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A sense of tides

When Julius Caesar paraded through the streets of Rome, fresh off victories in Gaul and Germany, a lowly servant stood by his side in the chariot. As adoring throngs lined the streets and cheered the august emperor, the servant’s sole role was occasionally to whisper in Caesar’s ear three words: sic transit gloria.
In Latin, literally: ‘Thus glory passes.’ A modern English rendering: ‘All fame is fleeting.’
Whether this story is fact or the stuff of legends, the message of it, in my experience at least, rings true. I cast my first ballot for president in 1964. Inspired by Kennedy and Camelot, I joyfully voted for Lyndon Baines Johnson. Johnson swamped Goldwater in that election, and I remember hearing speculation in the election’s wake that Goldwater might just have killed the Republican Party and that conservatism might be taking its last gasps. But Johnson soon overreached in Vietnam, and only four years later Richard Nixon, a Republican, replaced him.
Four years later, in 1972, Nixon trounced George McGovern, carrying every state but one and winning the popular vote 61 percent to 39 percent. Again there was funeral talk about a political party, this time the Democrats. But Nixon overreached, and four years later Democrat Jimmy Carter was elected president.
As recently as 1998, Democratic President Bill Clinton was riding the crest of the wave. He had resoundingly won a second term, peace and prosperity reigned, and Vice President Al Gore was perfectly positioned to extend the good times and keep the White House in the hands of the Democrats. But Clinton personally unraveled, and two years later the Republicans won back the presidency.
What I have witnessed in my lifetime is a rhythmic, metronome-like movement in American politics. Just when one party appears as moribund as a barren winter landscape, new and robust life, under the bleak and frozen tundra, is being born.
A similar kind of reciprocity seems to have been at work throughout our nation’s history. So many times when the sky appeared to be falling ‘ at Valley Forge in the harsh winter of 1777; in the summer of 1968 following the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, with cities rioting and the Vietnam War raging; in the aftermath of terrorist attacks on America on Sept. 11, 2001 ‘ many found it virtually impossible to imagine life ever being good again. In extreme times, it’s hard to remember the mysterious justice that nature metes out, making winter give way to spring, making low tide and high tide take their turns. Applying nature’s reciprocity to human experience, Longfellow wrote: ‘The lowest ebb is the turn of the tide.’
One valuable thing we learn from sports is how, to quote Frost, ‘Nothing gold stays.’ The dynasties all rise and fall. When UCLA or Kentucky rules college basketball, when the Yankees dominate professional baseball, when Green Bay or Pittsburgh or Dallas reigns in professional football, we know that their glory days ‘ like those of the Roman emperor or the Roman empire ‘ are numbered. As theologian Walter Bruggermann ruminates: ‘The way things are is precarious and in jeopardy. Don’t absolutize the present. It will not stand.’
The temptation at high tide is always hubris. Power is, as Henry Kissinger said, ‘the great aphrodisiac.’ It’s easy, when we’re on top, to get intoxicated with our greatness and, as I heard growing up, ‘get too big for our britches.’ In all fairness, it must be extremely difficult for the most powerful person on earth, the latest Caesar, not to be enamoured of personal god-like-ness. ‘Whom the gods would destroy,’ some wise person warned, ‘they first make mad with power.’
The temptation at low tide is always despair. From working in a children’s hospital for 27 years, I know how adolescents frequently have this problem. Without enough experience to know that there’s life after getting turned down by the object of their affection, or after failing to make the team, they may question how life can ever be good again. And so it tends to be with the vanquished, whether an individual or a political party or a sports team.
Good coaches know too well the law of the tides. I like the wisdom of Coach Phil Jackson: ‘Don’t get too excited about victories or too depressed about defeats.’ Or Coach Lou Holtz: ‘You’re never as good as everyone tells you when you win, and you’re never as bad as they say when you lose.’
But Coach Socrates, 2,500 years ago, said it first and best: ‘There is nothing stable in human affairs. So avoid undue elation in prosperity, and undue depression in adversity.’
When my team loses the big game, I go in my mind to the beach. I hear the ocean roar and sniff the salty air and see the sand reconfiguring.
And sense the tide coming in again.
Dr. R. Wayne Willis is a Presbyterian pastor who lives in Prospect, Ky.