The late Halford Luccock, who began teaching at Yale Divinity School a year before the Great Crash of 1929, recounts in his book, Unfinished Business, a story told by a dinner guest about the fate of Flagstaff, Maine. When residents learned that their small town was to be flooded as part of a dam project, they stopped all improvements and repairs to their property. Soon the town fell into ruin. As the dinner companion observed, “What was the use of painting a house if it was to be covered with water in six months? Why repair anything when the whole village was to be wiped out?” Then he added: “Where there is no faith in the future, there is no power in the present.”
I heard that same logic during an exchange on a recent episode of “The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer” on PBS. Economy experts had just described the current financial crisis as a crisis of trust. “Yes,” agreed the New York Times columnist David Brooks: “People don’t have trust in the future. And if you don’t have trust in the future, why should you invest? Why should you spend?”
Surely the daily reports of criminal behavior, corruption and malfeasance by money lenders, investment firms, government regulators and many others have created a crisis of trust in our institutions. Yet as Brooks insightfully noted, the lack of trust now has spilled over into our vision of the future, and it is paralyzing our present.
A Spiritual Challenge
Hope in the future is deeply rooted in our national psyche. It is part of the soul of our nation. Pope Benedict XVI said as much last year when he spoke at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C.: “Americans have always been a people of hope: Your ancestors came to this country with the expectation of finding new freedom and opportunity...of being able to start completely anew, building a new nation on new foundations…. Hope for the future is very much a part of the American character.” Clearly the challenge before us is not simply economic or psychological, but spiritual.
This is a moment to recall who we are. We are a people unafraid to welcome “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses,” because we measure others by the quality of their hopes for the future, not by the circumstances of their birth. We are a people who have learned repeatedly throughout our history that economic distress can help us to appreciate that there are other ways to be rich that are not financial or even material. We are a people who have successfully undertaken enormous tasks that would have daunted others.
Here in my own backyard, the Black Hills of South Dakota, I am reminded that we are a people who esteem genuine leadership to the point that we literally move mountains to honor our heroes in stone carvings, whether they be U.S. presidents or a murdered Native American named Crazy Horse.
A Greater Sense of Solidarity
It is time to recall all of that and more. I offer here a simple proposal as an example of how each of us can be more intentional in reawakening our common heritage of trust in the future for our individual benefit as well as for the good of our nation and the world.
Let us use part or all of the rebate or tax credit we will receive each pay period from the government’s economic stimulus package to benefit someone besides ourselves. Give a more generous tip to the waitress, the parking valet, the barber. Buy a bag of groceries for a poor or elderly neighbor. Help a teacher who may be using his or her own funds to buy school supplies for disadvantaged students, or help parents who cannot afford medicine for a sick child. See this money as our chance to build a greater sense of solidarity in our nation, reminding us that we are all in this together. Let our generosity say to us and to others that we are confident about the future.
What I am suggesting here is that we turn around the moral of the story, and show that “where there is power in the present, there is faith in the future.” Let us call one another to use creatively the power for good we each possess in the present. In doing so, we can rekindle hope for our future, and thereby bring about the kind of remaking of a nation that has always made America exceptional.