The Best of Times. The Worst of Times

This is a quote from the first page of Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, and it represents a profound statement of a good portion of life, namely that there is always a combination of good and bad to every experience we have in life. Dickens was speaking, now 200 years ago, about the good times and bad times in post-revolutionary France where the country was trying to find itself as a new democracy with all the good and bad about such a political system. Certainly, Dickens was speaking about the value of the French revolution that transformed the country from a royalty-dominated society to one governed democratically with “the people in control.” Dickens was also speaking of the abuses of the French revolution, or any revolution for that matter, which always has excesses and abuses, not the least of which were the frequent use of the guillotine as leaders of France shifted from left to right. Napoleonic rightwing excesses occurred after the leftwing Revolution as many Frenchmen came to want the authority that had existed under the nobles but had been lost in the creation of a democracy

I would dare say that there is no period of time, no country, no experience, no person, no relationship, and no idea that has not also been “the best of times” simultaneously with “the worst of times.” We tend to live in a society where people want things to be black or white, right or wrong, good or bad. This desire for there to be some exact right or wrong is a seeking of safety and security in the absolute. We currently see the absolute working itself out in the current political climate where, for instance, President Trump is seen as some kind of anti-Christ by some people but by many Trump followers as a person who just speaks what he believes and does what he wants, which is certainly right in his eyes and in the eyes of his many followers. I wrote a blog some time ago written about the “power” element of morality, borrowing from Jonathon Haight’s fine book on morality. The power of morality may seem like contradiction of terms, but it is not. Just ask Trumpers, many evangelicals, or the many people who follow dictators on many countries. There is nothing wrong with valuing power, but the danger of power is in its excesses: absolute power corrupts absolutely. Yet people yearn for the right person, the perfect person, the right morality, the perfect morality because it would be so nice, and so secure to have such a thing. But it doesn’t exist.

I was raised in the “best of times and the worst of times” with my family of origin. My household was libertarian, which means “do what you want and take the consequences of what you do.” I didn’t know it was libertarian at the time, but I knew both the “do what you want” and the “take the consequences of what you do” parts of my family. I was rarely punished but I suffered the consequences of my behavior many times. I took it as a matter of course that I would take the consequences of what I did. The best of times was that I was not criticized, castigated, demeaned, or threatened. I just did what I wanted and took the consequences. The best of times was the “do what you want” part; the worst of the times was taking the consequences. I recall missing the bus to school one day. We lived seven miles from school. So I came back home from the bus stop and told my mother that I had missed the bus. “I am so sorry, Ronny, that you missed the bus. That is too bad.” That is all she said. She didn’t berate me for my lifelong inclination towards tardiness. She didn’t threaten me. She didn’t say anything about getting out of bed earlier so I could catch the bus. She just said that she was sorry. But I knew what that meant, and I didn’t have to ask. It meant I would walk to school. Seven miles. I did that once. We never talked about it again, and I never was late for the bus again. The best of times and the worst of times. Great to have freedom, but not so great to take the consequences of freedom when you are tardy. This situation where I was never criticized or shamed gave me great self-confidence. I simply thought well of myself, not particularly better than anyone else. But this self-assurance did not play well in many circumstances because was perceived as arrogant. I wasn’t arrogant, i.e. feeling better than anyone else. I just felt good about me. Much of my self-esteem was developed in the trial-and-error nature of a libertarian atmosphere where you take the consequences of your behavior, good or bad, and are not inclined to blame anyone for your errors. This was the best of times. The worst of times is that this attitude of self-confidence did not play well in the real world of America where everyone and everything is criticized, blamed, or shamed. I wasn’t prepared for that part of life and it took me some time to understand the “best of times and worst of times” with having confidence.

In addition to the “best of times” in my libertarian family, I also had the privilege of saying whatever came to mind. Some of this was that both of my parents were extraverts, as I am by nature, but it was more than that because we had a household of everyone saying whatever they wanted to say with very little governance. We didn’t yell and swear at one another, but we would express our feelings and our thoughts without restraint. It took me decades of trials, and many painful errors to learn to govern what I say. Like, some places you can talk of God as a real entity in your life, and in other places you can use curse words seemingly using his name in vain. But I didn’t discriminate in my expressions of “God loves me” one moment and “godamnit” the next moment. The best of times was freedom of expression; the worst of times was the emotional damage that did to me, which in turn led to be being emotionally damaged by people whom I had hurt or scared But enough about me.

I would like you to consider the “best of times/worst of times” in your own life. This might be any of the following:

  • Love your job; don’t make enough money at it
  • Hate your job, but you make lots of money
  • Lover your spouse, but don’t like her
  • Like your spouse, but really don’t think you love her
  • Love your kids; hate the fact that they are so demanding
  • Love to eat junk food; hate the fact that it’s bad for you
  • Good to have a family; not usually good to be with them
  • Good to be alone, but it’s often lonely
  • Fun to watch TV, but don’t feel so good after 3 hours of TV drama
  • Love your sports car; don’t like that you can’t drive it in the winter
  • Love God; don’t like what God seemingly allows
  • Lover your political persuasion; don’t agree with much of it at the same time

There is much to be said to allow yourself to have these paradoxical thoughts and feelings. We are living in a time when people want simple, exact, and perfect answers, but it is equally likely that humankind has always wanted such things, like “always right” or “always wrong.” No such luck. We have to contend with these paradoxes of life. I have found that the more I admit to these mixed feelings, the best and the worst, the paradoxes of life, the more it becomes clear to me what my correct course of action should be.