The sensation is almost palpable, and has been creeping up on me for months. It has little to do with the purveyors of gloom dotting my immediate landscape: the neighbor who can't communicate with her teenagers, the unsolicited "Washington newsletters" daily reaching my mailbox, the head- wagging philosophers of the nightly hot tub. All these prophets, in solemn chorus, proclaim an imminent replay of the fall of Rome, this time featuring the United States.
My own information -- courtesy of a stubborn intuition -- defies one-sentence theories and leans heavily on metaphor. It holds that our current reality is both more complicated and more interesting.
I would not insist, with Voltaire's Candide, that we inhabit the best of all possible worlds. Rather, I sense, vibrating all around me, an invisible collision, a tremendous ongoing struggle between the fading society of old values and an emerging community of brotherhood. We are not simply sliding by default into what Thomas Sugrue described as "the twilight age of the clothed mammals." Despite Soweto, Kabul and Miami, machine guns in Central America and bombs on the West Bank, subliminal messages continue to surface from a hundred uncharted battlefields where social fission is being challenged by social fusion. Through the fog of oratory celebrating hand-me-down quarrels, I can perceive the outlines of a fresh way of thinking and being. Martin Luther King caught a glimpse of it before he was cut down. So did Robert Kennedy -- along with Alan Paton in South Africa and Martin Buber in Israel.
Unmistakably, our world is in flux. Political candidates stray across traditional party lines. "Mellow, laid-back" collegians are suddenly galvanized over nuclear energy. The "women's movement" moves in several directions at once: for and against motherhood, military service, the ERA.
Our dilemmas are legion. Yet, for every dismaying factor there is a counterforce straining into existence or peering over the horizon. Is rock and roll deafening a generation, and Offenbach being reduced to a radio jingle? Listen to the regional opera companies springing up in the Southwest. Is technology fouling our air and blackening our streams? It has also brought the planets into our living rooms and transformed our understanding of the atom. Are great powers glaring at each other from behind barricades bristling with overkill? The fact remains that Rhodesia has given way peaceably to Zimbabwe. And Sadat didm fly into Israel and embrace Golda Meir -- an encounter all but inconceivable to those of us long steeped in Middle East affairs.
So much for the tangibles, and logic. Transcending all this is an inner knowledge that I feel growing steadily in myself, and sense more and more as a universal presence. How do I look upon my brother in the valleys of Pakistan, the mountains of Peru? From the moment that the first capsule went rocketing into space it has become impossible to view him in the old perspectives. He is a fellow-passenger on a mysterious and exhilarating journey, with gifts to share , talents that will enrich our common destiny if I have the wit to help him fulfill his possibilities.
How absurd that on this tiny ball whirling through the cosmos I should set myself off from him, locked into the emotional values of a primitive ancestor who literally could not see beyond the next mountain! Must we still, after centuries of struggling toward wisdom, confront one another with the terror-inspired ethic of the cave-man, merely replacing the battle-ax with the supersonic bomber?
I cannot accept that. And I hear murmurs of agreement welling up on every side. We are one. The seeds of worldwide love are germinating, and being carried on the winds of change to every corner of the planet. Behind the groping toward a Middle East settlement lies the unarticulated but deeply felt yearning of the people, in Cairo as in Tel Aviv, for an end to mindless antagonisms. Behind the quiescent SALT talks, not quite drowned out by the rumbles from the Pentagon and the grumbling of Gromyko, are the voices raised in Wichita and along the Dnieper, questioning the validity of a cycle of violence that can have no logical end but mutual extermination.
The gloom merchants are wrong; we are not on a toboggan slide to perdition. Nor, it must be added, on an effortless path toward grace. What we face is a peak moment in the perennial human condition of simultaneous growth and decay, advance and retreat.
The clash of opposing forces is thunderous. We can concede the field to them -- or we can recognize that we too are here; that our prayers, our compassion, our acceptance or denial of responsibility, are part of what is happening. Do we have the spiritual resources to ride with the winds of change, and nurture the seeds of love? How we answer that question will largely determine the outcome.