And so we head into the last couple of weeks of 2021. Rather like 2020, we may be glad to see the back of it. What was once a strange new world of pandemic restrictions now seems more like the way it is, now and in the future. Easy to become weary and dejected with it all. The world sometimes seems a little more dangerous every day, what with covid, climate change, domestic terrorism, shortages of all kinds, and a startling increase in the cost of living. Perhaps, we can think, this is a sign that things are getting worse and worse, with little hope in sight.
While by no means minimising what we’re going through in these strange days, it may be useful to take a look into the past and see that we’re not really facing anything new. Maybe we just know more about events and crises than was generally available to previous generations? Technology, for all its benefits, is also responsible for giving us access to more and more information, more videos, more reports from troubled regions, more data on where the climate is going, how many terrorist attacks are taking place in foreign, and not-so foreign countries.
Then there’s the added weight of uncertainty, not being sure how much of what we see and hear is real, how much of the commentary and interpretation of the news can be relied upon, and how much is based on political bias, conspiracy theories, and downright lies. But, as they say, t’was ever thus. Or, to cite a Biblical statement: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”
In fact, it’s both amazing and encouraging to read what was reported on world affairs and the state of humanity so long ago. Doesn’t this seem very contemporary; “All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing.”? But we don’t have to go that far back to find how much things mirror our current situation.
The years between the two World Wars reflect so much that is familiar to us these days. The pandemic of 1918-1919 is thought to have resulted in the deaths of around 50 million people around the world, with more than 500 million cases reported. Then followed a time of relative excess, the Roaring Twenties, when it seemed prosperity was rampant and would never end. But, of course, it did, with the Great Depression. Tremendous hardship, mass unemployment, major movements of people, homeless, looking for a better life somewhere, anywhere else. And then came the 30’s and 40’s, and all the tragedy they brought with them.
Yes, it’s sad, depressing, and enlightening to look back and see that there really is nothing new under the sun; “It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time”. But that is where we have to draw some comfort, hope for the future. The people of this planet have survived much worse than what we now face, with the possible exception of the climate issue. But even there, previous generations have known climate shifts, drastic change in the ecosystem that brought about catastrophic changes in societies around the world.
We could be recklessly optimistic and declare that we will manage to get through all of these changes we now face, and that, in the end, may not be so reckless after all. What it will take is owning up to our share in the various crises, and a determination to do what we can to mitigate them. What we can do, individually and as a society, is a complex and many-layered problem. That is a whole other topic, and will take much more than a simple Editorial to describe.
There is that old cliché by Edmund Burke that “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” But perhaps history does, not so much repeat itself, as repeat certain patterns of behaviour. Either way, it is at least helpful to have an understanding of the past, of the ways in which our ancestors have faced similar, if not identical, crises. There may well be no way to avoid the same kind of situation arising, of course. No matter how many times we repeat “never again”, we tend to follow old ways afresh. Wars follow wars, because we convince ourselves that our war is different, more justified, more righteous; just like every previous warring people claimed. Natural disasters will always occur, sometimes as a result of human activity, sometimes because this is a warped world, not operating as it was designed to do.
What do we learn from all of this? First of all, we are not being specifically persecuted in our day; there is nothing new under the sun. Secondly, we must try and learn the lessons of the past, use them to chart a way forward with the knowledge that we are still here because our parents, grandparents, and distant ancestors, survived their days. Another quote from that same book, Ecclesiastes, contains a warning of what can happen when we think of ourselves as facing unique challenges, instead of learning about, and from, the past. “No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them”.
2021 will soon be over, another chapter in our shared story we call history. Facing into a new year, and carrying into it the challenges we now face, we can be realistic about what we have to deal with, but encouraged, even a little, by knowing that others were in this place before us, and endured. And one last thing: we have to accept that there are always good times and bad, and we can get some comfort and perspective by remembering, in a last quote from Ecclesiastes: “To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven.”