I’ll be visiting London in may. In preparation for my tour I’ve been immersing myself in films, television programs, and history from Britain. I’ve learned about the Victorian era and the age of the Tudors. One unmistakable thing that I have learned is that even for kings life back in the day was often short, ugly and brutish. While we may romanticize life before our time, the reality is that the average person had a really tough time.
When Henry VII was king in the fifteenth century people slept on straw along with the dogs and livestock. They didn’t take many baths and there was no such thing as shampoo. They were no doubt a rather rangy bunch who hardly dreamed of reaching ages that are commonplace these days. They were unlikely to do a great deal of smiling for portraits even if they were royalty because their teeth were probably rotten and black, when they weren’t missing completely. Medicine was built more on superstitions and old wives’ tales than any real knowledge of disease and how to combat it. Times were hard for most people with little sanitation and a looming threat of starvation. Small wonder that many people chose to risk the uncertainty of traveling to the new world once news of its so called discovery reached their ears. The chance of finding something different must have been tantalizing.
The Victorian era was not a great deal better if one were born without wealth. It was a hard life for the average soul both in Great Britain and here in their rebellious cousin, the United States. Homes without electricity or indoor plumbing were still very much the norm, and work was often dirty and mind numbing. Forty hour weeks with benefits were still dreams of the future with most folks working themselves into states of bad health with little concern about either their safety or their welfare.
The twentieth century eventually led to modernization, but not before people had endured two world wars, a devastating depression, and a flu epidemic that killed millions. It saw revolutions that placed countries under the rule of communist despots, and the murder of untold innocents by Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot, among others. Somehow the people of the world soldiered on and slowly began to develop economies and political systems that allowed greater numbers of individuals to live with opportunities and modern conveniences that not even kings might have imagined.
Today here in the United States and many European countries and other rapidly developing parts of the world advancements have been so great that we live in relative comfort with our food, appliances, cars, medical care, educations, and ways of life. We take our beds and our shampoos for granted. Our daily showers are just part of an under appreciated routine. Even our dogs live in greater comfort than people did five hundred years ago.
While we have made such great advances for virtually everyone, we still seem to spend far too much time complaining about what we do not have. We envy those who have more and plot to find legal ways of taking what they have earned and so that we might have a share of it. Instead of appreciating what we already own we moan about what we are yet to have, rarely sacrificing our visits to restaurants or the small luxuries that were unheard of for any but royalty in another time. I wonder why we spend more energy listing our grievances than counting our blessings.
There is certainly nothing wrong with improving the world, making progress, but we have become a world filled with gripes and jealousy. We see far too many people wanting to take rather than give. We forget that the great strides forward in history have had their costs in hard work and innovative thinking. We seem to believe that if we simply legislate equality of living standard it will miraculously overtake society and all will live blissfully. History tells us that such thinking has no basis in fact. Lenin did not create a society that built better lives for the Russian peasants than they had experienced under the czar. Such a dream must be built on the ingenuity and drive of individuals, not the dictums of a government whose chief goal is to maintain power.
Having a purpose and a feeling of contributing to the greater good of family, neighborhood, village, and society is what makes us happy with our states in life. It is not what we own or how much capital we store in a bank that brings the contentment that we desire, although it doesn’t hurt to have those things. In the end it is how we feel about ourselves in relation to those around us that brings us happiness. Each of us has many talents that we may use to keep the engines of a society roaring. There is great satisfaction to be found in contributing love, ideas, work, service. When we are engaged outside of ourselves we don’t have time to nurse anger or hard feelings. Going to bed tired but filled with a sense of doing something meaningful brings restful slumber and contentment.
I used to do a daily exercise as a teacher to keep from being discouraged by minor problems in my classroom. At the end of the day I listed all of the things that appeared to have gone right as well as the experiences that made me smile. I made sure to go minute by minute, period by period so that I would not miss anything. Then I would write down my grievances and mistakes. There was never one day when the bad happenings outweighed the good. It taught me to be conscious of what I had working for me that would help me to improve what was going wrong. My perspective was centered on the positive and thus my solutions tended to be optimistic as well. I was honestly able to exclaim that being an educator was a joyful experience because I was consciously looking for the good.
We have much. All of us do, even those with very little still have more than their ancestors. We must build on the progress that we have made and ask ourselves what got us here and what we have changed along the way. We can make things better, but not if all we do is grumble.