Some say it is the worst of times and paint a dismal picture dark with gloom and despair. Some say it is the best of times and paint with bright colors the canvas of the future. Certainly our time is not the worst of times when we consider past history. For example, in 1665 the Great Plague swept over the city of London leaving in its wake about 70,000 dead. Then came the great fire of 1666, which destroyed four-fifths of the city. Samuel Pepys viewed the destruction around him and wrote in his diary: “All is death and despair. I do not believe we shall ever recover from this double tragedy.”
Not all shared the pessimism of Pepys. John Dryden wrote “Annus Mirabilis” (Year of Wonders) in 1666. Samuel Johnson said that Dryden used the phrase “annus mirablilis” because it was a wonder that things were not worse. In his poem, Dryden describes the tragic Plague and the Great Fire and yet he speaks of his own deep spirit of optimism. After the fire is spent, he imagines a new city of London rising from the ashes “with silver paved, and all divine with gold” which will last until the “death of time.” Bishop Key, a prominent clergyman of the period, also lived through these disasters. His response to the challenges of the time was to pen the words that we now call “The Doxology:”
Praise God, from whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heavenly hosts….;
In our time there are many who see nothing but darkness. Their songs are dirges. Their central theme is despair. Their attitude is cynical and their spirit is devoid of hope. Their primary message is one of “doom and gloom.” They are down on people who are different; they stand against the stream of time and science, blind to anything positive in the world around them (wanting to go back to a time and place that is no more) and they are afraid, angry, paranoid, frustrated, as well as immersed in self-pity.
To be sure, there are harsh realities in our time, challenges that seem insurmountable, but I’d rather sing a doxology than spend my life singing a dirge. With Jean Jaures, it seems to me our wisest course is to “Take from the altars of the past the fire—not the ashes.”