An astute reader suggested to me recently that people today are no worse than they were in the past, and they will not get better in the future. Now, that’s a sobering thought even for a teetotaler — which, by the way, I’m not.
Upon reflection, I believe he is right. After all, human history is a record of folly, war, tragedy and greed. It requires a dark sense of humor to get even a few laughs out of it. We humans have been defiling the planet ever since we arrived and are still doing it. I know it takes 10 acres of rain forest every year just to produce the junk mail I get in my mailbox.
That reminds me: If the U.S. Postal Service weren’t, like every other institution, a servant of big business, it would cut the price of first-class mail and increase the price of second, third and fourth class.
But let’s get back to the story of mankind. I did notice, even in my idealistic youth, that one could read Plato, Aristotle, Seneca, Cicero and Caesar, and it was just like reading contemporary writers. That’s because human nature really doesn’t change. Poverty and war have been the norms of human existence and still are.
But youthful enthusiasm and idealism quickly crowded such thoughts out of my head. Every time I ran into chicanery or tragedy, I thought I was seeing something new, or at least the exception. It took a while to realize that all I was seeing was normal human behavior.
If you review all of human history, you can easily see that the only thing that has changed is technology. Someone gave us this wonderful brain — the best there is among living creatures, so far as we know. It has the capacity to "time-bind," to use the phrase coined by Alfred Korzybski, the founder of general semantics. That simply means we can pass on whatever knowledge or skills we accumulate, and that’s what makes technical progress possible.
You can see how it works just by following the path of weapons. It starts with a rock, then a sling, then a spear, then a bow, then an ax, then a knife, then a sword, then a gun, then an explosive, then an airplane, then a missile, then a nuclear warhead. How much indeed have we improved upon the means to kill each other! We can now murder millions of people in seconds and probably will eventually.
(Someone asked Southern comedian Brother Dave Gardner where he would want to be in the event of a nuclear war, and he replied, cupping his hand behind his ear, "Wherever I could say, ‘What was that?’")
The odd thing about us humans is that this same time-binding ability allows us to preserve the wisdom of how to live together in peace, harmony and cooperation. Many wise people in different cultures have figured it out, and they or their disciples have written it all down. We tend to either ignore it or allow our emotions and desires to override our reason.
The problem here is that each of us is born with a blank slate. Civilization itself is literally born anew with each baby. Whatever that baby needs to know must be learned, and that’s why education — parental, peer and formal — is so important.
By now, you might be thinking, What’s the point? Well, the point is that despite our faults, life is beautiful. This planet is beautiful. People, especially children, are beautiful. People can create beauty, as well as weapons. What we should do is enjoy the moment more and worry less about the future.
I’m not suggesting that we ignore Aesop and go completely grasshopper, but we should recognize that good and evil are permanent components of the human existence, and nothing we do will change that. What we can do is associate as much as humanly possible with the good and the beautiful, and avoid as much as possible evil and ugliness.
The world outside of us is as it is. Whether what we see and experience make us happy or depressed depends on our internal evaluation of it. Going down the highway of life, we can look at the litter and the billboards or the grass and the trees. I prefer the trees.
Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.