We’ve always known that nothing lasts forever, despite the fairytale, whose last words are “happily ever after.” We know that everything changes. Decay is real. Divorce is real. We have known that this time in our lives was going to end. Barack Obama’s term will end and with it his grace and style and good will and wisdom, and his being so right on us and our issues and on our place in America. He has agreed with us on what America is—he said, “We are the United States of America.”—and somewhere we knew that that has not always been so, and won’t be so again, even if it is true now. Even if we are the United States there are plenty of times when some of us hate the rest of us and we have not been united. We kill each other. Martin Luther King, Jr., taught us things that were dreams—not true, but things we couldn’t live without.
Now we discover that our dream has come to an end. But what we know—Shakespeare’s time knew this too—is that the moon governs everything under the moon. The “changeable moon” is what they called it. What we know is that, if this period in our national life is now coming to an end, the next period in our national life will come to an end too. We go through this, and then we go through that, and then we go through the other. And what we know is that the world changes, endlessly. If decay is real, so is burgeoning life.
So what do we do now? We learn from people who’ve gone before us. What they do is, they fight. They win. They lose. Then they take a rest and fight again. Then they win. For a time. I suspect it is only the little things that we fight over that get resolved. Apparently the really big things—like What is America all about?—get fought over for years, for generations, centuries. We’ve been struggling with race in this country since the nation was founded.
We can’t opt out of any of that. You’re born, you fight over the things that you’re presented with, you fight a good fight, and then you die, passing on the really big things—what is America all about?—to the next generation.
When I was in the Army, when I was twenty, the book that mattered the most to me was The Myth of Sisyphus, by Albert Camus. Sisyphus had offended the gods and was condemned to push a rock up the hill. When he got to the top, his rock rolled back down again, and Sisyphus followed the rock back down the hill, knowing that this was his job, and then he began to push again. When would he be through? Maybe never. When could he finish the job in front of him. Maybe never. Was it his fault that the rock wouldn’t stay on top of the hill? No. That’s just the way things are. Maybe we did this thing wrong. Maybe that thing. But we didn’t live our lives wrong. We weren’t stupid. We’ll do better next time.
But for now, we have to fight again. There’s no escaping that.
Albert Camus. The Myth of Sisyphus. Originally published 1942 in French. Justin Obrien published the first English translation in 1955. It is available on Amazon.com and in digital formats.