Once the zeitgeist felt a bit confused. Was it supposed to represent bold and unforetold beginnings or, instead, express the inherited legacy of the past? There were plenty of opinions in the air and no lack of those who were confident they knew the answer to this question, but their certainty only left the zeitgeist with more questions. For example, if bold beginnings were in fact called for, which voice amongst the many who were convinced they knew precisely the way forward was it to trust? Often those voices rising above the general din seemed merely to be the most insistent or the ones inspired by the latest chatter online. And were these advocates for “the new and the now” really offering such a complete departure from the past, the zeitgeist wondered? Why did it feel as if, for all the bold claims made, in the end the expectations for real change weren’t wholly fulfilled? Little true challenge was being posed to a catalogue of inherited assumptions dating back millennia about how to conduct one’s spiritual or social or cultural life and what gave life itself significance, despite the “revisioning” promised. As if true and sweeping originality that would redefine everything failed when put to the full test and was replaced by brave new talking points instead. For the spirit of the age to be genuinely new, mustn’t it owe little to old thinking and old ways? Otherwise, telling one age from another would be impossible, or if not impossible, then reduced to an arid exercise more defined by in-group ideology than independent perception. And if that was all it came down to, a mere game of historical “spot the difference,” the zeitgeist didn’t see much point in the effort. The life of an era was short enough already; wasting any time on hairsplitting quibbles over what set it apart seemed foolish. If the difference wasn’t obvious, why bother? On the other hand, was the case for representing “the treasured wisdom of the ages” any more compelling? The patina of former grandeur—a measure of worth that claimed universal, everlasting reach—was this embrace of hand-me-down greatness what the zeitgeist should aspire to? Being the end of one tradition, perhaps, rather than the start of another (and thus little more than the tail to some other era’s dog) didn’t hold much appeal, though. Expected to do no more than wag in happy union, would you always remain a kind of historical/cultural rump, regardless of how impressive whatever tradition you were attached to might be? Such internal debates left the zeitgeist feeling as if it was caught between self-congratulation on the one hand and a nagging inferiority complex on the other, never certain whether to toast its own triumphs or bemoan their relative lack of distinction. Though what if neither epoch-changing revolution nor sustaining a hand-me-down heritage was how this particular zeitgeist should define itself? For all the competing claims, was it simply meant to be little more than a trough between crests, a period so taken with itself that it had lost the sense of proportion necessary to tell whether it was in fact just another eddy in the downward wake of the past or the rising promise of a coming swell? To be an uncertain stage that might ultimately stand only for lost opportunities or premature claims was a sobering thought. Akin to discovering that your own time’s vaunted self-image might just be a dim blip at the edge of a galaxy whose center boasted zeitgeists of dazzling scope. It would take all of the zeitgeist’s strength and self-awareness not to give in to despair and to get on instead with living in uncertainty, drawing inspiration precisely from that uncertainty and neither counting on nor fearing the judgment of ages yet to come. Even this was probably too pretentious a way of stating the matter, the zeitgeist supposed. A humbler confidence might be what was called for. A more stoic determination simply to play one’s part in history as best one can, regardless of how that part turns out to be remembered.
Copyright © 2020 by Geoffrey Grosshans