The philosopher George Santayana (1863—1952) once observed that we Americans don’t solve problems; we leave them behind. If there’s an idea we don’t like, we don’t bother refuting it but simply talk about something else, and the original idea dies from neglect. We leave the problems that bother us in the past rather than confront them directly.
When everything seemed to be going well in our prosperous past, there might have been some truth to his observations. However, this walk-away strategy is not working anymore. The difficulties that once languished from neglect now refuse to be left behind despite all contrary efforts.
Thus, problems that won’t go away are now causing anxiety in countless Americans. We are tired of so many catastrophes that have fallen upon our heads simultaneously—COVID, inflation, crime, civil strife, war, and increasingly angry and strident political divides. Everything seems to be falling apart. We want an easy way out so we can get on with our lives.
How America Faced Problems in the Past
Indeed, Santayana’s old manner of “solving” problems by walking away dominated twentieth-century America. People used to believe they could smother any significant problem with enough money, entertainment and optimism. They dealt with personal tragedies by moving on to the next marriage, house or job.
Our culture supported a delusional formula for happiness: fleeing from problems, having fun and hoping for the best. Like a good Hollywood movie, everything would turn out well.
That formula never worked well since it never solved problems but only hid them. Following it today is proving disastrous as we employ yesterday’s methods of neglect to address today’s troubles that demand urgent attention. Thus, the more we flee from our urgent problems, the more they come charging back. They refuse to go away. We cannot find closure on anything as problems seem to linger forever.
The Nature of Our Problems
Thus, Americans are asking what happened and how did we get here. They long for the simplicity of past times, considered idyllic in their memories. They want to return to the days when they could walk away from problems. They fail to understand that this flight mentality brought us to where we are today. They forget that no one entirely escapes suffering, even when walking away.
Three things changed over the years that now prevent us from walking away. These factors have increased our anxiety over the future.
The first major change is the scope of our problems that tend to intensify and multiply as time passes. The difficulties were smaller and simpler in the early days of Santayana’s observation. They were still serious and reflected a society in decadence. However, society’s residual strengths made it easier to flee from them.
As society decayed, however, each successive wave of declining morality complicated and amplified the problems. For example, the sexual revolution of the sixties gave rise to the abortion mentality of the seventies and onward. Divorce and contraception soon made broken families the norm for all society. Today’s LGBTQ+ revolution now imposes itself upon all society despite attempts to escape its reach.
Thus, problems have complicated exponentially to the point that we can no longer wish them away. They have affected fundamental institutions like the family and community. They have penetrated every aspect of our lives.
Social Structures Are Gone
The second reason we can no longer flee from our problems is that the social structures that once kept difficulties somewhat under control have broken down. Our everything-goes culture overwhelmed our best line of defense against misfortune.
Major problems and tragedies were more easily hidden or absorbed by social structures and institutions in the past. Social customs and traditions provided frameworks that helped mitigate the damage caused by these problems. Vast social safety nets also contained the elements to resolve many problems people refused to confront.
Everything becomes more complicated and unsolvable without institutions like the family and intermediary groups. Above all, the crisis inside the Church has created moral confusion that increases the impossibility of escape from difficulties that loom ever larger.
Without the essential guardianship of social structures, society falls apart. Problems accumulate and refuse to go away.
Avoiding Suffering at All Costs
A third factor enters into the equation that explains our plight. It is a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of suffering in our lives. We have the erroneous idea that a world without suffering is possible.
Our Hollywood culture teaches us from birth that suffering is to be avoided at all costs. We are encouraged to create a material paradise around ourselves where we can enjoy every legitimate (and illegitimate) pleasure. Self-interest is the norm in our society—the “pursuit of happiness” is our false god. Everything is oriented toward maximizing pleasure.
When problems threaten this arrangement (as they always do), we are encouraged to walk away from them. Moreover, our culture stigmatizes anything that might cause suffering, resentment or tragedy. Many label suffering as an injustice that should not happen to them. They feel entitled to remedies, settlements and benefits that they (erroneously) believe will compensate them for and erase their suffering.
This walk-away-from-suffering mindset is everywhere. If a marriage does not work out, no-fault divorce makes another possible. If an unborn child cause inconvenience, a chemical or surgical abortion is provided as a solution. When social structures break down, people demand government programs to aid them. In our Facebook world, everyone must at least pretend that they are enjoying life (as if they had walked away), even if they are internally devastated.
What has changed now is the impossibility of walking away from everything. As the world decays and problems mount, people experience the suffering of frantically avoiding all suffering.
Embracing the Cross of Christ
Our present crisis reflects a culmination of enormous problems that, far from going away, are only accumulating. This is what everyone is sensing right now. Either we change our wrong perspective on denying suffering, or we will undoubtedly be overwhelmed by the reality of life’s tragedies.
A true vision of suffering acknowledges that fallen humanity will never be free from misfortune, sorrow and toil. Tragedy will always visit us and bring great suffering and grief.
The best way to face this suffering is by embracing it, not walking away from it. This approach requires seriousness, the arduous task of seeing things as they truly are, then taking them to their final consequences. It means accepting trials that come our way to improve ourselves and work out our sanctification.
Those who adopt this demanding way of life are rewarded with the enormous satisfaction of a duty well done and the consolation of a clean conscience. A society imbued with this acceptance of suffering is brimming with those who sacrifice for others. Their generosity creates a culture of virtue, charm and charity.
Indeed, the Christian must imitate Christ’s Way of the Cross. When we unite our suffering with Christ’s Passion, our sacrifices can be redemptive, benefiting ourselves and others. This suffering is fruitful. It serves to transform rather than embitter us when done joyfully out of love for Christ.
The present crisis has reached the point that embracing the Cross is the only way out. We cannot walk away anymore and “get on with our lives.” Santayana’s formula never really worked since we must all suffer in this valley of tears. Our problems were never solved. They only accumulated. The American system is breaking down, forcing us to confront the problems that refuse to be left behind. We can handle this crisis. All it takes is a change in perspective, embracing Christ’s Cross.
Photo Credit: © Christin Lola – stock.adobe.com