One moment of one day, I was listening to Josie; a beautiful and sincere friend who continually enriches the lives of others with her caring, patient ways , mixed with a good dose of general humour, punctuated with sharp and penetrating observations on the world and people around her. Intelligence without arrogance is a fantastic quality, and one of the many reasons I feel glad to have her in my life. Josie has studied english literature and history at university, so while I was busy reading about what happens if you poke this bit of brain right -here-, she was looking at the movements of cultures and words and the back-and-forth effects of masses of people impacting on each other.
As we walked down the steps of a neon-lit cinema stair, Josie said to me “you can always tell the people who have never read any history. Their perspective on the world is that much narrower… they don’t see outside problems and issues that surround and engulf us now, that such things have happened before in different forms, times and places.”
On another occasion, sitting on a sofa; “people always think the world is ending. People are always complaining about the state of affairs; and they have been doing so for centuries.”
I paused, and considered, and connected with some of my observations from reading into the history of medicine a little. “When penicillin was discovered; a fantastic and worthy thing, it set of a huge enthusiasm for progressively and definitively eradicating illness; visions of progress towards a golden age of disease free immortality. Now we are finding that truly, drugs do not cure everything; degenerative diseases of the mind and cancers of the body . Taking a step back people have also noticed that knocking out one sympton usually results in a different one somewhere else in the body.
Another consequence of pill-application, despite how amazing and life-saving these treatments were, was a tendency to step back from the ‘patient’ as a person, to see them as a concoction of diseases for which each had a deliverable antidote. (incidently rather similar to a herb for each disease, or a specific saint or angel to pray to for each illness… ) No longer did we need to stand by the bed of the person, desperatly applying any combination of soothing words, prayers, encouragement, and generally having to rely and work with whatever their own body could do for healing. Medicine became scientific. Survival rates went up, and yet somewhere down the line we seem to have forgotten that sometimes more is needed than a pill. Most obvious today in the dawning realisation that you can not treat depression with just prozac; there is a whole person and life tied up here. That human-human contact and self-healing play a big part in getting better.”
“so, I could look at our culture and see a similar thing. We fix each sympton and call it progress; choose to be blind to the fact there is damage accruing elsewhere. Side-effects are inevitable as part of the ‘cure’ we decide. Our rising technological growth has resulted in fantastic oppurtunities, longer life-times, faster, better, ways of working. And yet while we have sorted things out on a physical, and perhaps mental level, there is a huge spiritual vaccuum. I don’t mean just religion, I mean, the motivating spirit, liveliness, what inspires people to continue and wonder and take responsibility. What is all this ‘stress’ and ‘depression’ and ‘apathy’ and so forth?
Are we really progressing? Or just changing the symptons?”
More recently, Josie dropped another morsel of historical knowledge into my lap. Apparently, this obsession with a progressing movement is not a “given truth” but part of our culture and time. In the middle-ages (or thereabouts..) the obsession if anything was with the reverse. No progress at all but instead a decline or stagnation. Thinking about it, right now we seem to have a real mixture of optimisitc progress, whether in technological or spiritual movements, or a kind of gleeful ‘the world is ending, bring it on!” – all danky dark gloom, so self-destruct in drugs, lifestyle or any form of oblivion this ‘post-modern’ era offers as choice.
I wonder how much of it is to do with a kind of cultural/public misinterpretation of evolution. I heard on radio 4 how Darwin deliberatly tried to avoid any notion of a sense of *progress* up a ladder in his original work; though religious and contemporay thought at the time had fully cemented the notion that humans are superior to monkeys and therefore evolution is all part of the unfoldment of “God’s Great Plan”(tm). Later on god was taken out of the picture, and the power over evolution handed to scientists and maybe, one day, soul-less computers. But the underlying message is the same: Onwards and upwards and down from the trees!
Are we progressing? Why do we hold to this concept of seeing things as a linear line towards enlightenment and golden ages?
I feel that there has to be another way of looking at what is happening around us. A problem with a bloody-minded focus on progress is that it means everything that has come before must be seen as defunct and irrelevent – or somehow automatically subsumed into where we’re at now. How much wisdom, foresight, have we lost, doomed to ‘discover’ it again, over and over?
Personally, I feel that there is both the potential and possibility for some real progress in today’s increasingly interconnected, information-rich world, but I feel it vitally important to that we look to history, to find some perspective; and look to people, to find some humanity – and mostly to listen to each other rather than see it as some sort of inexorable race.
A couple of Dune quotes:
“A process cannot be understood by stopping it. Understanding must move with the flow of the process, must join it and flow with it.”
“The concept of progress acts like a protective mechanism to shield us from the terrors of the future.”
 edit – of course, progress with respect to who and what? that is another question to consider.