I had an interesting experience while visiting a public school recently.

On a wall was a dry-erase board with the following question written above: “Where do you find your peace?”

John Balentine, a former managing editor for the Lakes Region Weekly, lives in Windham.

Inscribed below were a dozen answers, ranging from in the garden, woods and walks to ocean and beach.

I enjoyed reading through the various answers, especially in light of these pandemic and riotous election-year times, but one was surprisingly absent: “God.”

While I understand people avoid even the slightest mention of God in a public setting nowadays and that “tolerant” groupthink dominates today’s school systems and everywhere else, I still find it notable that out of 15 wide-ranging responses no one listed God or religion as a source of peace.

It’s startling to see how much we’ve changed in 20 years. Our collective reaction to the virus, business closures, riots, hurricanes and wildfires are much different from how we corporately reacted to the attacks of Sept. 11.

The pandemic and racial tensions of 2020 are similar to the post-Sept. 11 time period in that there’s a great deal of uncertainty, anxiety and trauma. Back then, we worried about when the next attack would come. Today, we worry about the next spike in coronavirus deaths, and when and where the next riots or natural disaster will destroy more lives and property.

What’s different from Sept. 11, however, is our response to the sadness and mayhem. We’re not looking to God for collective comfort.

After Sept. 11, the song “God Bless America” was everywhere. Members of Congress sang it on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. It was sung at professional baseball, hockey and football games. The lyrics were plastered on bumper stickers and magnets. It was “a thing,” as we might have said back then.

Now, the Almighty is hardly mentioned. Churches are closed, which doesn’t help things, but the public mention of God, which is arguably more important in terms of national identity, is all but non-existent.

That fact hit me while scanning that dry-erase board. Maybe more than ever, as we struggle with real hardship, people need a higher purpose, a sense of comfort and a reason for suffering. Temporary pleasures, such as walks on the beach and in the woods, just don’t cut it, sad to say.

Even if you don’t believe in God (recent polls show atheism is growing in popularity), you probably agree that communing with the creator of the universe, if he did exist, would provide purpose and meaning to an otherwise humdrum, meaningless existence.

While the dry-erase inscriptions sound eternally peaceful, ocean waves destroy, garden plants wither, the woods become scary, and one can only walk for so long. Those sources of peace are temporary. God is, by definition, forever.

This all reminds me of that famous Bible verse, “Peace, peace, when there is no peace.” While the prophetic passage likely refers to the end times and the making of Middle East peace deals, it seems we have a similar feeling here in America, where people are desperately seeking sources of peace during stressful times, often in unsatisfying places.

While the beach erodes, the high wears off, the fancy Mercedes rusts, the stock market tumbles, the lovely house burns and the trophy wife ages, God doesn’t change. And, according to Christian and Jewish tradition, he’s a being that reaches out and rescues his creation during times of trouble.

After Sept. 11, we reached out for that unifying source of peace. Maybe we should do it again.

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