On no real evidence but with absolute certainty, I would submit that the defining emotion of our time is anxiety.
Some anxiousness, of course, is natural to a species whose ancestors were hunted on the savannah. But now the economy seems to manufacture it. Rapid cultural change encourages it. The media amplifies and monetizes it. Social media spreads it. Politicians feed it and send it into battle.
When a society is defined by anxiety — when it ceases to believe that change involves progress — it becomes stagnant and inward looking. When the spark of confidence and purpose is gone from a human life, the temptation is to become angry or depressed (or angry and depressed). We try to numb ourselves with infinitely varied sources of digital distraction. But still, in the unfilled spaces of the day and night, the dark thoughts come. Silence is filled with self-recrimination. And despair can take root like a slow-growing cancer — not currently fatal, but always there.
It is in this kind of mood that I recently re-read the Christmas story. And most of the main characters exhibit a very different mental state. Mary, Simeon, Anna, Zechariah and Elizabeth (oh, just go look them up) were living in a kind of hopeful expectancy, a confident longing. They face weird circumstances — angelic visits, retributive muteness, an unsought pregnancy — with a deep confidence that some divine plan is unfolding. It is an approach summarized by Mary’s response to her surprising news: “Be it unto me according to your word.”
This attitude is something more than optimism, which is largely an innate trait rather than a philosophy of life. Urging someone to be more optimistic is like urging someone to have higher cheekbones or bluer eyes. And the world in which Mary and the others lived — that didn’t offer a bed to a pregnant woman and soon slaughtered a bunch of infants — would not have yielded to the power of positive thinking.
The cause of Mary’s confidence turned out to be someone entirely unexpected — something that required an openness to entirely new ways of thinking. God came, as J.B. Phillips describes it, “with an almost frightening quietness and humility.” It is an idea that remains difficult to swallow: the humility of God. But according to the story, God came to our spinning planet as a kicking, crying child. It was a symbol — and perhaps more than a symbol — that God had taken the side of the vulnerable, of the poor, of the underdog. A sign for the ages that hope arrives in ways we would never imagine — in this case, with an umbilical cord.
The whole thing could have been easily missed. Other than some brief, angelic music, it was a small, domestic drama. But it split time between BC and AD.
The Christmas promise is that individual lives can be similarly divided. It means that human beings for all time can live in confident expectation, because the author of our story will eventually make all things right and new. It means that silence can be the stillness of God’s presence. It means that hope can take root in human lives like a seed, like a child.
I have more sympathy for those who call the story projection and rubbish than those who pass by the stable with indifference. They are strolling through an earthquake without noticing. If false, this is a great fraud on humankind.
If true, it is the grandest truth. Yet accepting it requires us to think in a different way. In this view, God did not arrive as a tablet or laws or a philosopher’s argument, but as a homo sapiens. “All those years of waiting,” says Frederick Buechner, “until finally the holy dream became a holy face.” And then a man who declared: “Let not your hearts be troubled.”
This does not promise the removal of suffering or tedium from life. It only promises that life has a direction, and a destination we will know when we reach it. So we can live with courage in the midst of confusion, and patience through mad times. So we can be pilgrims rather than wanderers. So we can believe that love and justice will eventually win, in spite of all the anxious anger around us and within us.
Is it true? This year I can only manage to catch glimpses of a star, to hear fragments of a song, to see the outlines of a face. But it is enough to make out the message: Fear not.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.