“These are the times that try men’s souls”, wrote Thomas Paine in “The American Crisis”, December 19, 1776. That same week, General George Washington and his depleted band of ill-clothed, ill-fed, demoralized and freezing cold troops were encamped on the banks of the Delaware River just a few miles from where I write this. In such bleak circumstances, eleven thousand of his dispirited troops had quit and gone home to be fed and warmed by their families. The meager remainder were due to be discharged in just one more week, and Washington was desperate to find some way to rally them to face death in battle with a superior force of Hessians just across the river in Trenton.
Trivial football games are seemingly decided by a coach’s stirring “half-time” speech in the locker room; but here the very survival of a nascent nation was on the line. Washington somehow was made aware of Paine’s inspiring call to arms published days before in Philadelphia, and he immediately had the entirety of Paine’s words printed and read to his beleaguered troops as they huddled around campfires on the banks of the Delaware River:
“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.”
Thus inspired, Washington and his newly aroused troops crossed the ice-choked Delaware on Christmas day, surprised and defeated the unsuspecting Hessians at Trenton, and completed their turnaround triumph by routing British General Cornwallis and his troops on January 2 just down the road from my home here in Princeton.
One might think I conjure this all-important glimpse of history today for its relevance to the slaughter of the innocents in Ukraine and the heroic but seemingly doomed resistance Ukrainian fighters are offering as they die to protect their homeland from subjugation to Russia. Their souls are being tried in a once-for-all, live-or-die moment.
But that’s not why Paine’s words came to mind for me today.
I cite them because we Americans are so utterly ill-equipped to suffer—I use the word advisedly—the pain and frustration of witnessing mass murder without leaping to intervene in some dramatic, conclusive way. Why can’t we do SOMEthing to stop yet another madman from a megalomanic urge to conquer and own his neighbors, to dominate and to purify, to create an empire beyond all rationality and respect for humankind and the norms of collegial cohabitation on planet earth? America stood by all too long as Hitler ran amok; must we repeat that self-imposed restraint yet again while we see people murdered “live” on CNN? It is not unreasonable to imagine pulling the trigger that sends the bullet that ends the life of Vladimir Putin. Why should he live and thousands of Ukranians die at his behest?
And that is why these are the times that try our souls, too. We have become deeply acculturated to instant gratification. The Amazon order I place today will be on our doorstep tomorrow morning. Unless, of course, I want to read that book today; Kindle will put it in my hands in less than ten seconds. Living in a world of largely-physical transactions, we expect results right now. Right NOW.
And so it is agonizingly difficult to wrench our minds and hearts around to the reality of what is transpiring in our lives, and to accord each of these non-transactional events their “due process”. Wars take time to gestate both in the minds of perpetrators and the massing of armies; they take even longer to dissipate. Pandemics arise invisibly and gain momentum before defenses can be marshalled, even under the best of circumstances. Economic disruptions are born of both undetected and devious sources and may take a decade to regain equilibrium.
And their intractability seems to bring out the worst in us. Given today’s tragically lamentable levels of hostility abroad in the land, the foulest among us seek to sow even more hatred, distrust, conflict, recalcitrance. Pandering to our impatience by offering specious criticisms and calls for ill-advised solutions, they further erode the qualities we must now demonstrate if we are to defend against the unthinkable and sustain the persistent progress required to live in a world where instant gratification is unattainable in matters of great consequence.
As for dealing with the tragedy going on in Ukraine and the frustrated impotence that is toxifying our own country, I take whatever comfort I can by noting that NATO is a strong deterrent to Putin’s continuing invasion of neighboring countries, thanks to President Joe Biden’s first-day-in-office. Recall that he immediately reversed former President Trump’s attacks on NATO—attacks that pleased Vladimir Putin but were so alarming that on July 26, 2018, an impressive bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill to prohibit then-President Trump from unilaterally pulling the U.S. out of NATO with well-nigh fatal effect on the alliance. Painfully, the fact of Ukraine’s not being a member of NATO precludes NATO’s offering substantive protection against the current mass murder being committed there, but where would the world be if it were not in effect along the entire western wall of Russia’s borders?
Cold comfort, one might say. But in this trying of our souls, we take what we can get and do our best not to forfeit our souls’ capacity to feel, to endure, and to prevail when and as we see the light.
Meanwhile, we can extend some kind of comfort to the direct victims who are trapped in Ukraine or fleeing it. Here are some legitimate agencies who can express our support in tangible ways:
https://www.crs.org/ (Catholic Relief Services)