How often over the last few weeks have those words been written and said? From public figures at the highest levels to family members in our own homes, someone is always prefacing his remarks with this grim formula. It has become indispensable, obligatory – “In times like these.”
For it is all too true that we have been seized by these, “times,” like a butterfly caught beneath a bell jar. The world looks as it did, for all intents and purposes, through the glass cage of this interval. The grass grows greenly; the sunlight falls, as does the rain; spring breathes new breath into all that has slept, and the earth stirs and blooms with the freshness of a child upon waking.
Still, the times have us.
No matter what we see or don’t see, they have us.
We know it as perhaps we have never known anything before, so that despite the illusion of the world going about us in its bright and heedless way, we feel the times in our very skin. We are tethered and trapped by them, as they have shrouded all we do, read, see, and even say. The words descend heavily, closing an airless vacuum of context upon whatever we would express—“In times like these…”
But this is not new. We should not be surprised.
The human race has always felt the stifling limit of time. Do we even reach maturity—grow to adulthood—without awareness of it? Is it not the mark among all marks in human development when we begin to see borders, fences, perimeters that we cannot cross—even before we have a word for them?
And when children make the sobering discovery that there is a limit to all things—not just the horizon that stops the sky, but a ceasing of the day, and of their own enjoyment, and of the society of the things they love, and then most profoundly of all, even of themselves—is this not the threshold, if not the very the crossing of that threshold, that makes them grown? Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Margaret” weeps, in part, because her golden grove is, “un-leaving.” But mostly she weeps at the dark and sudden realization that so is she.
The testimony of our self-expression—the chronicle of what we have experienced—art—confirms this. From the earliest stories to the latest, through all the forms that art takes—performed or written or sung, painted or chiseled or fashioned, this is the oldest theme and the consuming motive: time’s hold on nature.
Man has always been captivated by its effects—both degrading and mellowing, destroying and improving—but mostly by its finality. Time has the last say, it would seem. At some point, Chronos eats his children; the gods collapse in their twilight; the scissors cut the thread, and that makes an end to all.
That we would escape this fate has been a discrete dimension of this ancient refrain. In art, we send some hero out to find the light. The elixir must be won; the spell, broken.
“Time is free,” cries MacDuff, when the tyrant Macbeth has been slaughtered—and among his many meanings is that we are free of time’s limit. In conquering the bewitched, bedeviled persecutor that had sought to end the world, the hero springs us from the trap. Endings—time’s blunt-edged sword—are our enemy’s greatest tool; when it is rendered defenseless, liberated time runs openly, eternally. It is transformed, so that there is no separation or loss—no tears and agony and fear running in time’s wake. Free.
And is that not what we want now, so ardently? Never before has modern man—smug in his conceited disdain for past ages’ struggles—felt the trap of time as he has now; never has he so longed for release. Pure release.
But even when the end of these “times” come, will we have learned what we should? Time’s trap is subtle, clear as the bell jar; it does not even seem a trap. It is what drives us to live for the moment, to take the here and now. We are told that such a thing is all we have. We must “seize” time, it is routinely preached.
There is even some truth in that admonishment. Delay in action, in enjoyment of that which has real value—wasting the present by pursuing false goals and chasing down fruitless paths—is another way that time destroys us. We have to know what we’re about; we have to ignore the frenzy of lies that tell us we can do and be all. If we fail, it is not time we waste, but ourselves.
But true as all this may be, it is not really a point about time so much as it is about purpose. We should know what we are, what we can do, how we can contribute and benefit—things that can only be accomplished if we are clear-eyed and rational about our talents and opportunities. But that is just to say that we should not be deluded. We should not squander our lives either by pursuing the unattainable or idolizing the temporary. “Know thyself” is the greatest of Greek maxims, and foregoing that advice is another thing art has cautioned against. King Lear was only “slenderly aware” of what he was, and from that self-ignorance came not only an end to himself, but also an end to all that he loved.
Still, we are not speaking of purpose—of calling and true vocation. Those are lessons for another time; we are caught within these.
And what we want most now is the freedom that Shakespeare’s hero trumpets upon the Scottish crag—to break free of time’s merciless grip—to shatter it and never return. Is this not what we have always truly been after—we “tattered coats upon a stick,” as Yeats said of us, we poor patients “etherized upon a table,” as Eliot assessed? Now, above all now, we yearn to transcend—to “break the mortal coil”—restored, reclaimed, reconciled—free.
For we are keenly burdened not just by the pressures of these times, which suffocate and cloak us, but with the pressures of all time. We reach out—at least in our minds, we reach out—across the strictures of space and history to those from whom we are separated—be they living or dead.
We whisper silent apologies, mutter self-rebukes. As the day passes outside the glass, dusk encloses the silent streets. So we pray for reunion, a time to come when all will be made right, when what has been lost is returned, and for what has been misdone, forgotten; we pray that in another place we will once more sit shoulder to shoulder about the table, hand in hand, flesh upon warm, receiving flesh.
There is a moment that portrays such freedom and restoration at the end of Robert Benton’s film, “Places in the Heart.” The transcending event occurs in a small Texas church during the midst of the great depression. The people of the town have suffered deep loss, both at the hands of things they could not control—economic devastation and natural catastrophe—and at the hands of things they might have—wrath and betrayal, avarice and waste.
As the scene opens, a married pair of that era’s victims are driving past the church, leaving the town forever. The woman gazes at the edifice as the tune of an old hymn breaks from it. She has recently reconciled with her husband, shoring up a tattered marriage that had resulted in an affair of which he is unaware.
And as they leave, when the scene goes inside the church, the camera finds her former lover. He sits beside his small family on the first pew. But his own wife knows of the infidelity, and the bitter sundering his act has worked between them has driven her from him in rage.
She is not alone in her anger. She shares the sanctuary with others who have wrought havoc on their fellows in the various, creative ways of treachery: a gin owner who has sought to cheat a young widow out of the bloody-knuckled bounty she has wrought from her cotton fields; a clan of bigots who have chased away the black farm worker that helped save the widow’s small family from ruin; and others whose pettiness and recklessness have robbed them of the fellowship that could have saved them. They are thieves who have picked their own pockets, sitting apart from each other, distant and alone.
But as the old preacher rises to speak St. Paul’s great accolade to love—of how all is meaningless without it—the husband and wife, so close and yet so spiritually far away, are drawn together. The words break the wife free; she who had been frozen, trapped, can move again, and her hand finds her mate’s in forgiveness. This in turn frees him. His face collapses in a release of gratitude, and the cage of their times’ spell is shattered at the words, “love never ends.”
Then, as the choir rises and sings the world into communion—the focus changes. The torn body and blood passes through the pews, hand to hand, and we see it bond those who have been doomed to cells of isolation. They are now close, all at once next to each other, knee to knee. The plate of sacrifice travels among them, and they ascend beyond chronological time altogether. It becomes clear that what has bound and limited and separated has lost its power. This is a new place, impervious to time’s hold.
For the farm worker who has been driven away by the Klan is returned, at the table with those who had exiled him; the persecutor who has besieged the young widow now sits among her children. We float on and on, shackleless within this new reality, and ultimately up to the triumphant restoration of that which had been the town’s greatest loss.
These people’s story had begun with the death of the young widow’s husband, a sheriff accidentally shot by a drunken boy. This tragedy had been compounded by the savage lynching of the youth and the mob’s dragging his corpse to the widow’s farmhouse.
But now, in the emblem of eternity, the two once-dead souls are alive again, sharing the meal of repair. They bless each other—each the priest, each the penitent—as the hymn rises, and they are finally free.
There is a dimension of freedom that is physical, realized best in speed and abandon. In this sense, our hair streams behind us in the wind as we race, fists pumping, through the fields and seas and space of our choosing. Now, we long for this kind of freedom too, hungering for it to fire its starting pistol and set us upon a tear.
But at some point we will tire, and know again that such a thing is only license, not liberty.
Ultimately what we want is to jump time’s fence once and for all, or better yet, to speak the magic words of love, like the old preacher, and break the clock free of its hands. We want the sand never to stop pouring through the glass, and for the dial never to bear a shadow, but only light. That, and the knowledge that we are no longer alone and indicted, but in a place at the crowded table, where we find, at long last, that our freedom rests in peace.
A.G. Harmon is the author of A House All Stilled, the winner of The Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel in 2001. His short story collection, Some Bore Gifts, was published by Word Galaxy Press in 2018. Other fiction, essays, and reviews have appeared in Triquarterly, The Antioch Review, Shenandoah, Image, The Bellingham Review, Logos, The Arkansas Review, and Commonweal. He teaches at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.