North America from space
North America from space in a composite image from NASA’s Earth Observatory satellite.

By Colleen O’Connor

“A new year is at hand. We cannot tell what it will bring.”

So cautioned King George VI during his 1939 Christmas broadcast to the British Empire. That new year brought World War II.

Attempting to reassure his subjects, the King quoted a prayer by the poet Minnie Haskins.

I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year:

“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”

Those words were recited, again, at the Queen Mum’s funeral.

This Christmas—standing at another “Gate of the Year”—Americans, too, are seeking a light in order to tread safely into those unknowns.

The list is growing.

Start with a possible war with North Korea. “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen,” said President Trump.

The Secretary of State is willing to talk. Less so the President.

Then consider the breakup of the European Union, endless wars in the Middle East, the eclipse of the United States as a world leader, ethnic tribalism, massive human migrations and planetary risks.

Here in America, the increased polarization by wealth, gender, geography, political affiliation and ethnicity stymies political consensus.

Sexual misconduct revelations continue, and already rank as the Associated Press’ top news story of 2017.

Those revelations include the President, who has repeatedly called his 22 accusers “liars” and threatened to sue. They have responded in kind.

Then there are the multiple investigations into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election—a special counsel’s criminal investigation, House and Senate committee hearings, claims of a “witch hunt,” a “coup” and a “cover up.” Add to this the still mounting trolls, tweets, and Russian foundation money spent fomenting hatred and riots. The threat to democracy is apparent. And calls for impeachment are growing.

But forget the constant global threats. The domestic ones are serious enough.

Fires, floods, famine and pestilence are upon us. Think hurricanes in Puerto Rico, flooding in Texas, fires in California, the opioid epidemic, hepatitis A outbreak and  chronic homelessness. And we can worry about an economic bubble in subprime car loans, the mania in Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, and a tax bill that gives 83 percent of the benefits to the top 1 percent of the country.

The tax bill brought still more polarization. All Democrats voted no. Almost all Republicans voted yes.

It seems few in Congress learned their history lessons.

The Great Depression of the 1930s was mainly rooted in two things—the maldistribution of income and a surplus of goods. The income disparity is obvious to all who look.  The surplus of goods to all who shop. But, globalization has exacerbated both. We have cheap labor, high technology, billionaires and dark, often laundered, money.

Neo-nationalism has become the default response to these unaddressed realities.

In truth, the promised good jobs are not coming back. The mechanization of most labor, 3D printing, robots more precise and often smarter than humans, self-driving cars and trucks, bio-engineering, cybercrime and a loss of privacy portend a murky future.

Then there is artificial intelligence, virtual reality, alternative facts, fake news and uncensored social media that have combined to skew one’s compass.

Which leads me to another dark moment in U.S. history–the Vietnam War–and a bright thought coming out of that quagmire (again from the British).

While attending a post-graduate seminar for international students at Oxford University, one of the better lecturers suggested that—by studying the fall of the British Empire—the Americans might learn “how to decline gracefully.”

That phrase “how to decline gracefully” just might be the “light” needed at the Gate of this New Year.

Cheer up. The Winter Solstice on Thursday promises us more light every single day!

And may that light shine upon you and yours.

Colleen O’Connor is a native San Diegan and a retired college professor.