Not Civilized Yet

I started feeling very sad while out on a walk this week. I wrote a senryu about it:

My heart keeps breaking.
It aches for the not yet known
but yet very real.

I couldn’t pinpoint any one reason for feeling this way. It was perhaps the awareness that we are at a point where things will have to change coupled with the awareness that I will not live long enough to see much of that change happen.

One of the truths that hits us — or at least hit me — as we age is that everyone dies in the middle of some story. Experience shows us how long it takes to get anything finished, but when we’re young we think those many years between us and old age (and death) will be enough.

They’re not. They never were.

Even if I live to be very old indeed – and I still hope that I do – there still won’t be enough time.

From reading history and paying attention to current events, I’ve developed the theory that humans — at least the ones in wealthy countries — tend to think they are civilized. The people who came before us made mistakes (slavery, genocide), but we’ve done better.

That might be rather American-centric, but I suspect it’s true in Europe and large parts of Asia as well. Climate and political refugees are unlikely to share this belief.

It is, of course, untrue. We are very far from civilized.

If we were civilized, we wouldn’t have so many millions dead worldwide in a pandemic that should never have been this bad.

If we were civilized, we would have figured out how to live in greater balance with our planet quite a few years back and would not be still struggling to stop the things that must be stopped.

Certainly truly civilized people would not develop housing systems that force a significant number of people to live in tents on the sidewalk or in the park and then roust those people out of their makeshift homes because they are “unsightly.”

I could go on, but you get the drift.

The last few years have battered my natural optimism, but a core part of me still believes that we humans have the ability and capacity to create better ways of living. I’m still making my way through Graeber and Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything, still looking at all the ways humans figured out how to live at various times, and it gives me a lot of hope that we can do better than we are doing now.

But creating a future that might possibly come close to being civilized is going to take a lot of people doing a lot of work for a lot of years.

I don’t know if there’s such a thing as perfection or utopia; I think my definition of civilized might be a place where everyone has enough to live a good life and pursue what matters to them. That seems like a baseline.

We could have that now, but even getting to that point is going to take a very long time.

For our own holiday celebration this year, my sweetheart and I got a fancy dinner of traditional food from a cafe run by some of the Ohlone people who inhabited this region long before the rest of us got here.

The Ohlone and other indigenous Californians lived well here for a long time. They made good use of the world around them, kept things bountiful, learned to work with fire so that it provided benefits and didn’t get out of control.

That was one of the many ways people have lived in our past that was something close to civilized.

I am not nostalgic for the past, but I do think it’s valuable to look at it and use the good choices we find there to build a better future.

I remain nostalgic for that future.

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