It took me nearly four months, but earlier this week I finished reading Europe: A History. (The reading was not uninterrupted by other things -- it's too big of a doorstop to bring with me when I'm traveling).
It's a grim picture. As gruesome as some of the barbarism and cruelty of earlier ages has been, there isn't much to rival the 20th century. What the human race seems to have learned most in the previous centuries has been improved methods for destroying each other.
I'm not big on the concept of "progress". While there have been undeniable advances in the overall level of material comfort (although one should keep in mind that the general living standard of a large portion of the planet is still far below the typical European peasant of the 14th century), it is hard to find any evidence that the human race as a whole has learned much of anything when it comes to kindness, empathy, or a capacity for increasing self-awareness. We're still pretty much the same brutish, petty, jealous, paranoid and cruel stumblebums we've always been. The glee with which people have seized upon the anonymity of the internet to exhibit their worst tendencies is a uniquely 21st century exemplar of that.
It's the exceptions that give one hope, of course. And the exceptions are many. There's an insurance agency that has a marvelous ad campaign on the theme that every day millions of people do the right thing -- it's little things, like the mother who picks up her kids at a ball game and looks back to see one lone little boy still waiting for his dad, and turns around and sits with him until the dad arrives, or the young woman in the wheel chair who goes out through the rain and pushes past the innumerable small indignities foisted on the disabled in order to be able to cast her vote. Honest to god, I choke up when I see these ads.
Were I still a christian, perhaps I would see the deplorable lack of empathy as a manifestation of original sin, that what cripples us is our inability to put ourselves in the place of another. As it is, I can only see it as part of the inexplicable nature of human beings. And yet it seems to me that it would take so little effort for people to be just a little bit more patient and generous with each other. Just a tiny bit less selfishness and a little bit more empathetic listening would make such a huge difference.
But looking at the vast and complex story laid out in Europe doesn't leave one with much hope that we're going to see any such changes. It hasn't happened so far, so why would one think that things would be different from here? It puts me at odds with traditional Western views of history that tend to be linear, and in their more optimistic versions, a continual ascent. I lean towards the circular visions of the Lakota or the Taoists.
I return many times to one of the lessons that my mother taught me. As a reading specialist in the local small town high school for many years, she spent much of her time with the kids who were not going to make it. They were the ones who were going to drop out, at best get a halfway decent job in the mill, and end up drinking too much, getting divorced, being alienated from their kids, and wondering what had happened to their lives. Before she retired, she was working with some of those kids, who were clearly on the same track as their parents. And yet she went at it with the same energy and outpouring of love and caring for each one of those kids right up until the day she retired. I asked her one time how she managed to keep doing that, knowing that no matter what she did many of those kids were already lost.
She told me that she knew that she couldn't save anybody. "But," she said, "it's as if in everybody's life there's a balance, on one side the good stuff comes in, and on the other the bad. How that tips in the long run is out of my control. But I can make sure that what I give them goes into the good side."
So I ask you, as you go out into the world today, ask yourself with everybody you run into, are you putting your stuff in the good side or the bad?
I don't believe in progress, and I don't believe in saving the world, but I do believe in the inexplicable magnificence of individual human beings, who are so often so much finer than they have any reason to be.