“That feeling of permanency”

Sometimes I have a movie on while I’m working on a game design, esp. if there’s a common theme with what I’m working on. Yesterday was the WWII movie “The Enemy Below.”

There’s an exchange early in the movie between the US destroyer’s captain (Robert Mitchum) and the ship’s doctor (Russell Collins) that surprised me. It echoed exactly thoughts I’ve had about our time — and the fact that we haven’t seen times like this in the US since the days in that war when no one knew how things were going to turn out. The Allied victory in WWII seems inevitable to us now. But those fighting that war were, like us, dealing with a time of complete uncertainty.

Doc: “Well, in time we’ll all get back to our own stuff again. The war will get swallowed up and seem like it never happened.”

Captain: “Yes, but it won’t be the same as it was. They won’t have that feeling of permanency that we had before. We’ve learned a hard truth.”

Doc: “How do you mean?”

Captain: “That there’s no end to misery and destruction. You cut the head of the snake and it grows another one. You cut that one off and you’ll find another. We can’t kill it because it’s something within ourselves. You can call it ‘the enemy’ if you want to, but it’s part of us, we’re all men.”

Maybe this hard truth is one we need to learn again every couple of generations, when the ones who last learned it are dying off, and we’ve lost the lessons that they and those who came after them worked, bled, and died for.

Many of us seem to have forgotten many of the harsh realities of the world — the lurking reality of plague, economic distress, racial animus, corruption, even war. Many of us, especially economically stable white folks in the US, had for decades settled into a Netflix/Instagram/XBox-fueled complacency, and “that sense of permanency” that comes with it.

We’re being shaken out of that now, re-learning how illusory that permanence is, along with other hard lessons. We’re tasked once again with doing the hard work to help end a pandemic, heal centuries of racial animus, and root out corruption at all levels of our society. This typically requires small selfless acts, often unnoticed, and with seemingly little direct effect: wear a mask; show visible respect to those not like you; call out dishonesty and lack of integrity in government and business. Sometimes it also means peacefully protesting, or supporting those who do; making an extra effort to use your privilege for good (as by helping and encouraging a young person of color); or calling out intolerance or misinformation in our families, social media circles, and workplaces.

We may miss, and even grieve for, that sense of permanency that we had just a few months ago. But we have, I hope, learned the hard truth of how misguided that was. We cannot coast on the work of prior generations; expecting everything to glide along as it seemingly always has. We know that’s not the reality of how the world works, and that we have our own work to do.

The statement that “we live in uncertain times” has become cliché. We all know it far too well, even if we desperately want to avoid dealing with it. I hope that we’re able to face the challenges of our times squarely, and do the work set before us. We must not lose hope, or become fatigued as this all takes time — years, in all probability — to resolve. It’s something future generations will thank us for, and is just the right thing to do.

To quote another author who knew war and uncertainty all-too well:

‘“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”’

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