How You Can Live in Terrible Times

Many eras bristle with horror, and knowing some history gives us perspective, Howard observes. (Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

The news is terrible lately.

Maybe news always is bad. Many eras bristle with horror, and knowing some history gives us perspective.

But it seems so bad now: Christians beheaded in Libya and more fleeing to Egypt, Christians kidnapped in Syria, ancient artifacts smashed in Iraq, jihadists uncovered in Brooklyn.

What can hinder comprehension of such news is the assumption that peace is normal; trouble the exception rather than the rule.

I confess a soft spot for this outlook. Our assumptions, including our religious assumptions, shape how we perceive what happens.

A different way of seeing the world comes out of the copy book of Edward Taylor , a church minister in 17th-century Westfield, Massachusetts, who is better known as a Puritan poet.

Amid other items in the book, including news of his day, sermons and letters, Taylor recorded this "remarkable providence": "A Child [that] was born at Norich last Bartholomew-Day ... being about 30 weeks old spake these words (This is an hard world)," he reported.

Taylor continued, "[The] nurse, when she had recovered herselfe a little from her trembling, & amazement at [the] Extrardinariness of [the] thing, said Why dear Childe! thou hast not known it: [the] Child after a pause, replied, But it will be an hard world & you shall know it; or words to this effect. This is so true that you may be confident of it."

As David D. Hall's book, "Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment," explains, Taylor lived in a culture convinced in general of Providence - that God provided and ordained occurrences - but also of remarkable providences, unusual events that portended or revealed something. What did a flash flood or a disfigured calf or a strange sunset mean?

Unlike those signs, this surprising baby-talk would be easy to interpret, and for us the child's words may seem almost a punch line to a joke about Puritans' bleak worldview: when a baby miraculously speaks, he's going to tell you that the world is hard.

What is a little funny is also the most sensible starting point for anyone trying to respond to our own day's news.

You may not know how to approach crises in the Middle East, let alone discern the workings of Providence there. But you have to learn how to live with the news.

A reasonable response is not only a matter of supporting the right foreign policy but also of keeping sane while beholding this present evil alongside this American life.

How do you go on every morning making sense of what you see outside your window (for me, high snow banks and long icicles that some colonial settlers could have interpreted as judgment) and what you know is happening half a globe away, the beachside beheading?

For 17th-century readers, the remarkable precocity of the baby in the story lay not so much in early speech but in early recognition of what was true about the world. The impressive thing was that the child could tell it rather than needing it told.

At present, wisdom suggests shielding children from the evils of this world. It is a blessing that many American parents have security sufficient to do that; mothers in, say, Mosul might not be able to do it the same way.

We cannot let that sheltering turn into untruth: "Dear child, you shall know it, the world is hard."

Otherwise, stuck in a secure affluent nest, they end up discontent in their own comfort, discomfited by little problems like getting left out of a birthday party or getting a bad grade or not getting the right kind of sneakers.

Some filtering is right - don't watch the beheadings - but we need to know the hard world because airplanes and the Internet render everyone my neighbor, and because children who are Christians must own fellowship, body-and-blood fellowship, with people on the other side of the world who suffer.

This is a true view of the world rather than a dark one. It allows the exercise of hope, about which Pope Benedict XVI wrote , fast hold on the good even when things look terrible.

Agnes R. Howard teaches history at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts, specializing in early America, particularly colonial New England. A version of this article first appeared on The Anxious Bench, where she blogs regularly.

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