In recent days, I find myself overcome by an unwelcome feeling of dread. I feel great anxiety over the state of this country and the fragmentation of our own community as a result. Politics on this side of the Atlantic and the other is dividing us in ways that are uncivil and pernicious. When stated that way, it seems as if we are subject to forces beyond our control. But politics is not an amorphous rubric that moves us this way and that. We are responsible for the way in which we allow politics to come between us.
My dread is often accompanied by hopelessness. Usually able to navigate complexity and rise to optimism, I find myself in new and alien territory, searching for slivers of hope that feel distant and elusive. Few things have made me feel better, but I have found one consolation, and I’m not keeping it to myself: photo albums.
By chance, someone left one of our photo albums on the coffee table in the living room. I was about to put it away when I peeked inside. It lay open to a wonderful family vacation. I looked lovingly at my children when they were smaller, and, some would argue, cuter. I thought of the warmth of that time, how everyone has grown taller (except me) and matured into special human beings. It made me think of other trips and occasions captured on film and now digitally, all reminding me of a Billy Joel song from my youth: “A picture postcard, a folded stub, a program of the play, file away your photographs of your holiday. And your mementos will turn to dust, but that’s the price you pay. For every year’s a souvenir that slowly fades away…”
Mementos should not be allowed to turn to dust because they give us something we desperately need right now: perspective. The gloom and doom many of us feel, or even the sense of victory marred by a divisiveness that is painfully uncomfortable, seem intractable until we prick the delusion of our importance and embrace the humility that is our gracious lot. In this vast stretch of cosmic space, the events of today are so very small, so very insignificant. We have, in our history, overcome more difficult days and come together after storms far greater. We are the resilient ones, compassed about by history yet still here to record it. It’s best when we can do that together.
In “On Photography,” Susan Sontag wrote, “To collect photographs is to collect the world.” We amble through time collecting images that we capture in very limited ways. We might think of the grand forces that have shaped us, but in truth, it’s the quiet, serene, chaotic, tumultuous moments that make up a life; it’s those images that get frozen by photographs. “Life is not about significant details, illuminated a flash, fixed forever. Photographs are.”
I hate to get biblical, but when I think of the power of photographs, I am reminded of the psalmist: “Show me, Lord, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is. You have made my days a mere handbreadth; the span of my years is as nothing before you. Everyone is but a breath, even those who seem secure” [39:4-5]. We are vulnerable and small. We take our lives too seriously until we are crushed by the realization that as time marches on, we will no longer march with it. In Sontag’s words, “to take a photograph is to participate in another person’s mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” We melt.
We can take lots of photographs of this moment. Many have. Our news and fake news outlets debate the veracity of photos, but, as Sontag reminds us, “Photographs are a way of imprisoning reality. … One can’t possess reality, one can possess images — one can’t possess the present but one can possess the past.”
Sometime in the future, we’ll look at photos of these strange days, but probably not in a family photo album. It will likely be on a screen and not in a book. It will show lots of red, white and blue images and throngs of people at a distance. Some in the photos will be smiling and wearing red hats. Some will have snarled faces and placards. All will feel that something historic is about to happen. It’s just not clear what.
These photos will depict two different narratives but only one human condition: our mortality. Since we won’t be here long, why not take out old photo albums and spend a few minutes luxuriating in the happier passages of time? It heals. Believe me.
Erica Brown directs the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership at George Washington University. Her column appears the first week of the month.