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The Shelter of Each Other: Comfort in a Crisis

Today's post is from Jeremy Adam Smith, senior editor of Greater Good magazine and author of The Daddy Shift , forthcoming from Beacon Press in Spring 2009. He blogs about the politics of parenting at Daddy Dialectic, where this post, in a slightly different form, originally appeared.

My four-year-old son and I have a tradition: on certain Sundays we take the F train downtown and we spend the afternoon watching hockey or figure skating, playing on the playground, going to museums, eating.

This past Sunday I took Liko ice skating. We had tried it about a year ago and I had concluded that it was too early. But on Sunday he took right to the ice, and we skated around and around the rink, holding hands, and neither of us could stop smiling.

Later we went to the playground and Liko hooked up with two little girls, twins, about six years old.

"Did you guys go ice skating?" he asked.

They nodded.

"Did you see me? I was really good!"

They laughed, as they should have, and ran to the slide. Liko chased them.

Later we rode the merry go round and I watched his face and I thought: I'm happy.

That's my little world. In the meantime, however, I read that Congress has voted to approve the massive bailout package political leaders of both parties claim is necessary to stave off total collapse of America's economy. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to go badly. An internal Justice Department investigation has concluded that White House fired federal prosecutors for political reasons, while a former CIA official pleads guilty to fraud--just a few examples, plucked at random from today's headlines, of the ideological corruption that now seems to permeate American institutions.

The word I keep hearing in all these articles, the common thread that connects all these scandals, is "trust"--it seems that we no longer have enough of it. People don't trust banks, banks don't trust each other, and neither trusts our political leaders or judicial system.

I'm not a sky-is-falling kind of guy; I tend to see history as the story of progress, and I have a great deal of faith in the creativity, decency, and resilience of human beings.

But the signs and portents are not good; it is now very likely that America is about to enter a full-blown crisis, one that will unfold on every level: spiritual, psychological, philosophical, financial, political, and military. Every institution will be affected, and so will every person.

Am I being melodramatic? I really don't think so. America could plausibly pull out of its nosedive, but at a certain point you have to admit, if only to yourself, that we are going to crash.

Journalists keep raising the specter of the Great Depression, but we're not going to see history repeat itself; America is a different place than it was in the 1930s or, for that matter, the 1960s, two previous crisis points. The next decade will be as different from those two decades as they were from each other.

In retrospect, both the 30s and the 60s were bridges; the Depression and New Deal completed the modernization of America, readying us for the ambiguous role we occupied in the second half of that century; the 60s laid the foundation for the values we have needed in the twenty first century: diversity, tolerance, cosmopolitanism.

It's conceivable that the next decade will also be a bridge, though where it's going, I have no idea. At the moment, it seems that we are on the now-proverbial "bridge to nowhere," built by nihilists, but I don't want to believe that.

I can't; I'm a dad. For me, for all of us responsible for nurturing life, nihilism is not an option. "When I travel alone far from home, I think of my children's faces to calm myself down," writes Mary Pipher in her 1996 book The Shelter of Each Other. "Those faces are my mandalas. They comfort and secure me. The faces of those we love are the first, the primal, mandalas for us all."

Now I'm thinking of Liko's face, and of my wife's, faces I trust. They comfort me, but they also remind me to try to do the right thing, to be my best self, to try to be a hero, not a villain. We're walking on the bridge together. We all are, I think.