In the depths of permacrisis, light and high beauty

Justine Toh reflects on on the Collins Dictionary’s 2022 word of the year 'permacrisis', and where light and beauty might still be found.

We put up the Christmas tree so early this year that we beat the shopping centres. Activity-wise, it was pure catnip for the kids and, given the bonfire of the past year, I’ve been in dire need of some cheer. You?

We’ve limped out of the (still ongoing) pandemic to rising inflation, war in Ukraine and catastrophic floods raging across Australia’s east.

Abroad, Twitter is on the skids, authoritarianism is on the march and US President Joe Biden has been dropping hints all year about a possible world war III. Meanwhile, climate records continue to tumble, including the alarming fact that London (!) hit 40C back in July.

Based on current trends, I’m already assuming the brace position for 2023.

Permacrisis, the Collins Dictionary’s word of the year, nailed the state of the world in 2022. Officially, the word means the “extended period of instability and insecurity” we seem to be living through. Sounds tidy and neutral enough, as is standard for dictionary definitions.

The lived reality of permacrisis, however, is anything but.

To live in permacrisis is to lurch from one bad news story to the next. It threatens our sense-making: shouldn’t the world be getting better? Why does everything seem to be getting worse? Maybe security and comfort have always been the luxuries of a privileged few. But I bet I’m not alone in feeling slammed by the times, and vulnerable to the creeping fear that as “things fall apart”, as one poet put it, “the centre cannot hold”.

Remember the Great Resignation, that time when everyone apparently decided to quit their jobs? If permacrisis is here to stay, the Great Resignation might instead name our collective resignation to a sorry fate.

I should clarify that these feelings are the side effects of living in a state of permacrisis. Which is to say: the future isn’t set, disaster isn’t assured. It just feels that way. What the feelings draw out, more than anything else, is that permacrisis is a crisis of hope.

Yet the year hasn’t just been one car crash after another. There has been the occasional bright spark. Since July, NASA has drip-fed us stunning images of the universe, courtesy of the James Webb Space Telescope. These jaw-dropping pictures have given us glimpses of starlight more than 13 billion years old.

Running alongside the apparent chaos of our earthly lives is unfathomable beauty and splendour.

The glittering Cosmic Cliffs of the Carina Nebula, for instance, have shown us how stars are born – a sight guaranteed to form an immediate lump in the throat. Despite appearances, you and I happen to live in a glorious universe. Running alongside the apparent chaos of our earthly lives is unfathomable beauty and splendour.

In a grim moment in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo and Sam are stranded in Mordor. Frodo is on the verge of losing the plot, but Sam looks up and sees a star glinting in the darkness.

“The beauty of it smote his heart,” JRR Tolkien writes, “and hope returned to him.” Sam is struck by the thought that “in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach”.

Undoubtedly, the Shadow is real and the situation critical. We know something of this, too. Permacrisis makes us all Samwise Gamgee, stuck on the metaphorical slopes of Mount Doom. Like him, we need a shot of hope in our veins. We need to know that the “light and high beauty” of our galaxy may, in the end, be more real than even the gathering darkness.

Perhaps unexpectedly, this is what Christmas is all about. The “high beauty” of the heavens doesn’t remain remote but instead draws near to us in Jesus. The strange claim of the ancient story is that the baby in the manger is God in the flesh, come to tend the wounds of the world.

The “high beauty” of the heavens doesn’t remain remote but instead draws near to us in Jesus.

His arrival doesn’t instantly banish the dark or beam us all up into the heavens. More painstaking, patient work is required. But if we must live amid permacrisis, there’s something to Jesus’ assurance that he is with us always, to the very end of the age.

It’s why the Old Testament prophet Isaiah can look at the bleakness of his world – and ours – and observe: “On those living in the land of deep darkness, a light has dawned.”

Justine Toh is a senior fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity and the author of Achievement Addiction.

This article first appeared in The Australian.