Lange: Our Essential Selves

Jan 4, 2016

The year 2015 has slid away with the turning of a calendar page. Its leaving has sparked a spate of reviews, events, and predictions – as if any of them would make us wiser in this coming year. An editor has emailed me to ask how 2015 has changed us. I presume "us" means the United States.

I don’t think it has; or at least if it has, the difference is so far indiscernible. We’re still the same people we have been with the same liabilities and opportunities we had a week or two ago.

Which is not to say that 2015 was devoid of challenges; there were plenty of them. But I think that, instead of changing us, they simply uncovered and revealed more clearly who, underneath, we really are.

Back in 1997, on a canoe trip high in the Canadian Arctic, my friends and I found ourselves stalled eighty miles from our scheduled pickup point at the mouth of our river. The charter pilots, not finding us, had simply flown back to their base. We were stranded for four days, until a search instigated by our wives at home, located us, and we were finally retrieved.

What happened, as we slowly ran low on food and high on speculation, was that each of us became his essential self: anxious, or puzzled, fearful, or opportunistic. Used to being in control, we were stranded incommunicado on almost barren tundra with no options but to wait and wonder: four days of worrying what was happening down south, or for others, four extra days of fantastic fishing. We became who we were. Like an onion, which as you peel its layers becomes more its essential self, so did we.

The United States is currently stirred by cynical appeals from candidates for the presidential nomination. The rising tide of non-Aryan citizens (including our President), immigration, gun violence, terrorism – all fuel for our anxieties – have peeled away our veneers and stimulated essential responses that, in better times, we’re able to suppress.

Thus the home of the brave is in danger of becoming the land of the fearful.

We spend billions on security and feel less secure than ever, and we blame others for our discomfort. An old teacher of mine once told us, “Never follow anyone who defines himself or his cause by what he’s against, but seek the person who tells you what he’s for.”

This is Willem Lange in Montpelier, and I gotta get back to work.