Reader Reactions & Anecdotes

23 February 2008

Our Nation's Problem Is All of Us

That's the headline the editors of the Wilmington (Del.) Sunday Journal applied to one of my columns when I was doing a weekly freelance stint for them during the late 1970s. It caught my eye today when I was poking through some old material, and I thought that, for all the intervening years, it retains some currency — a kind of relevancy to what we're dealing with as a nation today. What follows was written during a bitter winter, when the the Mid East oil embargo was in full sway:

The recent freeze has reintroduced me to a truth I learned long ago but had rather forgotten: there’s a kind of cold that no amount of external heat will cure.

The reminder came in the twilight of a clammy and featureless day during the past week. I was rummaging through some files on the third floor of an old house we have in Chesapeake City, and without warning I was plunged into the most terrible kind of cold there is.

The house, for all its many rooms and ells and porches and high ceilings and tall windows, is a friendly one. We acquired it several years ago as a place to headquarter my wife’s antiques business, and, despite my initial suspicion that it would be a monster to keep warm, it has proved to be remarkably efficient and economical for a building its age and size.

Since it’s not where we live, we’ve patched and restored the house only as time and money have permitted, and so there’s still plenty to do. But it responds readily and well to love and care, and someday, Lord willing, we’ll have it looking pretty much the way it must have looked in 1844, when it was built by a lumber dealer prospering from the Chesapeake and Delaware canal trade.

Anyhow, on the evening in question I was digging out some reference material stored on the third floor, which is in a state of dishevelment and will be the last area of the house to feel the eventual touch of our modest restoration budget. The ceilings are low there, and the windows are small, and there’s the smell of ancient wallpaper and undisturbed dust. I’d never been up there alone at nightfall, and in the glow of the solitary light bulb, there was a melancholy that seemed entirely alien to the happy house below.

As I fingered through the papers, my mind went to the old rumor, passed on to us by a villager shortly after we’d settled for the place: one of the previous owners had shot himself to death in the northwest room on the third floor, where the wall plaster is stained and holed.

He is still there, the story goes, a spirit trapped and lost.

I was working in the center hall at the top of the stairs, and my back was to the doors and darkened bedrooms beyond. And somewhere in the interval the clamminess got to me, and I began to experience a great uneasiness. My mind assured me otherwise, but my crawling skin told me that I was being watched.

Every ounce of logic demanded that I turn and, with a glance, confirm that nothing lurked in the northwest bedroom. But I was suddenly aware of this terrible cold, and a dreadful inability to look behind me for fear of what I might see there.

Closing the files, I straightened up, took a deep breath, and strode across the hall to the stairway, and, keeping my gaze locked squarely on the steps, glancing neither left nor right, I hurried down to the second floor and sanctuary.

I stood in the lower hallway, my heart pounding and my hands like ice, listening. But as I listened, hearing nothing, the animal fear began to subside, and after a time my reason (such as it is) reasserted itself.

The thought: there was nothing up there in that darkened room but my own imagination. And my imagination, given its rein, could eventually freeze me with fear, and the fear could kill me as surely as if I’d fallen asleep in one of those snow drifts outside. In the long and thoughtful interval, an idea drifted in — a perception of the fear that’s killing our country.

It occurred to me that our national imagination has run away with us, allowing us to believe that we can have anything we want without working for it, enjoy any privilege without accepting the counterbalancing responsibility. And, in the denouement that’s an intrinsic component of such fiction, our self-delusions have turned what was once our national confidence into a cold and slowly paralyzing fear.

We’re all afraid now to look into the darkened room that contains our national problems. We stand frozen, feigning preoccupation with the little routines of daily living so that we might not have to concede that the cause of our nation’s problems is us — all of us.

We, as a people, have exactly the wasteful and inefficient government our willful and persistent blindness permits; we have the very breakdowns in systems and order and interracial and international relations our self-indulgences have allowed; we have the inferior products and services our laziness and selfishness and indifference have guaranteed.

We’ve pampered, temporized, spoiled, ignored, avoided, excused, rationalized, conned. We have not leveled, we have not cooperated, we have not sweated, nor have we prayed.

We’re frightened silly, and we don’t want to look around because we might see that what we really fear is ourselves. And for all of our talent for self-delusion, we know down deep that there’s no escape from ourselves.

I thought about all that, standing at the door leading to the gloomy third floor. And then I saw the absurdity of a grown man cowering at the foot of a stairway because he’s afraid of the dark at the top.

This was my house, by God. It would be just as happy as I allowed it to be — on the third floor or anywhere else. If there were spooks there, it was because I’d put them there myself. And it was up to me to throw them the hell out.

And the same, I thought, goes for our country, too. If we’re going to save our duffs as a nation, we’d better stop shaking and get cracking.

I went back upstairs and worked at the files for a long time.

I was surprisingly warm the whole while.

Copyright © 2008 by Jack D. Hunter.  All rights reserved.  No part of this document may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author.