The other day a line from the nineteenth-century poet William Wordsworth popped into my head: “The world is too much with us.” Is it ever, I thought. I need some kind of withdrawal. Wordsworth often laments the rapacious march of the industrial revolution across his country. He is pained by the scars left on his beloved English countryside. There was much to be troubled about. But when we let the world get with us too much, he surmises, we are numbed into a kind of spiritual paralysis: “We lay waste our powers,” we give “our hearts away,” we sing “out of tune.” Could this be where we are too?

In a much better poem, “Tintern Abbey,” one of the great poems in the English language, Wordsworth thinks through what it might take to get back in tune. He admits he is often disturbed by “the still sad music of humanity,” fully aware of its “ample power / To chasten and subdue.” Yet he has also known, “with an eye made quiet by the power / Of harmony,” that there resides out there “the deep power of joy.” When we discover these things, or remember them, we are allowed actually to “see into the life of things.” There is hope that another tune is playing somewhere, beautifully. We must strive to get back in tune.

But “in tune” with what? That’s a big question. When we complain, as I often do, that “the world” intrudes too forcefully into my life, what is it I am supposing is being disrupted? Have I lived an alternative peacefulness, sometime at an earlier age? Does my faith promise the power of harmony or the prospect of joy, some ideal I must have forgotten?

Wordsworth’s too-muchness has blossomed in full flower in our own day. We desperately feel we need to know everything that’s going on. We think we need the “too-muchness,” otherwise we imagine we’ll miss out on something big. News 24/7, Twitter and Facebook first thing in the morning, our newspapers, more biased and angry all the time, landing at our doorsteps—we pour over it all by the hour. But do we really need all of this? Isn’t there something more life-giving, something less obsessively negative, something more deeply satisfying?

Don’t get me wrong: I have never been in favor of pulling out of things. I am no separatist. There is so much that needs repairing in our world, and engagement is the only way to go to work to build a better society, better communities, better families, better schools, to strive more authentically toward reconciliation among races. But, really, does all of that require giving our hearts up for too-muchness? Aren’t we wasting away the gifts we may have to repair ourselves and our world? Aren’t we really singing out of tune most of the time?

For decades now we have preached a gospel of self-focus instead of love. We have preached the sermon that there is really no truth, only individual preferences. We have imagined a society with no common standards, then yell at each other for not abiding by our own standards. We’ve preached a sermon that lives don’t matter, black lives, old people’s lives, women’s lives, the lives of unborn children. For at least a century now, we have preached the sermon there is no God, and have sought to run the church out of the public square, trying desperately to convince ourselves it doesn’t matter. And, amazingly, we have preached an almost endless song of hatred—then act surprised to find we really do hate each other.

In my hopeful moments, I think it is possible to step out of this too-muchness and reclaim something more life-giving for our society and for our daily lives. It will take work, though. We need to be thinking through new habits of the heart, new daily practices, spiritual disciplines, all of it restorative and healing. Repairing our world will not begin with more laws and policies, or certainly not with more political strutting, helpful though some of that might be. No, it will begin with transformed hearts.

Can we do it? The jury is still out. We await the answer, all the while trying, in our feeble little ways, to sing again in tune with a more beautiful song.

Photo: England’s Lake District