A posada in Nogales, Mexico, commemorating Mary and Joseph’s search for shelter (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

At his inauguration two weeks after the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, President Joe Biden spoke movingly of America’s democratic ideals even as he soberly enumerated the country’s challenges: “A raging virus. Growing inequity. The sting of systemic racism. A climate in crisis.” For many who were listening, hopes were high that a new administration would bring a return to normalcy. Nearly a year later, however, the pandemic is still with us, despite the wide availability of effective vaccines. An otherwise robust economic recovery is held back by rising consumer prices and lingering supply-chain disruptions. The conviction of former police officer Derek Chauvin for murdering George Floyd has not quelled racial tensions. Another summer of deadly fires and floods has underscored the inadequacy of our response to climate change. And the Republican attack on voting rights continues, while our already intensely partisan country remains more divided than ever.

Small wonder, then, that large numbers of Americans are reporting symptoms of anxiety, depression, and exhaustion. Recent surveys by NPR and data from the U.S. Census Bureau show that a third of U.S. adults are struggling with mental-health challenges; children and young people—especially LGBTQ people and people of color—are faring even worse. The spike comes even as the nation’s patchwork mental-health system, already overtaxed before the start of the pandemic, has proved incapable of accommodating the surge in demand for services. Providers’ waiting lists have grown just as more therapists, as well as more doctors and nurses in COVID wards, report increased levels of burnout. The crisis is visible not only in the record sales of books on trauma and self-care or in unruly outbursts on airplanes; unable to find or afford relief, many Americans have turned to self-medication and substance abuse.

Whether or not things are actually worse than normal, they certainly feel that way. That may be at least partly by design. Bad news and sensationalism in the media are nothing new—doom and gloom have always sold best—but the ever-more sophisticated algorithms deployed by tech and media companies, engineered to favor incendiary and divisive content in viewers’ feeds, have incentivized media outlets to produce and highlight more of these negative stories than they otherwise might. The result is that other, more positive stories are crowded out. For instance, poverty has been drastically reduced thanks to the generous provisions of the American Rescue Plan. The passage of the Infrastructure and Jobs Act has paved the way for the country to begin repairing its crumbling roadways, bridges, and transit systems. And the approval of vaccines for children and the announcement of an effective new antiviral therapy from Pfizer may finally allow society to recover from the pandemic

The Christian tradition has always insisted that the way we see things has moral, spiritual, and even cosmic stakes.

Though we don’t always realize it, we are free to choose where and how to direct our attention. As the Advent season reminds us, the Christian tradition has always insisted that the way we see things—others, ourselves, our world—has moral, spiritual, and even cosmic stakes. In a 1966 essay titled “The Time of the End Is the Time of New Room,” Thomas Merton reflects on a single detail in Luke’s infancy narrative: Mary gives birth to Jesus and lays him in a manger because “there was no room for them at the inn.” Packed with travelers rushing to register for the Roman census, the inn in Merton’s telling becomes a mirror image of modern mass society, where “each new announcement is the greatest announcement, where every day’s disaster is beyond compare.” Such a world, awash in distraction, cannot help failing to notice Christ’s nativity: “There is so much news that there is no room left for the true tidings, the ‘Good News,’ The Great Joy.”

This joy—the fact of the Incarnation, which we celebrate at Christmas—is the alternative to anxiety and despair. It announces a different kind of “end times,” marked by the fulfillment of hopes and the definitive arrival of freedom. This is what Pope Francis has spent much of his pontificate trying to get us to see. Moving forward starts with allowing ourselves to dream of a more fraternal world, one animated by solidarity rather than anxiety. The pope’s decision to inaugurate a synod in the midst of a once-in-a-century pandemic ought to remind us that this is not the time to turn inward or surrender to our fears.

The trials many people in America and around the world are suffering are real, and they should not be minimized. As Pope Francis noted in his global prayer intentions for November, what those in pain need from us is neither judgment nor false optimism, but a listening ear and expanded access to care. There will always be bad news. But it need not overwhelm or deter us. As Christians, we’re supposed to see things differently. Merton said it well: it’s into this grim, broken world, “this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, that Christ comes unbidden.” We just need to be ready to recognize and welcome him. 

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the December 2021 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.