Stable Foundations in an Unstable Time, by David Merkowitz
Where do we turn to for an intellectual foundation in these trying times? Who do we trust to guide us?
Nothing about the last few months has been clear or easy to understand. This will continue to be the case into the near future. Nevertheless, for those who feel the need to understand these times, there is an ongoing to search those voices or books or experiences that provide a foundation from which to think about world. For many, religion offers that foundation. They may turn to a trusted minister, imam, or rabbi. They could turn to their holy text for that sense of solidity and purpose.
Others may look to science, to the seeming sureties offered by the scientific process of experimentation and validation. They feel most assured when they look at numerical representations of knowledge. Others may surrender themselves to an unknown and unknowable cosmos. They may find peace in knowing that we are but specks of dust in a large and growing universe. Some may lose themselves in a piece of art or music and let the aesthetic and emotional response open their mind to understanding and ways forward.
The humanities in all its variety can offer many paths toward a foundation. As a person trained in history, my first step is usually to reach for a history book that offers what feels like a good analog to some aspect of this moment. As a student of racial unrest and urban decline of the 1960s, I reached for the major texts that shaped my own work, like Tom Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis, John McGreevy’s Parish Boundaries, Lila Corwin Berman’s Metropolitan Jews, and Matthew Countryman’s Up South. In these texts, I find a world described that has shaped the one we live in now, but is different in so many small and large ways. Thinking deeply through the analog of the past is never simple or the source of easy answers, but instead rewards with deeper insights and often greater worries. The foundation they offer is one of hopeful paths and cautionary tales about earlier attempts at massive social change.
It is the tight and expansive nature of poetry that seems particularly fitting for this moment. Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J. is so skilled at offering an expansive world in a few words. I often return to “Pied Beauty” in troubled times.
Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Certainly, there are strong religious overtones, Hopkins was a Jesuit after all, but there is a meditative rhythm to it that touches the depth of one’s soul. Just working through the strange words and odd rhythms exercises the imagination and allows the intellect to conceive and reconceive the world we are trying to inhabit together.
The challenge for each of us is to clear enough brain space (and maybe even bookshelf space) to dig deeply into works that can provide a foundation from which to try think through the seemingly innumerable challenges of these late days. I challenge you to identify the works of the human mind, heart, and hand that can be your foundation and to spend some time with them. Let them shape your mind. Share them with a friend. Put that life of the mind out into the world.