On the Toughness of our Recent Forebears (6/09)

I have been reviewing two old BBC series from the 1970s side by side this past week—Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation and Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man.  I come away from them with the disconcerting suspicion that, as denizens of the contemporary American scene, many of us are rather like pampered and sheltered children.  These series—especially The Ascent of Man—underscore the fact that the long road this species has traveled before arriving here has been as terrible in its agonizing hardships and its catastrophic derailments as it has been wondrously heroic in its spectacular leaps forward.  What I cannot help being impressed by as I watch these sweeping historical surveys is the sheer amount of work and self-sacrifice that was demanded of our ancestors simply to survive—let alone, thrive—in a tolerably dignified and humane manner.

It’s this impressive blend of extraordinary industriousness, resiliency, and practical resourcefulness—evident in the often brutal and uncertain daily existences of ordinary persons throughout Western history—that makes for such a contrast with the easy, cushioned lives so many of us simply expect for ourselves and for our children.  My aim here is certainly not to blame or to rail against contemporary persons for adopting habits and harboring expectations that cannot help but appear extravagant and indulgent when measured against previous norms and standards—since this exceptionally prosperous and free existence is the only life that many of us living today will ever know.  Because many of us have enjoyed these freedoms and material benefits throughout our lives, we have become poorly fitted, in countless ways, for the sorts of burdens and responsibilities that our forefathers took upon their minds and backs without complaint or hesitation.  On the whole, their lives were tougher, less frivolous, less comfortable, and less materially free than ours.  If our forebears were granted a glimpse at the unearned freedom and material comforts many of us take for granted, at our marvelous gadgets and amusements, at our troubling aversion to inconvenience and weighty sacrifice, mightn’t they turn away in sadness and scorn?

Certainly a crucial component of their readiness to make such weighty sacrifices—and to endure hardships that few of us could withstand without crumbling or cracking up—was their staunch belief that their labors were as much for the benefit of posterity as for themselves and their own kin.  Am I wrong in assuming that few of us today agonize over the question of what we might bequeath of value to posterity?  Many of us seem to have trouble thinking beyond next week or our next paycheck.  And if we do bother at all to reflect upon what sort of legacy we are leaving for our own grandchildren and great-grandchildren, we are likely to be stricken with a sense of shame, helplessness, and regret over the current era’s collective short-sighted selfishness and frivolity.  Because so many of us have been spared the labor, the harsh discipline, and the weighty responsibilities our forgotten ancestors shouldered, we lack a proper appreciation for how—and at what cost—our relatively free and pampered lives were made possible, upon what enormous sacrifices they have been painstakingly and selflessly erected.

If, collectively, we do not display the same fortitude and resourcefulness that our forefathers showed, it is certainly not because we are genetically inferior or constitutionally impaired.  Our bodies and our brains are perfectly equipped, by nature, to face the reality that our forebears often had no choice but to wrestle with.  It is our culture and our modern educations that have become increasingly bankrupt, anemic, and superficial.  Even the ablest physical bodies and minds weaken and wither without a healthy diet and regular exercise.  They soften and degenerate without exposure to hardship and trials of strength.  They become enervated and spoiled if they take the easy road—the main road down which a growing number of us are careening, in fact.

Ironically, the very ease and comfort that many of us have come to expect is the principal obstacle standing between us and an authentic, fully-fledged existence—the sort of existence that is more likely to be forged in response to protracted trials and weighty responsibilities.  Culturally and psychologically, like little Icaruses, we have risen (into thin air) on inherited wings, not earned ones.  The imaginative creation and maintenance of such wings lies, for the most part, beyond our cramped and narrow range of understanding.  We see much the same problem with our ‘user-friendly’ technological devices. The inner workings of these ubiquitous devices elude our understanding and transcend our practical ability to reconstruct or repair them—our cars, household appliances, laptop computers, TVs, iPhones, etc.  Analogously, we appear to have missed those necessary, preparatory-initiatory stages in the long process of cultural and material evolution that has culminated in—and may very possibly terminate with—our present stage.

Isn’t it the case, in fact, that a growing number of us are becoming anxiously aware of the wobbliness of our present condition—and of our general unfitness for re-visiting and re-embracing those trials and hardships which made all of this comfort, freedom, and (resultant) ignorance/immaturity possible in the first place?  So far, we have been able to shift most of the physical burdens onto the hardier shoulders of ‘developing nations’ who, for the moment, are willing to sweat and toil for low wages in order that we may remain comfortable and amused consumers.  For the moment, many of these peoples inhabit sufficiently rich and vital traditional cultures, enabling them to withstand these trying ordeals with patience and hope (mostly for their children’s prospects).  But how long before such innocent traditional cultures suffer lethal infection by decadent modern trends such as hedonism, consumerism, relativism, and nihilism?  Clearly, these difficult and painful questions contribute to the general malaise so widespread and so grossly misunderstood today throughout the modern world.

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