First Things magazine is no stranger to controversy. In recent years, it has been increasingly critical of the market economy, made bizarre defenses of kidnapping in the guise of a book review, and become a clearing house of contrarian and moralistic perspectives on the COVID-19 pandemic. Earlier this week, First Things editor R.R. Reno took to Twitter to accuse those who try to avoid the spread of the coronavirus by wearing masks of cowardice. The tweets, since deleted, were widely criticized. Both Reno’s initial tweets, and those tweeted in his defense or denunciation, expose the frustration many feel during this crisis.
The entire episode is a case study in losing our bearings during a crisis. In the face of the tremendous disruption caused by lockdowns, politicians outsourcing their responsibility to “science,” and the systemic failure of Western institutions to respond effectively, many are distracted from their duties to themselves and their communities. They have surrendered their hearts and minds to sharing gossip, vapid opinions, and outrage on social media.
This phenomenon in general is far more concerning than Reno’s ill-considered tweets in particular and extends to the pattern of behavior demonstrated by both critics and defenders of them: “Fools show their anger at once, but the prudent ignore an insult” (Proverbs 12:6).
The painful reality is that for most of human history, as Thucydides illustrates in his account of the Siege of Melos, “The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.” We find ourselves powerless to direct the economy, politics, or nature itself. The illusion that we can control these forces lies at the root of all totalitarian ideology. Accepting these limits is the beginning of wisdom: to refuse to have any gods before the Lord and to turn to Him for our daily bread. The urge to blame, shame, devalue, and dismiss is one rooted in the frustration that comes from the realization of powerlessness, a realization which is acute for many at this time.
This resentment leads to the sorts of angry displays on social media of which Reno’s is but one example. Those who piled on are victims of the same forces, pulled into needless controversy. This underscores the reality that Søren Kierkegaard once observed: “People hardly ever make use of the freedom they have.” The freedom to act is not a freedom to shape world historical events—single-handedly restoring prosperity, good governance, and human flourishing—but the freedom to shape ourselves and serve our communities.
No one fully understands the mystery of change, but the German writer and polymath Johann Goethe’s intuition that it must begin with ourselves is undoubtedly true: “We must first be in harmony with ourselves, and then we are in a position, if not to eliminate, at least in some way to counterbalance the discords pressing in on us from the outside.” This requires attention, reflection, hard work, and a servant’s heart. It does not primarily occur on social or mass media, which too often serve as a distraction from the task at hand.
(Photo credit: Public domain.)