“Every cloud has a silver lining” was a frequent expression in my home.
It was part of the folklore of my mother’s upbringing in the foothills of north Georgia, where a finger of Appalachia reached down to within 50 miles of the nascent metropolis of Atlanta, where she and my dad would later live and where my sister and I grew up.
Our childhood memories are laced with images drawn from the “close to the land” lifestyle that would often be the metaphors of life and its challenges.
This particular expression was my mother’s commentary on a variety of sorrows, disappointments and frustrations, large and small.
It was not hard to imagine, even in the city, the heavy clouds that would sometimes darken the day and later give way to brighter sunlight.
I have later learned the origins of this saying are traced to John Milton in the 17th century, and I have no idea how it became part of the folk philosophy of a farm community.
Maybe it was a deep-seated universal insight that predated Milton, and he picked it up to include in his work.
Or maybe Mr. Buice in the one-room schoolhouse of Mom’s childhood introduced this gem of literature to his students. Who knows?
The image is a rich one. There is no denying that a cloud can darken the sky, but there is also that point when around the edges of that cloud there is a rim of a reminder that the light dimmed temporarily by its mass is still there.
I have thought of this image and its insight in recent weeks and days as we have experienced the cloud of dysfunction, deception and corruption in our political process.
We have been reminded, rightly, I believe, that the cloud darkening our national sky is not of immediate recent origin.
It has “cumulated” over several decades in which the politics of moneyed power and religious sanction have combined in an unholy alliance to transform our collective consciousness into a tolerance of the dominance of our lesser angels.
Nothing new here – the abundance of analyses of the current situation needs little addition.
I have found it helpful to respond to the many levels of despair and disappointment that are called forth by what we are experiencing to think about where the “silver linings” are in this cloud.
Here are a few that I see:
- We have a system created by our founders that provides for a way to address challenges of this kind.
This process requires bringing the deliberation from the battlefield of cable news and social media to a central table, where a measure of civility can be enforced, and where there can be winnowing of wheat from chaff, fact from fiction, truth from propaganda.
- We are blessed to have public servants, who would otherwise never be seen or heard from, who have been willing to call attention to distortions in our public processes.
Sometimes defying direct orders not to do so and risking their careers and their safety, they have endured smear and slander from more public voices who are threatened by what they have reported.
- We have a time-honored democratic process, which doesn’t lend itself easily to manipulation, though not without challenge, as we are seeing.
It provides a constant opportunity for correction of distortions that find their way into the flow of governance.
Its purposes are clear enough that such practices as discriminatory gerrymandering, voter suppression and misinformation campaigns can be seen for what they are and called out.
- We have prophetic voices that remind us who we are as a people and what our covenant together as a nation means, beyond the stratified privilege of some and the captivity of poverty for many.
In a tradition that goes as far back as Nathan (2 Samuel 12) and Michaiah (1 Kings 22), these voices speak truth to power in the name of a Source more foundational than the satisfactions and victories of the moment.
- We have the gift of time, which our historical experience teaches us will do a refining work toward reconciling what has been divided and restoring what has been broken.
We can decide whether to hope and cooperate with that process or to resist it, and our choice will determine on which side of history we will be remembered.
A cloud’s silver lining doesn’t mean the cloud is not dark, or that its embedded storms are not destructive.
It is a reminder, however, that the sun whose light can be dimmed for a time is still there.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).