“What has been shall be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.” Ecclesiastes
This quote from the Bible’s Old Testament has a fatalistic flavour…and is, in many ways, disturbing. It suggests that everything, both past and future, is preordained and there is nothing new to be discovered. It’s as if innovation isn’t possible. It’s as though change isn’t possible. It’s a point of view which flies in the face of the very existence of our modern world.
A more specific interpretation is reflected by George Santayana, “Those that do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” At least his perspective has a tinge of optimism – we can change the course of history by purposefully avoiding past mistakes and pitfalls. Back to Ecclesiastes, is it true that we will never come up with something better? In terms of governance and serious conflict such as civil and international wars, surely we can improve the human condition and achieve lasting peace. Or, perhaps its our human nature that is the problem… something that we often suspect is immune to change. I’m more hopeful.
Maybe, rather than searching for new solutions, the message in Ecclesiastes is simply that there are answers already available. So rather than looking for new solutions, we should mine the past, and find those gems buried deep in our history. Let us study successful ancient communities and writings of great sages and apply what they teach us. The answers are before us! Of course, what is still terrifyingly disturbing is that the patterns repeated through the ages include some of the most atrocious acts imaginable… we humans seem to be very slow learners (or masochists).
“Bribery and corruption are common; children no longer obey their parents; every man wants to write a book and the end of the world is evidently approaching.” These words were found on an Assyrian stone tablet written in 2,800 B.C. Although it was written almost 5,000 years ago, this inscription could easily have been written today. There is widespread dishonesty and corruption in large corporations and government…many children don’t respect their parents…and everyone is writing a blog. There are many doomsayers in our world. Those Assyrian words cause one to step back and give pause – what is human progress anyway? Are we doomed to continually repeat history?
I remain optimistic about our future1.. Nestled in among the chaos of our hectic, information-laden culture there exist groups of people determined to see changes in our society. Some remarkable billionaires are donating huge sums of money to great causes. Thousands of entrepreneurs are working toward sustainable solutions for the future. Millions of people are turning their backs on our materialistic, consumer society. People are tired of extremist “isms” in our political parties – and there are grass root movements demanding fairer voting systems that reflect the true wishes of the electorate. Good things are happening…just look at the amazing coming together of virtually every nation in the world to sign the Paris Agreement on the environment in April 2016! This event represents a true beacon of hope. The world found a common threat that transcended national interests – Climate Change. This united attitude produced results. What will happen to the Paris Accord now that the Americans have decamped is grist for another reflection.
Nevertheless, real change does not come without its challenges…just ask the most recent former president of the U.S. – a man voted into power based on his message of “change”. He brought in legislation to bring health care to millions of Americans. He mended relations with the international community and reversed the world’s negative opinion of his country after the disastrous term of George Bush Jr. Obama also managed to steer the country towards a clean energy future. Yet before he could continue his enlightened presidency, congress stopped his changes from going any further…he became a “lame-duck” president for his last term in office. To make matters worse the people of the United States; in a knee jerk shift to the right of the political spectrum and fueled by an ill-informed swath of voters in middle America, voted in a pathological lying demagogue. He won on a boastful promise to make America great again (with no substance in any of his plans). He now promises, and is well on the way to overturning Obama’s entire legacy and returning the country back to its elitist, misogynous, and racist past. Perhaps the country wasn’t ready to embrace the civilized practice of offering universal health care for its citizens (this was the most contentious issue in the election, other than, of course, a “crooked” woman). Whatever the cause of Trump’s victory, one cannot help but recall Joseph de Maistre’s remark, “Every country has the government it deserves.” But my heart bleeds for our southern neighbours…no one deserves what’s happening to them! And, it’s getting worse!
Luckily Canada has, so far, avoided deep divisions in the electorate, and radical politics is still at the fringes…except in Ontario. This is not to say we shouldn’t stay on guard (as we say in our anthem…” O Canada we stand on guard for thee….”). We will need to listen to one another, be flexible and compromise so we can transcend divisive party politics. The key is finding those core human values, or threats, which have universal application. After all we have one important thing in common: we are all human, and when we are injured, we all bleed red blood. We need to shine a light on the positive changes happening in various countries…things like the new forms of collaborative justice springing up in North American legal systems…so we can learn by focusing and adopting these exciting developments. It’s time to recognize the superior principles and results of socialistic governance as practiced in the Scandinavian countries. Nations need to build on successes like the accord in Paris. Otherwise we are doomed to repeating history. A few years ago, I attended a seminar on fostering change in businesses. The seminar leader gave an amusing definition of “madness” – this happens in businesses that keep doing the same things, whether it be marketing techniques, staff development programs (or non-programs) or daily operations, and expect different results! It is a form of insanity!
We all must accept that change requires change , first in our private lives, and then in our communities, and eventually our countries.
1. Steven Pinker’s book “The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined” bolsters my optimism.