The State We’re In image

The State We’re In

How do we know when a civilisation is nearing its end? If one sign is a general ennui, listlessness, lethargy, then we could well be almost there. We are always prone to moan and complain and imagine that ‘the good old days’ were a real thing (they weren’t) but there is a collective weariness across the British Isles; a sense that nothing is working quite like it should. Broken politics, broken healthcare, crumbling concrete.

We measure and analyse whatever we can to discern the roots of this malaise and suggest solutions. (How I have come to despise that word, solutions. Every business that has ‘solutions’ in its title simply adds to the weariness and cynicism: take your business solutions, your cleaning solutions, your software solutions and drown them in a bottomless sea of apathy.) We see therapists for our personal wounds and angst. Economists present different routes to economic bounty. Politicians spin a brighter future. We’re not very good, though, at assessing how the multifaceted social changes of the past decades have impacted our national psychology. How could we be? It’s too complicated, there are too many variables and unknowns.

Yet those changes must have affected us.

Human beings have almost always existed in societies with high fertility and high mortality. We grew up surrounded by brothers and sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles, and surrounded by death. Now we grow up in small and often fractured family units, without much wider family, but with a generational stretch as increasing longevity means our parents, grandparents, even great-grandparents are a part of our lives far longer than is ‘natural’.

Until a century or so ago we were largely rural, now we are urban. Even those who lived in cities would have looked rural to us – horses drove the economy, and droves of livestock would have been common in city centres.

Until the 1830s and the development of steam locomotives no one had ever moved faster than the speed of a galloping horse.

We were analogue, and now we are digital.

Compared with less than a century ago, even, we are far less formal but in other ways less free.

In The Reign, his droll account of British history since 1952, Matthew Engel describes a society where men always wore jackets and ties (to football matches and university lectures) but children roamed the streets from dawn to dusk without adult supervision or intervention. (As a child of the 1970s, this was my experience too.)

We have more superficial freedom now: we can wear what we want, have sex with who we like, be entertained any number of ways, but it may be that our deeper freedoms have been lost.

Engel gives the example of it becoming a legal requirement in 1973 to wear a helmet when riding a motorcycle. Not to wear a helmet might seem madness (riding a motorcycle, period, might seem madness) but a motorcycle helmet doesn’t make life any safer – or more dangerous – for anyone other than the biker. So why should the individual not be free to make that decision for themselves?

A trivial example perhaps, but a metaphor for the way in which our lives are increasingly regulated and controlled.

We are constantly monitored and observed, scanned by dozens of CCTV cameras every day, tracked by our phones, algorithmed by Meta, Google and the rest. We are bombarded with shouty signs telling us what we can or (more likely) cannot do at every turn. We are drowning in regulatory red tape. And there is no way out of this. No one can argue for less health and safety – because then someone will get hurt; we can’t have less financial regulation – because then someone will be defrauded; we can’t have less safeguarding – because then someone will be abused. So we have our endless forms to fill, non-jobs are created so that people can fill in those forms, companies are built to provide ‘solutions’ to manage the hassle of it all, and yet we feel that somehow everything is falling apart.

“Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless, says the teacher.” Perhaps our civilisation is nearing its end.

While on sabbatical this summer I spent two weeks walking in the Pyrenees. Two weeks without the commercials, cars or constant cell phone coverage. It’s been a bumper year for sabbaticals – the finally processed backlog from the covid years. I, along with my friends who also had a break from regular ministry this summer, would have liked a lights in the sky moment, for the heavens to open and the divine voice to speak through the thunder. That didn’t happen. Usually it doesn’t.

I did hear some whispers though. One of the most profound was one of the most simple. It’s Christianity 101: don’t worry, be grateful.

Although I was loving it I found the first few days in the mountains quite stressful. I have little experience in that kind of environment and had all kinds of anxieties about the things that might go wrong. This wasn’t helped by talking with walkers coming in the other direction telling me horror stories about what lay ahead. This meant that fear about tomorrow was robbing me of joy for today (doesn’t Jesus say something about that?). So I consciously chose to enjoy today and not worry about tomorrow. And I chose to be grateful for all the good I was experiencing and the blessings I was receiving. That was a lesson I needed not just for the Pyrenees but for all of life.

‘Don’t worry, be happy’ is trite, a bubble-gum summer tune. What Christ leads us into is deep and satisfying, sustenance that can survive the winter. Being grateful and not worrying is not a CBT mind hack but a deliberate submission to his sovereignty that provides security and hope. Gratitude for common grace, all the good things of everyday life, even among the brokenness – married to gratitude for saving grace, the miracle of God in Christ condescending to meet us in our sin and need: his stooping down to our level.

Confident gratitude for this grace is what empowers us to hand over our worries. He really does hold us. That’s true eternally, and it’s true now, even at the end of the ages.

We live in an era of profound dissonance. Too much has happened, too fast. The impact on our personal and collective psychology will take a long time to shake out. But we don’t need solutions so much as we need to learn who we are in Christ and to build resilient communities of the saints who express deep gratitude to the Saviour and know how to turn their worries over to Him. “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

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