Probably one of my favorite scenes in all of modern film is in the Coen brothers movie No Country For Old Men. If you have seen the Oscar-winning flick, you know it has enough action and suspense to require a mild Xanax prescription with its viewing. The scene I am thinking of, however, is not impressive in terms of action, camera work or special effects but, as is often the case with the Coens, strictly in terms of dialogue.
Two Texas sheriffs, separated by hundreds of miles and united by a violent crime, sit down for coffee before one of the sheriffs (Tommy Lee Jones) takes the long drive home. As they process the crime, its twisted and horrific chain of effects, neither of them can make sense of where this world is heading or what all this violence is "leading to?" Aside from the serious discussion about the existence of evil and the trajectory of history, the scene is really funny! I hear my grandfather talking when the other sheriff complains about how 20 years ago people didn't have "green hair and bones in their nose" and that "the dismal tide" is turning. The entire scene lasts only a couple of minutes but it betrays a great deal about evil, humanity, time and the question, "Are things getting better or worse?"
When I first saw No Country I felt an arrogant sense of pity for the two sheriffs. How could they not see that humanity has always had the potential for evil? Don't they see that the world is just changing? Surely their own grandfathers probably had identical discussions in their latter days? Now that I am a little older and have probably allowed myself to be more shocked by human violence and tragedy, I can understand the characters' bewilderment.
I am in the process of finishing a book about the Bosnian-Serbian war. More than several times I have had to put it down because the stories of torture, rape, murder and ethnic cleansing are flat-out nauseating. Whats more, the author continually makes the appalling observation that all of this happened in Europe, in the same century that Nazis tried to exterminate the Jews! Has nothing changed? We were told to never forget Auschwitz, Birkenau and Dachau so how could humanity's memory not last into the early '90s?
If I am completely honest, it's hard for me to look at history and say things are getting better. Even though each generation of arm-chair philosophers posits the downfall of man in their own time, I find it nearly irresistible to avoid the same conclusions. I do wonder, though, if human suffering and violence is simply more amplified now because of our interconnectedness? After all, in one ten-minute session online I can read about dozens of bankruptcies, betrayals, murders, lies and infidelities. To a far-less-serious extent, and oftentimes more annoying, I can also hear the cries of thousands of friends who complain about everything from Democrats to Babies-R-Us on Facebook. "It's the dismal tide."
So, is history really plummeting to its dreadful conclusion or can we now just see more of what we once could not? I'm not sure if I can answer my own question. It's impossible for me to ignore the amazing amount of good being accomplished in the midst of our planet's constant turmoil. I will say that I don't want to sit in a corner with duct tape, bottled water and a taser that's primed to fend off apocalyptic cannibals. The potential for fear and fear mongering is unceasing. I would rather find ways I can change so my own world and the one around me will get better. Jesus, in fact, calls for that same sense of responsibility in the gospels.
To the often gloomy Pharisees, so concerned with how the dregs of society were polluting their towns and cities, Jesus spoke his harshest words of personal accountability. "Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness...Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without knowing it" (Luke 11:39, 41). The point Jesus makes is what singer/songwriter Jon Foreman observes: "A mirror is harder to hold." Jesus understands that in order for the world to change, we must stop regarding wickedness as something we see in the outside world and start recognizing it in ourselves.
So, I suppose I am in the process of recognizing myself as painfully human. Maybe the whole world is going to pot, but I am not responsible for the whole world. My prayer is for the recognition of and responsibility for violence, greed and emptiness in my own heart. When I understand that I can't fix myself and that I need outside help, I am less prone to fix everyone else's problems before seeking help for my own. I find that I am much more helpful to people with problems when I look in the mirror and see one of "those people."