A Golden Age, or Fools Gold

I try to find positive things to talk about in this space, but I also want to make sure the voices of the homeless and others who come to Peace House Community are heard. Those two goals sometimes conflict, as homelessness and hopelessness often go together, especially in Minnesota in February.

The optimist in me sees how much resilience and creativity people have shown in the face of the covid pandemic. I admire and appreciate how these folks have found ways to carry on and even to thrive in adversity. I find hope in people’s refusal to give up, and I am reminded of Saint Augustine’s comment, “This awful catastrophe is not the end but the beginning. History does not end so. It is the way its chapters open.” (I have no idea which particular catastrophe Augustine had in mind, but neither it nor any of the catastrophes since have ended history.)

But when I read Augustine’s words, I want to ask him, “The beginning of what? What is going to be written in the chapters we are opening?” Over the centuries many people have made wonderful comments about the golden age that is just over the horizon, and about the inevitable paradise that will result from human progress. Here are just a few samples:

“Where children are, there is the golden age.” – Novalis

“The golden age has not passed; it lies in the future.” – Paul Signac

“The 21st century has more potential than perhaps any other in our brief evolutionary history. We stand on the cusp of computing, genetic and energy generation breakthroughs that were only recently in the realm of science-fiction. A golden age of humanity is tantalisingly within our grasp.” – Clive Lewis

And yet every golden age has had its share of throw-away people who have to fight just to live on the fringes of society. The maxim that a rising tide lifts all boats ignores the boats that get swamped and sink. Every promise about the future of society carries an implicit threat to those who don’t have the skills to succeed in the new world, who aren’t being prepared today for what will come tomorrow, or who just aren’t fortunate enough. The community members who come to Peace House Community are some of the most resilient people I’ve ever met, but I don’t think the pandemic is going to reshape society enough to provide them with a basic standard of living that provides dignity and safety. (And when I say “society”, I of course mean you and me and all the other regular people who have the power to shape the future.)

As I said at the start of this column, I want to see the positives. I want to be optimistic about the future. But I do not want to do so by ignoring unpleasant realities. I don’t want to use the intellectual equivalent of placing my hands over my ears and singing “La-la-la, I can’t hear you!” like a three year old who doesn’t want to cooperate when his mom tells him it is bedtime. I hope there are enough people out there who are willing to face these uncomfortable truths so that, eventually, we really will reach some kind of golden age.

by Marti Maltby, Director Peace House Community – A Place to Belong

This article originally appeared in “The Alley,” the newspaper for the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis.