I have never met any really wicked person before. I feel rather frightened. I am so afraid he will look just like every one else.Oscar Wilde
A few weeks ago, I was sitting in the lobby of a downtown Denver hotel. Background music echoed softly through the halls but all was quiet and very still. The position of my chair gave me a full view of a 100 foot long wall of windows beyond which laid the sidewalk and city streets. Street lights and neon signs from nearby bars lit the world outside in a shadowy glow that gave the scene an otherworldly appearance. It was 4:30am but there was a lot of movement outside. Groups of people walked along the building, turned the corner, and disappeared into the night. Some looked like they were returning from revelry, others looked less exuberant.
As I watched, a man appeared, walking slowly along the wall of windows. In his late twenties or early thirties, he sported an unkempt beard, baggy clothes, and a backpack. Stopping suddenly, he bent down, picked something up, and lifted it to his mouth. It was a cigarette butt. He worked at it for a minute or two and then tossed it back on the street and moved on. I could see him move along the entire length of windows, cross the street, and then vanish into the darkness.
What brings a young man to the point of scavenging for cigarette remnants laying on dirty city streets? Heartache? Heartbreak? Mental or physical trauma? Drugs? Despair? All of the above?
I recently finished a book describing the wildly unlikely story of an American soldier who survived for nearly three years in the jungles of the Philippines after the Japanese wrested it from the U.S. at the beginning of World War II. The tale was fascinating in many regards but what really struck me was how quickly the order and discipline of life on the base disintegrated when groups of men were thrown into a true struggle for survival. The artifice of our civilized world was quickly cast aside as trained soldiers devolved into a kill or be-killed mentality. Atrocities were not restricted to the “bad” guys. Sure, some acts were worse than others, but everyone involved in that situation was making tough choices, many of which leave those of us sitting comfortably in our living rooms reading about it, squirming in discomfort and disgust.
About 20 months ago, we started down the pandemic path as COVID-19 descended upon us. Shelves of food and supplies were cleared as we panicked in the face of uncertainty. We submitted to many, many restrictions in the name of safety. Our leaders locked-down huge swaths of our society and our economy with the intention of preventing the spread and saving lives. We forced many people to die alone in hospital rooms in efforts to isolate the infected and prevent further death. The pandemic has been brutal. Our reactions were brutal. The results have been brutal.
As we watched COVID ravage our country, many of our own citizens decided to rampage through our city streets protesting numerous social ills. Was it opportunism? Was it frustration? Was it despair? Was it a burnt-out cigarette laying on the sidewalk? As much as we’d like to paint broad-brush conclusions about any of the above, the logic, reasons, and lack thereof are undoubtedly as complex as the story of that young man I saw walking Denver’s streets at 4:30am.
This week, I found myself hiking around the Red Rocks Park just outside of Denver. People moved about masklessly, joyfully. The sun was bright and the blue sky had a glow that exuded a sense of clean, mountain air. People laughed, ran up and down stairs, drank beer, and absorbed the beauty and the humanity all around them. I did not see anyone picking up cigarette butts or searching for remnants of food or drink in the trash bins or on the snack area tables. Freedom and prosperity are so very liberating.
Today, we see headlines about vaccine mandates, anti-vaxxers, organized resistance, increasing rates of murder, and massive spending bills. We live like things will always be as they are, or, as they were. For those of us who lived through the attacks of 9/11, the pandemic has had some similar qualities. The doubt and uncertainty caused many of use to freeze. The fear created panic in many ways and we always behave differently in the face of such encroachments upon our sense of safety. The veil between here and there is thinner than we realize.
Though I remain bullish on our country and the opportunities it affords, we must remain vigilant. The serenity of safety and comfort can be taken in a moment, from within or without. Freedom is not guaranteed and the nature of humanity tends toward domination and control. Goodness is ever-present, charity abounds, and we remain generous across our great country. But the struggle is real and continues. As individuals and as a society, threats remain and we can never take today, or tomorrow, for granted.
In the face of such a world, we need to continually discern the reality before us. Things are never as perfectly good, or perfectly bad, as they seem and we must moderate our exuberance and our despair. If this all sounds sobering, perhaps that’s ok. We don’t need to wallow in it or fear it. We must seek the truth and be honest about it. We must live with intention, persist in behaving rightly, and keep our eyes open for the opportunities and the threats. We must see the good in others and remember the brokenness that also lives in each of us. We need to keep our eyes toward all that is good in our lives even as we remember the thin veil between here and there.