As anno domini 2020 limps into another month, we are all bound to hear a thousand times, “I can’t believe it’s June already!” (or some slight variation thereof.) We heard it in May, and in April before that. This is one of the strangest side effects of the coronavirus crisis: it has wrecked our sense of time. These last months seem at once a moment and an eternity. Though it seems a lifetime ago that we went about our business undisturbed by virus or lock-down in the early days of spring, it seems too near-impossible that we have already come to June. Even stranger, it soon will be November.
In most election years past, the great impending event of November would have been dominating news cycles already. But even with two clear candidates set to face off in the fall, election news is shockingly close to radio silence. For two months, Trump’s public image was centered entirely on coronavirus response, until even that was eclipsed by nationwide riots. And America, after five long decades of trying hard, seems finally to have forgotten who Joe Biden is. As we approach the midpoint of the year, half of the country is closed and the other half is burning. The demands of the present moment seem so pressing that we can hardly bring ourselves to turn away from it to a moment months away.
From time to time we do hear talk of the election, though filtered through the year’s only permissible conversation topic, Covid-19. We are told how the virus proves Trump must be reelected; we are told how the virus proves Biden must be elected to replace him. A thousand people have a thousand insights into the thousand lessons we must learn from the crisis at hand, and how we ought to bring those lessons to bear in the voting booth. But we should be very careful not to learn any lessons at all. The present—not just this one, but any present—has very little to teach us.
Consider everything that has happened in these few long months. Consider everything that must be seriously weighed in deciding a major vote. Ask yourself: What has really changed? Has anything transpired since February so earth-shattering, so momentous, that it outweighs unknown eons of human experience and tradition in these things? That it outweighs even the decades or centuries of experience related to our more particular political concerns?
Take, for example, the one issue that should be at the front of any Catholic’s mind in a national election: abortion. This year has only confirmed everything we already knew. As churches nationwide shuttered their doors—some willingly, some by state compulsion—in attempts to slow the virus’s spread, abortuaries remained open, deemed “essential” by the powers that be. But anyone tuned in to the political discourse of these last few years could hardly have been surprised. This was only confirmation of abortion’s elevation to a suprareligious status, a reminder of an insidious trend that has been building and decaying for decades in this country. This decades-long progression, too, is just the latest and most vicious incarnation of an evil that has been with us for millennia. Now and always, Moloch demands sacrifice.
What is true of abortion is true of countless other things affected by our votes. If we stir ourselves out of the present chaos, we find concerns far more substantial than any one virus, any one riot, or any one time. Our political interests are the same as they always were, founded as they are on eternal truths. These truths have faced a thousand pandemics, a million riots. “Nothing under the sun is new, neither is any man able to say: Behold this is new: for it hath already gone before in the ages that were before us.”
If any good comes out of this mess, it will not be some great revelation of the strengths or weaknesses of our governmental system, our political moment, or our political parties. These things have always been obvious to people who were paying attention. It will simply be to remind us what we already know—to remind us of the basic fact that we know it. Nothing is new under the sun. But each generation coming and going needs (it seems) to be reminded.
As all things have come before, so will they come again. And so as we look to the past, we must look to the future. Our political system by its very nature breeds shortsightedness. We choose what we want for a given moment; we can choose again in four years. This is, of course, a thin and dangerous illusion. Our choices in each election will have consequences that reverberate through the ages. If we are to vote for a new regime every four years, we ought to remember that we are really voting on some small part of the rest of time, that the stuff of those four years will form some small part of every year to follow. Our temptation to ignore this fact is heightened in times of turmoil like this one. But all logic suggests that it is our awareness of eternity that should be heightened.
If this crisis is going to redefine our relationship with time—and it certainly will, as the great mass of Americans find themselves unable to apprehend their temporal existence without the rote rhythm of the workweek—it should not be by floating us off into a daze, unmoored from our historical sense. These moments ought to wake us up, to open our eyes and turn our gaze to what lies very far ahead and very far behind. When November rolls around, again a moment and an eternity away, we must remember the future and the past. We must (as best we can) forget the present; its only difference from either future or past is that it is much, much smaller.
Image credit: AFP via Getty Images