I’m reading a book on the evolution of the western world view, it’s basically a Western Civ text book. I went to arts school, it’s all new to me. What strikes me is the enormity of people, circumstances, opinions, experiences, perspectives, suffering, privileges, causes, effects, lives, deaths, etc that can get summed up into a “cultural mindset” of an era of history.. a time as chaotic and controversial as the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Reformation.. come to think of it, when have things not been chaotic and controversial? Some folks would say the 1950’s in America, but only if you where white and middle class, and what a tiny speck of a moment that was. Every microcosm is balanced precariously, hemmed in by the ones around it, but in our brief existence an illusion of stasis is understandable. When I was a kid I naturally assumed that Sacramento was the most important city in the world, since it was the capitol of the most important state in the most important country in the world. Doesn’t that seem perfectly logical?
When I think about the horrors of, say, the Reformation – the long standing unquestioned authority of the Catholic church fracturing, the conservative backlash from the extravagance of the Renaissance, beautiful art commissioned yet paid for by the taxes of the poor, people burned at the stake for refusing to relinquish their cultural inheritance, forced to recant from honest scientific observation and deep seated personal beliefs, mayhem, terror, sickness and death, a level of poverty truly unknown in our time, control, cognitive dissonance, censorship, corruption.. It sounds like hell on earth. How, during such intense flux, did science carry on, did people get educated, poetry get written, cows get milked, did society heal and change and come to understand, respect, and protect the autonomy of the individual? How did we get from pilgrims and Indians and the fourth of July to reelecting a black president??
Obama said it well – we are exceptional because we are the most diverse nation in the world. We are largely a nation of immigrants. Only the American Natives have a cultural creation story that is actually tied to this land. Mine came from a place far across the sea that I have never been to in a desert city that is constantly torn by war, yet I grew up knowing only the foothills of the Sierras, the quiet intensity of Lake Tahoe, the soft grassy hills of the California coastline. This is the land that I recognize as home. My genes were passed on to me by people who left their homelands and went west, generation after generation, until they again hit the sea. This nation was built entirely on occupied territory – the impersonal brute forces of famine, war, society, survival, overpopulation, technology, just plain old growth – the human diaspora has as many interconnected currents and causalities as the weather. America is different (I take issue with the world “exceptional”) because relative to most other countries, it is huge and full of people who wandered here from somewhere else and tried to build a life out of what they found. Individual liberty is indispensable when everyone is a minority. I think in many ways we forget who we are and where we came from.
I can marvel at the state of Europe in the 1200’s and appreciate the madness that I myself did not have to live through; I can learn from the progressions, the swings back and forth striving for equilibrium and forever overshooting it, the major causes and effects of social movements, the people that pushed themselves to the very limits of their own understanding and beyond; I can appreciate that an entity can only build on its current model with the materials and tools available to address the next task. When it comes to my own time and place in history however, I notice I have much less patience and serenity around its evolution. It feels uncertain, volatile, frustrating fits and starts, infuriating – often times it’s hard to recognize the forward motion through the circular logic and repetitive actions against evidence. I realize how tiny an increment one generation – one lifetime – really is in the grand march of history, and I wish I could stay around for a few more to see what happens. Perhaps just as one human eventually grows up, anxiety subsides, a sense of understanding is reached, they have seen enough to know that things eventually work themselves out in one way of another – so too will a society that can truly integrate its past into its present existence, and access the fullest range of choice that exists to determine its future. Perhaps that it far too Utopian, but the only reason for living that we can all genuinely agree on is the continued propagation of our species. It is what we are built for, after all, regardless of any belief in a divine purpose that may lay beyond. As long as we continue to successfully pass the torch, we will continue to evolve. Whether I get to see it or not, that is where my hope lies.
I started writing this with a question in mind: How do you love what is when it is in such a tumultuous state? How do you love the mess, the fear driven decisions we make that shoot ourselves in the collective foot, the good works that go unacknowledged, the incredible and fundamental unfairness? How do you forgive the path chosen when there appears to be a more direct route to health and happiness? How do you get such a massive and heterogeneous group of people to agree on anything when the sources of information are so disparate and unreliable? How do you love it for what it is, and participate with clarity, grace, and abandon?
I don’t know. I guess you just do it, as best you can. Or you don’t. You stay drunk or in front of the TV or at the mall or clinging to victim-hood or at the office or whatever your drug of choice is. How you feel about something isn’t ultimately as important as the actions you take. However, in this one lifetime I get, I’ll be dammed if I let my feelings alone determine my decisions and my quality of life without my consent. The only silver bullet I can honestly deduce and accept – rigorous awareness, from the deep self to as far out as it will go.
Here’s to Obama, here’s to the American people, here’s to excruciatingly incremental change. As is the nature of the universe. Here’s to these next four years we will all witness, endure, participate and revel in – together.