be repeated. Many were the memes and the tweets on New Years’ Eve 2020 celebrating the death of the old year and looking forward to some return to normal in 2021.

Instead, the new year rudely greeted us with the Capitol riot and another full year of pandemic tribulation and political turmoil. 2022 has already given us the first full-scale European war in nearly eight decades, provoking massive spikes in already-surging fuel and food prices and promising prolonged disruptions to already-reeling global trade. There is little reason to expect a return to “normal” soon.

Or rather, there is a good chance that we are witnessing a return to normal—to the normal human condition of war, political instability, and economic hardship that has characterized most decades on planet Earth. For many of us, though, our entire living memories have taken place in the halcyon three decades of what political philosopher Francis Fukuyama called “the end of history”—the historically anomalous period of global peace and stability following the fall of the Berlin Wall. The past two years may actually point to the resumption of history as usual. Are we ready for it?

There is, sadly, a new ingredient in the mix: For the first time, unlike any comparable era, global crises are unfolding against the backdrop of ubiquitous interconnection and a truly overwhelming flood of information. We experienced the pandemic, the election, and now the war in Ukraine through Twitter, Facebook, and the constantly buzzing messenger of doom found in our pockets. Indeed, this technological shift has, in part, masked the uniqueness of the Pax Americana of the past three decades. Because this profound peace took place during a digital explosion that gave us unprecedented access to anything and everything going wrong in the world, many of us have felt these past 20 years as if we were living through a time of profound crisis and anxiety. Now that we really are, it is unclear whether we can handle it.

Human beings, for most of human history, have been blessed with ignorance about most of the evil taking place under the sun. The trials and travails of daily life were enough.

Human beings were not made to deal with the kind of information and anxiety overload that modern technology has unleashed upon us. Although Adam and Eve may have sought the knowledge of good and evil, God graciously did not give them everything they were looking for. Human beings, for most of human history, have been blessed with ignorance about most of the evil taking place under the sun. The trials and travails of daily life were enough. If the ordinary American farmer of 1850, troubled enough by the tensions tearing his own country, had been barraged with hourly updates on the Taiping Rebellion, could he have borne it? Or would he have cared?

Inundated with news of wars and rumors of wars, our temptations are either to check out, jaded and hardened against human sympathy, or to become consumed by manic anxiety. In the latter state, we are apt to flail about for scapegoats, pinning the blame for all the trouble in the world on political opponents or some other nefarious cause, and imagining that if this evil were destroyed, equilibrium would return. We must resist both temptations, attuning our hearts to the suffering of the oppressed while also having the perspective to realize that such oppression is pervasive under the sun (Ecclesiastes 4:1–3). Such balance is found above all in the discipline of prayer, in which we meditate upon the evils of the world around us but offer them up to God, knowing that we cannot eradicate them in full.

We must learn again to cultivate the wisdom summed up by J.R.R. Tolkien in Gandalf’s famous line from The Fellowship of the Ring: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” If current signs are any indication, we will be living for some years yet in a world wracked by war, inflation, and instability. Most of us may be powerless to fix such problems, but that does not mean we should give in to futility or anxiety. Instead, we should remember that God has called us to focus our limited capacities on the hurts He has equipped us to heal in our small corner of a very large world. We cannot do everything, but we can do something. That is our true Christian calling.

Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) is a fellow in the Evangelicals and Civic Life program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He founded and served for ten years as president of The Davenant Institute, and has taught for several institutions, including Moody Bible Institute–Spokane, Bethlehem College and Seminary, and Patrick Henry College. He is recognized as a leading scholar of the English theologian Richard Hooker and has published and lectured extensively in the fields of Reformation history, Christian ethics, and political theology. He lives in Landrum, S.C., with his wife, Rachel, and four children.

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