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The Times That Try Our Souls

So … how are you feeling about the election?

I have a friend who noted recent political history (there is usually a congressional “flip” at midterms when the president’s party has been in the majority) and that the predicted “wave” didn’t occur. He wondered why liberals/progressives were feeling disappointed.

He also lives in a blue state.

I tried to explain that for many of us (especially in red states), it felt like a confirmation that our country is simply going to get more and more fragmented, where people are afforded human rights in some states, but not in others. And the “United States” as an entity is not going to protect us.

On election day, I delved into the writing of Unitarian Thomas Paine. Ole Tom Paine was not very popular in his time – which was the time of the creation of the United States as a nation. He was a visionary, way ahead of his time, who wrote pamphlets to try and sway people to his thinking, especially about separating from England. We tend to admire visionaries and prophets … long after they’re gone.

You are probably familiar with the quote that begins his first pamphlet: “These are the times that try men’s souls.” He published that in December of 1776. In that essay, he says:

A noted one, who kept a tavern at Amboy, was standing at his door, with as pretty a child in his hand, about eight or nine years old, as I ever saw, and after speaking his mind as freely as he thought was prudent, finished with this unfatherly expression, “Well! give me peace in my day.” Not a man lives on the continent but fully believes that a separation must some time or other finally take place, and a generous parent should have said, “If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace;” and this single reflection, well applied, is sufficient to awaken every man to duty.

What if part of our purpose is to be that “generous parent” (whether we have children or not) and to accept the duty to deal with trouble now, so that the next generation may have peace?

A better country, one in which a person’s rights didn’t markedly decline or increase as they crossed state borders, that is a vision worth fighting for. Once again, I am reminded of James Luther Adams’ words, that I shared last Sunday:

Liberalism holds that the resources (divine and human) that are available for the achievement of meaningful change justify an attitude of ultimate optimism. This view does not necessarily involve immediate optimism. In our century we have seen the rebarbarization of the mass man, we have witnessed a widespread dissolution of values, and we have viewed the appearance of great collective demonries. Progress is now seen not to take place through inheritance; each generation must anew win insight into the ambiguous nature of human existence and must give new relevance to moral and spiritual values.
Let it be in our day.