We all know about the pervasive generic belief that society always progresses, always advances in ways that are both subtle; with effects that are felt positively much much after the fact, and revolutionary; promising change to the ways we do things here and now, almost immediately imposing on us the burden of adapting or being relegated to the dark, seminally unfashionable class of every society's own version of neo-Luddite.
Does this idea ever transcend the subjective aspects of our experience of life i.e. in a personal sense viz. in how we understand human sexuality and personal expression, and communally viz. in how we use new technology to enhance our understanding of our place in the unbound, countless, and varied iterations of human community?
To focus on our sense of family, for example, is to feel lulled into an effortless belief in the sanctity of perpetual forward motion. We grow up in a social unit that either feeds our self-belief or challenges us to constantly prove just how valuable we are. We grow up as contributors or scavengers depending on our place in the social order of things, and always tend to hitch our star to the widely held wisdom of the crowd: 'It Could Be Worse'. In the process, unless we are victims of severe personal calamity, incorrigibly self-centred, or resolutely fatalistic, the default sentiment on our deathbeds is that we have lived our lives, honourably or not, in a world that is more expressive than our parents' ever was.
Could we be wrong?
I do vaguely remember a very happy childhood, followed by a measure of tragedy and relative hardship as a young man, and am now surrounded with very adult, grown-up problems in a world that bears absolutely no resemblance to the one I knew as a child, from memory. Every time there is an eruption of frustration, a rupture in the normal psychological order of things, a build-up of stress, I fall back, almost psychosomatically, into that comfortable expression of medicated relativism: It Could Be Worse. But what if it never was? Is it a myopic refusal to face the uniqueness of the circumstances of our lives? Could all the comfort and privilege a middle-class existence in the modern world affords us have not actually brought us progress?
I am constantly sensitive to the lack of a basis for comparison when my wife and I tackle a seemingly intractable issue in our family life. But, perhaps there was a time when a similar issue was tackled with relative ease in our parents' lives without a similar measure of drama and heartache, and we don't know about it simply because they're not around any longer to ask, and even if they were, it would be bad form to ask for help.
This asking for help is what I am getting at. If we have bought into this myth of continuous and self-perpetuating progress in everything, then have we also lost faith in age-old solutions to seemingly modern problems? And if so, can we ever think of the past in the same terms as we think of the future, as a hoary place full of incandescent wisdom waiting to be uncovered and enhance our experience of the present.
Modern life is a great big sky full of endless possibility, but it is also a claustrophobic, dark, and cold den of hopelessness. Perhaps we will not feel so alone if we retain a little of the sense of where we came from, and that it indeed was what led us to who we are today.
A Long Way from Primo Levi
11 hours ago