The world is going to hell in a handbasket!
We hear this all the time (even from me sometimes, I must confess). War, famine, disease, murder, mayhem, global warming, a new Ice Age, terrorism, racism, any "ism" you can imagine. No wonder so much of politics oozes with nostalgia from both sides of the aisle.
Yet, were times ever really any better than now? In some aspects yes. But I like to remind myself that the present day is pretty darned good. Frankly, I'd rather be alive now more than any other era in human history ... so far.
In the interest of brevity, I'll offer five reasons among many why I say this (literally plucked at random from a list). Not surprisingly four of the five are technology-related. Technology is a double-edged sword I admit. But within this broad category are aspects that I think have made our daily lives significantly richer.
1. Competent Medicine
So many yearn to "live like kings." But a king when exactly?
Though not a prince, in 1926 the son of president Calvin Coolidge developed a blister on his toe while playing tennis. The blister became infected and the boy died. Strides in medical care today allow us to live longer, less painful, more productive lives. We've eradicated so many plagues and poxes that routinely laid waste to generations in times past. Until recently a parent stood a good chance of losing at least one child.
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And even for survivors, life was often unpleasant. Pick up a sepia-tinted 19th century photo of any adult and the odds are you're looking at a person in some sort of pain. Very often teeth were at the epicenter. Dentists deserve more gratitude! Mundane as it sounds, one reason we live better today is due to proper care of teeth, which were the source of so many infections in days of yore. For example, by age 50 George Washington had just one working tooth. Rotting teeth and gums were the rule until the advent of modern dentistry. Try this: don't brush your teeth for a month. Welcome to the taste and aroma of most of human existence.
2. Transportation; Specifically Jet Airplanes
I'm just going to be lazy and quote comedian Louis C.K. on this one. When relating a story of people moaning to him about having to sit on a runway for 40 minutes, he asks:
"Oh really? Then what happened? Did you FLY through the air like a bird? Did you partake in the miracle of human flight? You're flying! It's amazing! Everybody on every plane should be going: 'Oh my God! Wow!' You're sitting in a chair...in the sky."
When my flight is delayed, I take comfort in the notion that even if I go from, say, New York to San Francisco in nine hours as opposed to the usual six-and-a-half, were this 1876, on the fastest train available I'd still have another 80 hours of gruelling travel ahead of me. A clipper ship? 80 more days. A covered wagon? Who knows if I'd even survive. I'll take a tardy 767 thank you.
3. Space Exploration
In my mom's 1963 Encyclopedia Americana, I look up Pluto and merely find a grainy photograph with an arrow pointing to one of a number of indiscriminate white dots on a black field. Now we have deep space probes like New Horizons doing planetary flybys and devices like the Hubble telescope peering ever deeper into the Cosmos, and thus farther back in time.
Modern astronomy has yielded discoveries at once awe-inspiring and humbling. We find ourselves afloat in a vast celestial ocean of hundreds of billions of galaxies each containing hundreds of billions of stars and planets more numerous than grains of sand in the Sahara. How wonderful to peer at the night sky and contemplate its majesty, armed with knowledge of outer space so mind-blowing in its scope and beauty that H.G. Wells would have thought too fantastical for print.
4. Music At Our Fingertips
This seems like a rather banal advantage until you actually think on it.
Suppose you're living in the 1800s. You want to hear some music because the silence in your house is maddening. If you're rich and don't play an instrument, you call in your musician/band. Otherwise you saddle up and visit the local saloon where hopefully someone's playing the out-of-tune piano. Beyond than that you're out of luck.
Over time records and radio developed, but never have we had such depth in a musical library at our disposal. As I write this, Beethoven is playing on my iPod. How few people in his time or even decades after its debut ever heard the glorious Ninth Symphony? How would they if they had no access to a local symphony that just happened to be featuring it? And then what? They got to hear it once in their entire lives?
We now have, literally, millions of songs available anytime anywhere with multimedia. Pre-modern time was, for many people, a world mostly devoid of music in their private lives. Just kill me now.
5. A Story
In April 1944 U.S. Army Corporal Rupert Timmingham recalled how he and some fellow G.I.s were traveling through Texas.
As they were Black men, they were denied entrance to a diner; the owner would only serve them if they came around back. As the U.S. soldiers ate, they watched a group of German POWs "...enter the diner, be seated with their two guards and had their meals served, talked, smoked, in fact had quite a swell time."
Do I really need to elaborate on this one?
I know I left out a bunch. And sure there are indeed parts of the past I yearn for; Classic Rock certainly is one of them.
Also civility. A sense of being a nation of citizens over consumers. Pride in our country and respect for elders. Minds like Abraham Lincoln, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and the like when we needed them. A time when free speech trumped hurt feelings.
But still, today isn't so bad. You just have to take the bad in stride with the good. Paradise will never exist in this world. But now at least you can listen to your favorite tunes in your ear buds while a competent dentist (who may just happen to be African-American) painlessly fixes your aching tooth without risk of infection and has you out the door in plenty of time to catch your three-hour flight to see family 1,200 miles away. Life used to be a lot worse. For kings and paupers alike.
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