It’s Groundhog Day . . . again.
I think many of us feel that the world has settled into a rut, even with the tumultuous ‘changes’ happening with the new Administration in the United States. This isn’t a political blog by any stretch, and I’m not going to belabor the obvious here. Especially because nothing is as obvious as we’re told to assume it is.
History often looks like it repeats itself. I know it doesn’t, but it often rhymes . . . We can identify events and situations that look very similar to things that have happened before. I take a longer and more coarse-grained view of history. For example, I see the current state of our economy and political milieu similar to that in the Roman Republic just prior to the Social Wars of the Second Century BCE, and also to events of the mid-Fourth Century CE in the Roman Empire. There seem to be a lot of parallels with our current situation as a nation and as a culture.
People like to draw parallels. It lets us use our memories and our pattern-recognition faculties to identify situations like those we have known or heard about and thus feel we have some ability to predict the future. This has kept our species alive, along with our other talents, for a couple of hundred thousand years. However, that which has served us well for 95% of our existence may be reaching the upper end of its ability to serve us now in the Modern world. Remembering where to find oases and recounting changes in animal migrations over the course of generations is what used to keep us alive when we wandered the Earth as hunter-gatherers, and remembering how to plant different crops and use other strategies to weather a change in climate served us well as Neolithic agriculturists.
I wonder how well our vaunted talents at drawing parallels serve us now, though. We don’t tend to remember the finicky details of political alliances involving nations of millions of people, nor are our brains geared to accept technological changes that happen in a timescale not of millennia or centuries but mere decades. Individuals seem to adapt well enough (well, most of us!) but our cultural institutions do not. We think in terms of changes to them on larger timescales than we ourselves see the changes in our own lives. Rapid changes to our own lifestyles are easier to manage than changes to our traditions or our traditional methods of governance.
I’ll leave you with two quotes that may add some perspective.
‘A custom is the solution to a problem the reason for which we have forgotten.’ -Donald Kingsbury, Courtship Rites
‘Today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions.’ – Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline
We ought never ignore the past, and always let its lessons inform us; but we should never seek to live there, or let it make us fear the future. The past is its own country, and it belongs there. The future belongs to us.