The life we know hasn't changed much since December 27 of 2010. Murky smog still poisons the air I breathe in Los Angeles. A snapshot of the New York skyline taken today will match that taken last year. The streets of Vegas remain depraved and Capitol Hill remains democratic. This year, in this country, things have changed; but they have done so incrementally.
If the previous paragraph leaves you unconvinced, I ask that you put on a lens not of objectivity, but of relativity. Our country has changed only marginally. In Libya, a year's change is far from marginal -- it's palpable: its cities look physically different than they did a year ago and its society has pushed through an iron grip -- and feels more free. People who live in Egypt can feel the change just as forcefully: new rules govern individuals -- but even those rules are actively shifting and evolving. The Tunisians and the Yemenis drove away their longtime presidents. The Syrians and Bahrainis were unsuccessful in ousting their leaders, but brought to the forefront issues of rights for women and for Shia -- issues that had been buried. Beyond the Western World, change is immense.
This was the year of shattered norms; of shifting variables; of fractured precedents. This was the year in which we -- Americans - watched as they -- million of others -- decided to swiftly and continually forget everything they had been taught. This was the year the world collapsed into itself.
TIME magazine columnist Joel Stein dubbed 2011 "The Year of the Meltdown," asserting that we've had no choice but to "idly watch things completely fall apart." Indeed, we've borne witness to changes that have seemed unnatural and arbitrary: massive readjustments of economic structures, sociological organizations, and individual and communal systems of thought. They have appeared often to be precipitated by anomalies, like a merchant who set himself ablaze, a reporter kidnapped, or an Egyptian woman beaten unjustifiably. The shifts we've seen this year make us question the basis on which they have happened; they have seemed somewhat random and erratic. Why now? Why these changes? Why these people?
But the language of change is a universal one. From all angles, in all perspectives, there is an explanation for this year of global collapse and far-reaching transformation.
Those who speak the language of faith -- who seek answers to the unanswerable through mechanisms of religion and belief -- need look no further than the Book of Job, in which the author elucidates that idea of random destruction and seemingly groundless change in the first chapter. "Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return," explains the book's narrator. Cycles are a critical component of a pious life -- and with them comes the faithful acknowledgement that, even ostensibly randomly, "the Lord gives and the Lord (takes) away."
For many, an explanation that is based in religious doctrine equates to no explanation at all. Those who speak the language of science or "reason" -- who understand the world as a series of systems and rules -- will identify with a pervasive biological concept. In wildlife, a cataclysmic event causes destruction of biotic factors in a given area, leaving only a bare substrate. In layman's terms, it literally wipes away all of the life somewhere and leaves a blank slate. Nature, too, works in cycles. The earth gives and takes. Change is built into the natural world.
A third, more simple and demonstrable explanation comes from my great-grandmother, who, by my father's account, was a content woman. She repeated and repeated one particular adage. "If you don't like the weather,"she would say, "just wait a minute."
Change, we understand, just happens. It is destructive by nature; it has to be, in order to make way for something new or better. But what -- I pose to the faithful, the academic, and the elderly -- happens next?
When the Lord takes away, the Lord gives again; when a cataclysm leaves a bare substrate, pioneer species begin to settle and grow; when clouds finish raining, they make way for the sun.
Norms can be constructive; precedents are neutral. A process that been tested does, indeed, have a place in this world. There are good politicians just as there are helpful and useful laws. But right now, we have a few fleeting, precarious, and promising moments in which our era is nothing more than wet, quickly-drying concrete.
Let us usher out the year that crushed the world's conventions; let us welcome the year in which we rebuild them. Let this be the year in which we -- American observers of the sweeping changes -- embrace our responsibility within our country, to ensure that we can do the work of reinvigorating outside of our country.
We, too, are at a crossroads: let this be the year in which we elect leaders who are interested not in gridlock, but in governing; interested not in exercising vicious imperialism, but in lending a voice to the Shia of Bahrain, the women of Yemen, and still-silent people across the ocean.
Let us elect leaders who will fund programs that send American volunteers to rebuild Tripoli; who will send diplomatic workers to negotiate for the rights whose absence brought on the Arab Spring; who will create domestic dialogue programs so that young Americans of varying faiths learn to understand one another.
The moment is volatile and we are still free. After this year of meltdown, let this be the one of responsibility.