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The Boston Globe

Springtime, the Chance to Leave Darkness Behind

James Carroll

Spring arrives as its own metaphor. Daffodils push up through the crusty earth. Knotty buds unfold. A pale green washes the field. The slant of light shifts. Warmth blankets the air. The familiar cycle has announced itself again. But it is impossible not to take this change of season as pointing to more, especially after the American winter that just now ended.

When have the discontents of the nation ever defined the emotional weather so chillingly? The storms that brought snow and rain across the last several months reinforced the broad feeling that paralyzed the public mood. On each front, we found that our lowered expectations were not nearly low enough. Close to home, teachers have been told that their services can no longer be afforded - just when they are more needed than ever. Farther away, the health care reform process brought the national government to the edge of what seemed a final collapse. Self-anointed tribunes of virtue opposed the reform, especially abortion-minded Catholic bishops whose instructions on anything to do with sexuality, gender, or reproduction landed on conscience with all the weight of straw. The global ruin of Roman Catholic authority reached beyond Catholicism to warn of culture-wide system failure. A decade ago, European union defined the limitless possibility of political renewal, but this year's currency crisis seemed perfectly matched to the outbreak of an insecurity that also showed up as European religious intolerance. The euro threatened, but so did the veils of Muslim girls.

Meanwhile, the US wars arching from the Middle East into South Asia played out this winter like shadows against the back wall, with Americans hardly even noticing anymore that the shadows were bleeding. Regarding Islam, Americans, too, had settled into the default of suspicion. Hollywood turned out movies set in Iraq, and, though the art was acclaimed, audiences stayed away. War went out of mind. On the economic front, the financial system seemed to adjust, but vastly more, once again, to the benefit of the obscenely rich than of those whose careers remain shaken. Advertisers resumed their frontal assault on material desire, but the pitch of longing did not work, and consumers kept their wallets closed. Automobiles began to bite back. Frontiers of the new technologies kept opening into wilderness. We looked at ourselves in the mirror of television, vaguely hoping that the ugliness we saw - reality shows, political food fights - was a distortion, while knowing very well it was not. What we saw was what we were. And always, we ate our bad food, weight the one consistent gain.

Winter indeed. But the annual cycles of time have always intervened in human feeling, and spring is inexorable in its renewal. We are absolutely right to let our eyes trail along behind the harbinger geese, right to take in the fresh aromas of the thawed earth, right to be on the lookout for flowers. Pathetic fallacy is the attribution of human feeling to phenomena of nature, but the human impulse to draw emotional sustenance from nature is the opposite of pathetic. To remember that there are cycles in every realm - economic cycles, political cycles, even news cycles - is to refuse to allow present conditions of discouragement the permanence they presume to claim. Spring overrides winter, and that rule of time has meaning across experience.

Nature's invitation to make a fresh beginning is reflected in what can happen now. There are no easy fixes when it comes to war, economic dislocation, or the crisis of meaning. The problems of daffodils cracking through the crusty earth are minor compared to cracking the problems people face today. Yet news from Washington shows that the glass of American will to reform the nation is at least half full. Naysayers are the party of winter. In springtime, while we observe nature's glad renewal, we recall also that human renewal involves something more than changes in weather and light. Humans, unlike flowers, get to choose. They have to choose. Aspiration is itself the beginning of change. Hope is not an electoral slogan, but an act of the will. That is why the springtime of the human spirit can be the most gorgeous rebirth of all.

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James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.

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