By Dan Beauchamp
On a recent evening, after a wonderful dinner with friends, all of us deeply interested in politics, we of course ended by talking about the Presidential election. Although divided between the two strong Democratic candidates, we could support either. But our fears that we might be disappointed again were not far from the surface. Just before leaving, I said, dejectedly, “I think it is possible that we may lose the election in the fall.”
As a man in his early 30s, working in Washington, from 1967 until 1972, I witnessed the heyday of the Great Society and the beginning of its end in the second Nixon Administration. My wife Carole and I met in Washington; she held a senior job on Capitol Hill. As the Vietnam War ground on, I left my work to go to graduate school in Baltimore. Ever since, we both have struggled to do our part in putting our politics and policy into a more just path. While we often had our hopes, in truth these hopes were often frustrated.
Now at 70, ten years into retirement, time seems to be running out. I grow increasingly anxious and depressed that the politics that I believe our country needs may not turn up again in my lifetime. Instead, I fear that we will face a politics that exploits this country’s divides and fault lines—the divides of race, religious moralism, immigration, and empire, all of which will put our nation’s future on hold.
After dinner, we came home and turned on the last episode of the HBO series “John Adams.” It would be hard to summarize the richness and complexity of this series, with John Adams and Thomas Jefferson at the center, first as friends, then as political enemies and finally reconciled when both are very old and nearing death. Both died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
The series is brilliant in capturing Adams’s many disappointments and defeats, his keening impatience, and, yes, at times his bitterness. But in the end he still has hope for our nation. The series reminded me that throughout the long sweep of American politics, with all of our struggles to forge a more perfect union and our repeated failures, we have had astonishing successes.
Adams’s surprising hope in the last episode somehow reminded me of Paul Tillich’s beautiful sermon, “Is There Any Word from the Lord?” found in his book, The New Being. The sermon is based on the book of Jeremiah and the siege of Judah and King Zedekiah by the Babylonians. Tillich, in his sermon, explores what it means to ask, “Is there any word from the Lord?” Tillich is in effect asking: Is there any meaning or destiny to human strivings, or is it all simply the endless struggle for power and privilege and spectacle?
Tillich says that in asking after the word of the Lord we are asking to escape the “anxiety of the possibles,” the always limited possibilities that we perceive in our historical and political situation, limits that exert an almost tyrannical grip on us, closing us off to the larger meaning of our democracy and our hope in forging a more perfect union and community. It is precisely this tyranny of the possibles that has had me in its grip, undermining my sense of hope. It is this anxiety over the possibles that has our nation in its grip, a politics of division and fear that holds us prisoner, captive to our worst angels.
For decades now, the nation has faced a rather stark choice, a choice that faces all democracies. All democratic politics occurs within a divided society. The task of democracy is to narrow the divides with more social equality, more specific liberties for all, and a widening and deepening democratic tradition that holds us together in times of crisis. We have instead become hostage to a politics of exploiting the divides, a politics that increases the anxieties of race and class, a politics that deepens inequality, a politics that substitute traditional or family piety for the democratic traditions of self-government and an enlarging trust.
Yet, despite my fears and anxieties, I must not, we must not abandon hope. I must see that my time and our time must always be a time for a democratic hope -- a prophetic hope in the larger possibilities and meaning of democracy than our times suggest. Hope is not a shallow optimism. Hope does not hangs it fortunes on this or that election. Hope in politics is precisely the democratic determination and faith to resist and fight on in the face of lengthening, darkening odds. Hope is persisting at exactly the times and places where the "anxiety of the possibles" makes it seem futile to persist. Hope is a patient waiting and refusal to surrender to our darker angels. Hope is making one's self always ready and available and attentive to the possibilities of community wherever we may find it.
At the very close of the final episode, as Adams was only days away from his death, he is walking in a lane with his son Thomas. He says that he is not tired of life and that he still has hope. He spies a small flower in the path. He stops and recalls for his son the splendor of royalty during his days as ambassador to France, with all its diamonds and glitter, “Today, I find more beauty in that little shrub right there.”
He added that his wife Abigail Adams constantly reminded him that he never took pleasure in the mundane. As his life was coming to a close, Adams says, “Now I find that if I look at the smallest thing, my imagination begins to roam the Milky Way.” And then Adams says, somewhat cryptically, “Rejoice evermore!” When Thomas looks puzzled, Adams laughs: “It’s a phrase from St. Paul, you fool!”
And this too is always the word of the Lord, as Tillich also reminds us. When we look at the everyday world before our eyes and wake up to the presence of all that is, we grasp the world’s terrible beauty reflected in even the smallest of things, a beauty that rebukes us for forgetting that we are always in the presence of a “word from the Lord.”
Dan Beauchamp, Ph.D., is a retired professor of public health and a former health official in several states, including New York. He is also a practitioner of Buddhist and Christian meditation and a church deacon. He and his wife, Carole reside in Durham, North Carolina. His blog, "Tales of Copper City, can be found at: