For many of us, this December and its beckoned January will have a slightly different feel about them. Prepared though we may be for Y2K's technological challenges, engaged as we no doubt all are with complex personal tasks and agendas, still we sense that some special attention should be paid to the millennial date. The scholars will make their own finely tuned points about the probable moment of Christ's birth. Our mirrors will not tell a very different story when the clocks' hands have wound their way once more around the dial. But to ignore this occasion would surely be unimaginative, and even perhaps ungenerous.
Thinking about the matter, I am reminded of a remark by Arthur Miller that "the structure of a play is always the story of how the birds come home to roost." While he was speaking about art, Miller might just as well have been referring to life. It is important that, at least from time to time, we face the truth of what he says. And it is not inevitable that we will do so. On the one hand, ours is a culture in which the streaming rush of events can be prized above almost anything else--as if the "swoosh" of one advertised commodity or another were written in the sky and a passing show were always its own vindication. On the other hand, few of us will plausibly claim that we have no "birds" whose roosting would perturb us. The flair of our wind-blown flag can be, in effect, the emblem of ourselves confidently on the move. But for everybody, sooner or later, the wind drops, and then it is assessment time.
No one else, however gifted or graced, can make that assessment for us. Each of our personal interiors, with its own shifting kaleidoscope of blessed choices and cursed preferences, is absolutely distinctive--far more distinctive than any map of our genetic makeup can suggest. No Arthur Miller or even Shakespeare can represent definitively the landscape of our particular spirits. For whatever the achievements of great artists, the mystery of interior life endures. The birds that come home--bright ones, dark ones--are the birds of our individual souls.
But it is also true that in our distinctive lives we can fashion a reality that is momentous in another way. "E pluribus unum" is not a merely political dictum. It is not a cant phrase either. For all our enormous, and often complex, diversity, we do make a "union." We are more than an intricate cluster. We are a people. As such, we always have one another on our minds, if not always in our hearts. The good or ill we do to one another, our understanding or lack of understanding for one another, affects all of us. Often the coming and going of those "birds" will not be palpable, and will show themselves principally in terms of the morale of given communities. And while people can live on morale, they can die of its lack as well. A review of our nation's headline news over the past year can give plenty of evidence for that.
Arthur Miller, like many American writers, struggled to understand the depths of the American spirit. Fortunately, it resonates with many others throughout the world. Perhaps a clue to addressing it comes from a claim made by the novelist Michael Ondaatje, who wrote that "the first sentence of every novel should be: 'Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human.' " When our various birds do come home to roost, little good will come of it unless we have the patience and, yes, the trust, to take time to divine an order in their appearing--very faint, sometimes, but still very human. Without our discernment, without aspiring reflection, there is no salvation.
Whatever we make of the Jesus whose life gives the occasion for all the millennial attention, both his life as recorded and his example as registered point in this direction. He commended to any who would accept it a policy of scanning the common life for traces not only of the significant but also of the summoning. He was a great one for the sought order, and for attention to how and when and where the birds are likely to come home. He claimed that his Father had an eye to the fall of any sparrow. He would surely have an eye also on the American eagle.
The writer is president of Georgetown University.