If 20 formative years of your life involve a major terrorist attack, two recessions, exorbitantly expensive and unnecessary wars, tangibly worsening inequality, climate emergencies, and incompetence during a global pandemic, it might make you think things aren’t good.

Well that’s a pretty sobering post to find in your newsfeed on Facebook…

Odds are you have read similar posts to the one shared by one of my old college acquaintances. But they aren’t the only one sharing this type of feeling during this time of crisis. Across the spectrums of political party affiliation, age, gender, race, and class there are many who see that things aren’t as they seemingly should be. And to be clear upfront, those frustrated feelings are understandably so.

One can pretty easily presume where this person would align politically, and the crowd to which this post would most resonate with. A fact which I have no intention of taking issue with. I’d ask that we set aside any gut reactions we have about tenor of the post and focus on the more important things they state that we can all probably relate to right now.

I think we can all agree that life was different in many ways before and after the events of 9/11. I think we can all agree that the subsequent wars and then the recessions we have experienced have shaped our realities in one way or another. We can all agree that there have been seismic events in recent history that have caused significant turbulence in all of our lives. And very likely some very personal events for all of us, obviously not listed in their post, that would similarly fall into this category of life-changing moments. Loss of a job, the death of a pet, a breakup or divorce, or the passing of a loved one. Moments that many of us would not consider “good.”

This global pandemic similarly does not fit the criteria many of us would call “good”. This current situation clearly doesn’t meet the expectations this person had for the world, and probably doesn’t meet most of our expectations either. I don’t think any sane person would prescribe this for their own life, except the diehard introvert. Although I think even we introverts are getting tired of spending so much time with ourselves.

And yet this is where we find ourselves today. Life will be different after this pandemic has come and gone in ways we will not truly understand for a long time.

While we continue to confront life-altering weeks and months ahead of all of us, we will often find ourselves looking for explanations for how it is we wound up where we are. Who is to blame for the calamity we find ourselves in the midst of? Was it someone’s incompetence, as the author of post assumes? On whom shall the blame be cast?

Whether it’s substantial loss of life, a massive economic recession, or both, this isn’t and will not be ideal by any stretch of the imagination. We’re past that point already. And the restlessness for a fix to the situation will continue to grow.

But what should our expectations really be for this world and our lives? And what does “good” really look like?

I don’t intend to downplay the significance of what has occurred or lies ahead. I’m honestly pretty scared myself of what’s potentially in store. Nor is my intent to minimize the culpability of a multitude of parties. But this situation has led me to give some reconsideration to my own understanding of the “good” and I hope to share that here. An exercise in reminding myself of what I believe to be true, even if it’s so difficult in times like these to grapple with.

And I don’t think there’s a much better way to do that, than to look at recent history and the old and new ways we tell stories about this very situation.

the illusion of american omnipotence

In 1953, British political scientist D.W. Brogan wrote a famous essay at the time entitled “The Illusion of American Omnipotence” to address what he saw as a significant issue arising within American politics at the time. In the wake of World War II, the United States had gained even more leverage on the world stage. And with this increased leverage, a greater sense of power and influence beyond its own borders. We were, as some jokingly say today, Back-to-Back World War Champions.

But Brogan notes that many Americans held to “the illusion that any situation which distresses or endangers the United States only exists because some Americans have been fools or knaves.” That essentially the only reason things didn’t pan out the way we, Americans, wanted them too, was because someone lacked competence or was corrupt.

His idea of an illusion of omnipotence proved to be prophetic within a couple decades as we engaged in the Vietnam War. Contrary to the belief of many today, Lyndon B. Johnson’s decision to enter the war was widely supported initially by Americans as an attempt to stave off the influence of Communism in the global political arena. Maybe it’s revisionist history that we paint the war as so lopsidedly unfavorable, but the reality is many were on board with the decision early on. But after years of frustrating losses with little to no gains to show for the military engagements, the public support waned and faded.

The high favorability enjoyed by LBJ early in his presidency in the wake of JFK’s assassination diminished quickly as the citizens realized this was a war that would not be resolved the way they initially hoped. But LBJ and his Cabinet kept sending troops and crafting new narratives to try and justify the prolonged military engagements. Unable to see the significant barriers ahead of them or justify the losses already sustained by conceding the war, many would point to LBJ and his administration for causing many more lives to be lost with little to no political or military advantage to show for it.

The illusion of American omnipotence was revealed as a mirage, at least for the time being. We finally realized, at great cost, that we couldn’t destroy our enemies or shift global politics as easily as we had once thought. But the circumstances were difficult. And while there is plenty of justifiable blame to be cast on LBJ and his cohort, the reality is this was a difficult war to win, and maybe we cannot assign it all on our own country’s failures or to one particular person. Even I struggle while writing this to not fall into this very habit.

But how much has changed since then? Are we still under the same illusion?

Fast-forward a half century and we find ourselves confronted with yet another potential catastrophe, albeit not a military or political threat. COVID-19 has within a matter of a couple months developed from a peripheral issue hardly given much attention, to quite possibly the largest collective threat in recent world history. Whether it’s the risk of a global economic depression from social distancing measures or the loss of potentially millions of lives, we are in uncharted waters. A dangerous and unnerving situation to say the least.

While many of us probably thought the risk of pandemics like these were a thing of the past, we are all suddenly confronted with the reality that maybe we aren’t as safe today as we once thought. With so many advancements in science we thought we were secure from a threat like this, and yet here we are. Yes, with more tools at our disposal to confront this challenge. But at the same time, facing the very same enemy that our ancestors have for millennia. It’s this reality that makes us think this situation is not “good.”

Maybe we’re not nearly as well equipped to shield ourselves from the dangers of this world as we had thought. Maybe despite our best efforts to quell all threats, we’ve only left ourselves more susceptible to the foundation-shattering moment when we realized it was a mirage the whole time. Like a forest fire, when none of the underbrush was allowed to burn before, we’re wholly consumed. Like the dam that has been breached, where we don’t know what to make of the floodwaters heading towards us.

With situations like these, words to explain how it is we can and should respond are often evasive. But stories can help make the ineffable tangible. Let’s look at a recent film and a very ancient story to see how we have tried to grapple with similar predicaments over the years. Because whether your religious or not, the same is true for all of us. We are much more fragile than many of us thought we were a couple months ago.

reality is stranger than fiction

Tucked in between his comedic performances in Anchorman and Talladega Nights, Will Ferrell played the lead role of Harold Crick in a little movie called Stranger than Fiction. It was a surprising role for Will Ferrell. The movie certainly had its humorous and lighthearted moments, but not enough to make the film overtly comedy in genre.

The film begs the question, what would you do if you could suddenly hear the author of your life story narrating your every move? And how would you respond when that author said you were going to die soon?

Crick is an IRS worker, who leads a life that few would think make for an interesting story. But he was just starting to figure out his life. He was falling in love with Ana, his tax-delinquent client and life was seemingly “good.” Hearing the narrator state that his death would be coming soon was not how he envisioned his life unfolding.

He seeks out a psychiatrist to help him work through the voice he is hearing in his head. Initially the psychiatrist attributes it to schizophrenia, but says if Harold is convinced there is an actual narrator behind the story, he should lean on Jules Hilbert (played by Dustin Hoffman), a literature expert to help him figure out who is behind the narration of his life.

Jules recommends a variety of ways to fight the author’s storytelling to no avail. So Jules recommends that he make the most of his situation and enjoy the rest of the life he has left. Harold takes off from work, teaches himself guitar, develops a friendship with a coworker, and starts dating Ana. Confronted with the reality of his impending death, Harold starts living his life more fully.

That is until he finds out who the author actually is behind his story. He is able to meet with her and plead with her to let him live. She had no idea the main character of her story was a real living person. But for the story to work, he had to die. She offers to let him read a draft of the ending, to get his approval but he can’t get himself to do it.

It leads to maybe the most brilliant scene in the movie, when Harold talks to Jules about the draft ending, and asks if there is any way to avoid his death.

Jules informs Harold the only way the story can work is if Harold knowingly confronts his death and lets the story play out. That death is inevitable, but that this death the author was prescribing would be the most poetic or meaningful death he could go through. That it would make for a beautiful story.

Harold would go on to jump in front of a bus to save a boy from being killed. Although the author decides last minute to save Harold because he demonstrated character worth preserving, the viewers are left asking themselves would they be willing to face death if it was for a noble cause.

We, like Harold, like to think we are the authors of our own story. Yet in times like today we realize to a great extent, that’s not actually true. As that Facebook post indicated, what do we do when we can’t see a noble end to the situation? When the authors seem more incompetent than the author depicted in this movie? Can we really believe that everything, even bad things, happen for a reason as we so often tell ourselves? That something poetic will come of all this pain and hardship?

waiting quietly in the midst of uncertainty

Buried in the back of the Old Testament is this little obscure book called Habakkuk. It’s considered one of the minor prophets and was a book I only recently read for the first time.

The book of Habakkuk was probably written around 600 BC, just a few years before Judah was to be taken captive and many of its people exiled to Babylon. While many of the other books in The Prophets describe oracles, or “burdens” that the prophets had for the people of Israel and Judah, the book of Habakkuk tells of a conversation between himself and God about the incoming Babylonian invasion. A conversation about why God would allow this tragedy to befall the nation of Judah.

What is so interesting is that the book starts with Habakkuk struggling to understand how God can be good and just and allow the injustice they are experiencing. In essence, he is questioning where God is and how he is or isn’t acting in the bleak situation he’s observing. A very similar question that many of us have towards those who are charged with the responsibility of keeping us safe today. Why would you let this happen as the author of our story?

Habakkuk braces himself for a rebuke from God, but instead of deflecting blame or pointing fingers elsewhere, God responds graciously to Habakkuk. Yet he surprises him by taking ownership of raising the Babylonians up against Judah. Habakkuk understandably complains, that if he God cannot tolerate wrongdoing, “Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?” Habakkuk shows that God is at work, in ways we often don’t always understand or appreciate in the moment. But he allows us to question him.

The book does not end with God deciding to curb the Babylonians’ invasion. Jerusalem would still be sieged. Inhabitants killed and taken into exile. Their population dispersed. The Temple destroyed.

Harold Crick gets to save the child, get the girl, and live at the end. Even if the author didn’t change the story he at the worst would have had a poetic ending. However many of these people in Judah would not see anything close to a poetic closure for several generations. Would we be comfortable with this type of death that seems to be for no good reason for the foreseeable future?

Maybe the toughest question for any theist to answer is why do bad things happen to good people? Actually it’s a tough question for anyone to answer. Why would God allow this pandemic to happen? Or why would “X” politician, nation, organization allow this to happen?

Habakkuk could try to offer an answer to this question, but in an oddly satisfying way, he doesn’t. The book ends with a prayer where Habakkuk is confronted with the glory of God, he finds himself trembling in his presence, and vows to wait patiently for God to provide justice to the incoming calamity.

"Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior. The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to tread on the heights." Habakkuk 3:17-19

Even in the midst of terrible circumstances, he could rejoice in his God. Even when confronting the demise of his people and likely himself, he would wait patiently on the Lord.

It may help to remind ourselves that this has been a question people have wrestled with for thousands of years and we will all continue to do so. We can plead with the authors of our lives to shield us from all harm, but calamity and death will find us all. The question is can we live within that reality?

This illusion of omnipotence is by no means suggesting that we should do nothing and idly stand by watching the pandemic run its course. There are countless stories of heroism like the priest who relinquished his ventilator to save a younger person. Actions that reveal the depth of goodness in people, many of which we will never hear of. Yet, this pandemic is providing that very opportunity for reality to be revealed, for better or for worse.

Despite our best efforts to manage all threats and keep them at bay, the threats of the natural world will always pose a threat. And when the next one occurs, we will all be inclined to point the finger and assign blame. But maybe, just maybe we can learn to wait patiently in the circumstances. To give up our illusion of our own omnipotence. And to trust that there may be an author with sufficient competence to write our story.

2 thoughts on “The Illusion of Omnipotence in the Midst of a Pandemic

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