Despite present-day injustice, unequal distribution of wealth, tragedy, and even petty inconvenience, we have much to be grateful for, including the fact that progress marches on.
I was talking to a friend the other night about his upcoming trip to South Africa. He’s flying from London to Cape Town (about 11 hours) for work. He’ll be on the ground for less than a day before he’s back on a plane, returning to Europe. We talked about how strange it is to travel so far for such a short period of time, how exhausted he’ll feel when he arrives, and what a drag it will be to wash his face and change into his business attire in an airport restroom.
When I paused and thought about our conversation, I realized how absurd these complaints were. Not that long ago, during the Age of Discovery, and shortly thereafter, Portuguese, English and Dutch sailors would head out for months, if not years, and make the same kind of journey. If they set off with a dozen ships and came back with four or five, it was considered a good trip. It was common knowledge that people, sometimes all of them, would perish on the way there, or on the way back. Spending a few hours on a plane in a seat that reclines into bed and then splashing some water on your face in an African airport seems like nothing by comparison.
Despite the terrible news headlines (famine, massacres, war) that grab our attention almost every day, the modern conveniences many of us enjoy and take for granted (communication, health, sanitation, transportation) make life easier, safer and longer, and afford us the time to turn our attentions toward a more humanist way of living. While a Swedish businessman and an Afghan refugee might disagree about how widespread our progress actually is, when taken on a global scale, the conditions of the human experience have vastly improved.
If you read a lot of history, as I tend to do, you notice certain patterns. One that never ceases to surprise me is the cavalier attitude toward death and violence that was so prevalent in the past. Whenever a town or castle was taken, the first thing the victorious combatants usually did was kill all of the men and rape all of the women. It was simply common practice, as if the ‘universal battle handbook’ checklist started out with building siege towers, and ended with looting, murder and rape. Can you imagine how a typical conversation, given the mindset of the time, might have gone in the past?
Simon: Hey, Bob, fancy a brew at the pub tonight?
Bob: Can’t. We’re storming the castle in the morning. Got a full day of murder and rape ahead of me. Need to get some rest.
Simon: Well done. Remember to pace yourself. You don’t want to throw your back out like you did last time. Oh, by the way, give my love to Sheila and the kids when the killing is done.
Bob: Will do.
The notion of universal human rights and war crimes didn’t exist in the past, at least not like how we imagine them now. Rights were generally a privilege that came with heredity and social status (landowners, for example). Over the years, the lot of the common man has improved remarkably, although people living in South Sudan and other regions stained by conflict can attest to the fact that the recognition of human rights is lacking in many places across the planet. Even so, we should stop and appreciate our material and social advancements from time to time, despite the hard situations peppered across our own lives and the globe, because if we don’t, we can become despondent, and drown in a sea of negative information telling us how bad life has become.
Perhaps it’s human nature to never be satisfied, and that’s why we cling to reports of crazed gunmen and terrorist attacks, in an attempt to convince ourselves that everything is awful. Yes, we should continue to deal with problematic social issues and tragedies when they arise, yet still, if you could jump into a time machine and compare notes with peasants, serfs and slaves toiling away in the past, you would see that despite the misfortunes that will always plague the living, we’ve come an exceptionally long way as far as existence and society are concerned. There’s no reason to think that life (dystopian science fiction models aside) won’t continue to get better, as long as we set our minds to the task, and remember the difficult lessons from our past.
Image credit: Physicians for Human Rights – Israel/Flickr