“What difference you think you can make? One single man, in all this madness?”
This is a question Sean Penn’s character asks Jim Caviezel in a memorable exchange in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line–a hardened cynic questioning an idealist’s optimism amidst the horrors of battle on Guadalcanal.
It’s a question that everyone who watches the film has at some point, in some way, asked of themselves. However idealistic we are, and whether or not we’ve ever experienced the tragedies of war and squalor first hand, we all are painfully aware of the limits of our own world-bettering, problem-solving abilities.
Every new day hands us a fresh reminder of the foolishness of hope. The world is falling apart. Wars all around, friends who still can’t find work, parents with ailments, babies dying, global warming, leaders who disappoint, bills, DMV lines, broken relationships and bones, and our own debilitating disease of pride. On the good days, when it seems as if we might actually be making a difference in the world, we remember that 90% of our energy and time and thoughts still go toward our own pursuits of pleasure and neurotic concerns.
Make a difference in the world? I’m too busy stressing about where I’m going to get coffee in the morning.
And yet here we are in Advent. Another year gone and another season of stubborn hope upon us. It’s a season of remembering the birth of hope, and of anticipating the impending onset of hope’s final answer. It’s a time that reminds us that Christ has inaugurated a new kingdom on earth, and that in its eventual form the kingdom will resolve the hopes and fears of all the years. A new heaven and a new earth, where there will be no more crying, nor sadness of any kind.
That the kingdom has started now, but is also not yet, means that in the meantime, what we do matters. What we create, who we love, how we live… We’re part of something.
If the world at present didn’t contain within it glimpses of the glorious new creation, there’d be no reason for us to be anything other than ceaselessly cynical and misanthropic. But thankfully, it does. For me, it’s things like The Thin Red Line, or the climax of Handel’s Messiah, or drinking a chocolate porter while reading Steinbeck. You know, Advent things… Things that remind me of the existence of an infinite goodness.
Thats why Advent is the destroyer of cynicism. It acknowledges that yes, things are ugly, life is difficult, people are broken and so is creation. We shouldn’t ignore all this, but neither should we wallow in it, resigned to its supposedly necessary reality. Advent reminds us that there is another, truer reality coming–one that is bigger than us and yet involves us, and one that is worth working and waiting for.