When I was in high school I hated all of my history courses. Oddly enough I still managed to win the top history student award each time I took one of those classes. I still have my medals from World History and American History but I remember little of what I learned, or should I say memorized, back then. It was not until I went to college that I began to see the unfolding of civilizations as interesting subject matter. I had a particularly exceptional professor at the University of Houston who began his discussions of each era by insisting that we first learn about what life was like for the people who lived during particular times. He wanted us to be able to understand the world through the eyes of the people who were there, not those who vicariously wrote about them decades or centuries later. He also used a number of first person sources to demonstrate the conflicting points of view that were in vogue in each moment and place. He believed that only by immersing ourselves in the customs, beliefs, economics, and traditions of the times would we be able to truly appreciate why different events transpired. He insisted that the flow of history has been far more complex than we generally imagine.
Somehow we humans tend to be a rather social lot. Even when we were hunter gatherers who moved along with our food sources we rarely did so alone. We found out rather early on that there is often strength in numbers. We probably learned how to distribute the labor as well based on various talents. It must have been a difficult and uncertain life. For the young and healthy it may have even been a bit exciting but for anyone with any kind of condition that slowed the progress of the group it had to be a bit frightening. I wonder how often someone who was too ill or too injured to continue moving with the clan was simply left to die. We might consider such a situation as being barbaric but if we really reflect on the consequences of stopping the progress of the many for a single individual we may find ourselves agreeing that abandoning the infirm was the only thing that made sense for the survival of the group. The fittest progressed while the weak became obsolete. The harshness of that idea gives all modern men cause to shudder.
Eventually progress allowed people to settle down in one place. It became a better life for everyone including those who weren’t young and fit. Of course, even then the people were beholden to the vagaries of nature. A long drought, a terrible flood, a blight of the crops, an invasion of grasshoppers might quickly destroy a community and force them to endure hunger and disease. For the common man during the vast majority of history life was short and brutish. People lived out their lives toiling from day to day until their bodies became so broken that they were no longer able to do the work. Generation after generation passed and along the way governing bodies were formed to control the resources and the populace. Some individuals rose to leadership positions and obtained great power but for most, lifetimes were about making it from one day to the next.
We read of great civilizations with incredible cities and conveniences that were futuristic in their design. Still, thinking was dominated by beliefs that we modern souls find difficult to understand. We forget the necessity to walk a mile in the shoes of our ancestral brothers and sisters rather than overlaying our own knowledge on theirs. It would be a very long time until the age of enlightenment brought about a more equal way of living and even then thinkers were only willing to go so far in their societal revolutions. There was still a sense of those who were in and those who were out. As usual women were often viewed as the weak link in the progression of society. By nature their bodies were designed to carry future generations and this task made them appear to be less suited for running societies. Mostly they meekly accepted their lot in life. Only rarely did some among them rise up to assert themselves. It was far too difficult to rock the boats of tradition. The world was not yet ready for a dramatic change in thinking.
One of the grandest experiments in governing occurred in our country in the eighteenth century. To even begin to fathom just how revolutionary this spasm really was we must attempt to understand what the world was like back then. The short answer is that for most people it was still quite difficult. For centuries there had been sharply drawn class distinctions that were rarely crossed. Social mobility was hardly fluid. Most citizens were stalled in a state of perpetual sameness. Some found solace in the many types of religion that had grown out of the Protestant Reformation but persecution for beliefs was commonplace. Thoughts of freedom and equality seemed to most people to be fantasies, the playgrounds of the wealthy class. Still there were murmurs that opportunity lay across the ocean in a wild and unexplored land.
Desperation is a strong motivator and so a migration began to the New World. It was brutal and the death rate among those who chose to give it a try was often incredibly high. Nevertheless once a group got a foothold in the new land there was more of a sense of independence from the prying and cloying rules that had held people down back in the mother countries. It was a new start even though the colonists continued under the domination and rule of the homeland. Some of them were quite successful and became far more wealthy than they might have had they simply stayed in Europe. Over the ensuing decades they and their descendants became less and less like their relatives back home. Class systems were not as important in the colonies but they existed nonetheless. The vast majority of the people wanted little more than to live out their lives without interference. When the rule of the British Empire began to feel overbearing many gladly joined with a group of free thinkers who imagined a new way of governing themselves. Others really didn’t care one way or another as long as they were left alone.
Of course we know that by some accident or miracle the revolutionaries succeeded and suddenly found themselves in charge of a whole new government. They envisioned a place where people would mostly be free but they were still locked into some old ideas of class and gender and race that were not yet as modern as we hold today. They based their new nation on rules that were extraordinarily radical given the times but imperfect when judged by today’s standards. I think that they did their best and that even they realized that they still had much work to do.
We humans have evolved like every other species. Our thinking has grown much as that of our ancestors. It is a sometimes slow and tedious process with jolts of upheaval here and there. We know from a cursory glance at the entire world that even today we can’t agree on the best way of doing things. There are so many of us and we are all so different. We have to compromise and agree to disagree more often than we like. The wonderful thing is that we have the lessons of history to guide us and if there is one message that is loud and clear it is that somehow we always seem to manage to find our way and to ultimately do the right thing.
There is a tendency these days to insist that somehow we should all feel ashamed of the mistakes made by those who came before us. I am willing to admit that our ancestors did some strange things but I also believe that they mostly just wanted to survive just as we do. They worked within the guidelines of the societies in which they lived. Most of them were quiet and anonymous and influenced by the events that affected them most personally. Few of them had the luxury of education and free time to think that we possess. To condemn them for all time because we think that they should have made more humane decisions is presumptuous. We have no idea whatsoever what they were thinking. In fact, they may not have been thinking about such things at all.
We get better all of the time. I am one who sees the goodness and value of everyone. I do not believe that we accomplish much by beating our chests and shaming ourselves. The past is what it is. We can learn from it but it need not dominate us. Holding grudges is fruitless. The only way to make progress in the story of mankind is to look forward and to be honest about the problems that plague us and the solutions that will help.
Those of us who are commoners have all too often been the pawns of the power brokers in our midst. We fall for the propaganda of the easy fix. We listen to the whispers of those who would turn us against each other. In the end having a workable society is still almost as simple as it was back when we roamed the earth in small groups in search of food. We must still work together to survive. Each of us must play a role to insure the safety of those around us. We must provide our children with the tools that they will need to adapt and grow. We are all in this thing called life together and its up to us to stick together even when our opinions of how best to do things differs.
I am an optimist and as such I believe that I am sitting in my home free to broadcast my opinions not because the millions of faceless individuals who came before me were horrible, power hungry evil doers who somehow gave me advantages that I have never earned. Instead I see them as souls who came and went on this earth without ever being known by more than a handful of people. They only wanted to exist and to make things a bit better for each passing generation. Like me they made mistakes along the way of living their lives but their intentions were generally good. They brought me and all of those around me to a place where opportunity is abundant but still difficult to conquer without challenges and hard work. Evil continues to exist in our midst, There is still hunger, still sorrow but we have more resources than ever to counteract such things. Because of the wondrous progress that we humans have made I will not be left by the trail because I cannot walk. My injuries will be repaired and healed and I will have care that was once not even a dream. All in all life really is good and it will be even better when we learn how to respect each other in spite of the politicians who urge us to grumble and complain because they will gain more power when we fight. History is a great teacher and it demonstrates that all in all we are a fairly decent lot and getting better all of the time.