Tuesday, June 26, 2007


Genevieve's comment reminds me of a lesson I heard long ago, in a secondary school literature class that was often also a philosophy and history class.

Etymology may not be philosophy, but a word's origins often yield clues as to what we originally meant and why we use it the way we do. Crisis comes from the Greek krinein, to decide, to separate, to judge, also related to kritikos, critic, one who is skilled at judging; it is also related to the much touted, little encouraged contemporary faculty of critical thinking.

A crisis occurs in the opening lines of Robert Frost's poem The Road Not Taken, as follows:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth
When I first contemplated the idea of crisis I was where Longfellow placed young women that were my age at the time: "standing, with reluctant feet, where the brook and river meet." (Adolescence comes to boys, too.) What more crisis-filled years than those!

It wasn't just me. The world seemed to be in crisis: the Beatles revolutionized music, Cohn-Bendit and the French students revolted in the streets of Europe, there was an ideological "spring" in Prague and underneath all that two superpowers were threatening each other with arsenals said to be capable of destroying the planet 50 times over.

Ah, the good old days!

In midst of all that, Mr. Romero, my Spanish literature profesor (in my school all our teachers were profesores) uttered the words that stuck to me: "We are always in crisis."

Every age, historical or personal, involves crisis and is critical. At every stage we humans face a fork in the road of our lives. We face no choices only when we lie in our coffins -- insofar as I can tell, anyway.

King Philip II faced the crisis of the first European empire over which the sun never set, just as Lyndon Baines Johnson was, somewhere outside our classroom, facing Vietnam. We faced imminent demise when we asked a girl to dance, just as the Soviet Union for decades threatened to wipe out Washington, my home for so many years, from the face of the Earth.

Is it, then, overdramatization to see our moment, this moment, with that death-defying hangnail staring at us right in our face, as a crisis? Yes and no.

1 comment:

anne said...

It seems to me that crisis is why, in some circles, discernment is so vital.