The Best (or Worst?) Of Times

It’s hard to tell when you’re living in it

Susan Orlean

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Photo by Kevin Butz on Unsplash

Last week, I became convinced that I was living in the worst time in history. The Texas anti-abortion law; Covid and the new variants; Afghanistan; income inequality; the January 6th insurrection; the mad QAnon surfer dad who spear-gunned his children; fires in the Southwest; Andrew Cuomo; climate change; Hurricane Ida. I could go on but I won’t. Could things be worse? It certainly doesn’t seem so.

For fun, I started thinking about my childhood, which for a brief moment seemed idyllic compared to the current state of life. Ah, well, for a moment, anyway. And then I started to remember: Political assassinations; Vietnam; civil unrest; naked and unabashed racism; income inequality (an evergreen, apparently!!); generational friction; drugs; cults.

Upon further reflection I realized that those were bad times indeed. I remembered feeling, when I was a kid, that the world was imploding. Back then, I sometimes envied my parents, imagining they had lived in simpler, happier times: Sock hops; Frank Sinatra; intact families; the New Deal. And then, oops, I remembered: The Depression; World War II; sexism; shameless racism; income inequality (hello, friend!); class tension; anti-Semitism; the rise of the Ku Klux Klan; and on and on and on.

No time is the worst time; no time is the best time. Human history is fractious and turbulent. We inch ahead and fall behind over and over again. This is a hard time for sure, in ways we haven’t encountered in recent history, so we feel freshly shocked and saddened and frustrated. I find it strangely comforting to realize that as bad as this is, we have confronted at least as bad and endured. And, I hope, we will again.

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Susan Orlean

Staff writer, The New Yorker. Author of The Library Book, The Orchid Thief, and more…Head of my very own Literati.com book club (join me!)