“The trouble with socialism,” said Oscar Wilde, “is that it would take up too many evenings.”
Some might argue whether what we are dealing with, what is ahead for us, is socialism. But we can’t dispute that our thinking and conversations (and social media interactions) about the state of America are consuming our evenings (and much of the rest of the day, as well).
In Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind, Alan Jacobs tells us about Horace–a political dissident in exile. A friend bestows the gift of a farm on Horace, who, separated from the engagement he enjoyed in Rome, begins to write letters, poetry actually, to advise others–and us.
Jacobs writes, “It is useful to see that these anxieties have plagued people who lived so long ago, even if we feel [these same anxieties] with particular intensity today. . . .
“Horace exhorts [his reader], exhorts himself, exhorts us, to shift our attention from those compulsions [our fears] toward questions that really and always matter–‘Where is it virtue comes from?’–because even by just exploring those questions, . . . we’re pushing back against the tyranny of everyday anxieties.”
I’m not suggesting–and I don’t believe Jacobs is either–that we stick our heads in the sands of old books and disregard what’s going on around us.
Instead, we can use older texts. He’s thinking ancient. I’m currently reading a 1960s text about a great ancient–Cicero.
To each his own form of processing.
But many, Jacobs asserts, won’t look to the past because of a way of thinking that’s emerged in recent times.
“There is an increasing sense not just that the past is sadly in error, is superannuated and irrelevant and full of foul ideas that we’re well rid of, but that it actually defiles us–its presence makes us unclean.
Jacobs asserts that this sense of defilement results from information overload and the sense that the “world is not only changing but changing faster and faster.”
As we yearn to slow down, the world moves at a faster pace. That pace and the direction of the change that’s unfolding seem daunting.
Part of that slowing down, Jacobs asserts, is to feed our minds the bread of the past, of the dead, and to feed it to children as well.
“The dead, being dead, speak only at our invitation: they will not come uninvited to our table. They are at our mercy, like the flock of shades who gather around Odysseus when he comes as a living man to the land of Hades.”
And let’s remember what Odysseus received during his visit to Hades: wisdom telling him how to go forward into an uncertain future filled with all kinds of perils.
We can look back for that same kind of wisdom.
It awaits our attention. And it withholds its benefits until we sit with it and partake.