Keep your historical perspective
Our mental wellbeing, equanimity, and ability to make sense of the world would all benefit from cultivating better historical memory
Last week, sleep-deprived and killing time in San Francisco in the middle of a 50+ hour travel disaster (planes stuck, connections missed, bags lost, unplanned hotel stays purchased), I told my son a fun fact: the fastest way from the East Coast to the West Coast of the U.S. used to be to sail around the southern tip of South America.
Really? he said? What about railroads? Before the railroads, I said. What about wagons? Much more dangerous, and also potentially slower, I said. What about the thing in Panama? Before that was built, I said.
In the early and mid-1800s, the passage around Cape Horn took five months. If you were wealthy and could travel with security, you could shave some time off that by sailing to Panama, going overland across the isthmus, and picking up a steamship on the other side up to California.
We had flown to San Francisco in less than a day: Uber to the airport, two hours at the gate at Dulles, another two and a half hours stuck in the plane on the tarmac before departure, and then a little over five hours in flight.
When we got there, our connection to Auckland, New Zealand had already left, so we had to stay the night in a hotel. The United Airlines customer service people had re-routed us: SFO to LAX, LAX to SYD, SYD to AKL. In the meantime, we had a day in San Francisco to kill, which is not the worst thing in the world.
I bought him an early birthday present, we got some of the best pizza ever in Little Italy, and we walked through the Presidio on some trails to go see the Golden Gate Bridge. I thought about history and the grand scheme of events and how ridiculously, almost comically easy it was in today’s day and age to get from one end of the planet to another.
The sense of historical perspective helped me not be so frustrated by the missed connection and the massive flight schedule still ahead of us.
We would get to New Zealand soon enough. Certainly faster than it took Abel Tasman, a Dutchman who was the first European to set foot there in 1642. The next European—James Cook—didn’t land until 1769. That’s how isolated the place is. No reason to fret over a 50-hour journey to get here that had originally been scheduled for around 25 hours.
The worst time ever
I was a history major in undergrad, and thinking about history has always been fun for me—but that doesn’t mean I have any special claim on historical perspective. Nearly everyone, everywhere, and especially those who read newsletters on Substack, should be able to summon some base level of historical perspective when they decide how to move through the world.
Whenever something bad happens, we are all capable of asking ourselves, how bad is this really?, considering everything that has come before.
This is not to take away from all the suffering, disease, and death that still exists. But surely we can understand in our minds that whatever is going on, now is still probably the greatest time to live that has ever existed, almost no matter who you are, no matter where you are. That isn’t universally true, but it’s pretty close.
This is why I have generally lost patience with hair-on-fire pronouncements about how this is the worst time ever, or why something that just happened is the worst thing ever.
For most of human history, nearly every human everywhere on the planet lived in extreme poverty. For nearly all of human existence, lives were likely to be cut short at any moment by disease or violence, and in the meantime, most of us were destined to be enslaved (whether economically or in actuality) by a tiny group of rich and powerful people with a monopoly on force.
Until very recently in the course of human events, one in four kids died before the age of one, and nearly half (46%) died before they reached adulthood. Adults of the world: remember that fact next time you think you are living through dark times—remember that you should be happy to be alive, to have been born in this time.
For all the rights which recently seem to be abridged (to an abortion, to vote, to have access to healthcare, to pursue happiness), remember that the idea of “rights” as we know them today is but a blip in human history. It wasn’t so many generations ago that anyone outside your city/tribe/village was simply other, not entitled to any rights or protections at all, and not necessarily even considered fully human.
But what about human progress?
I realize this perspective seems like cold comfort to many people, even though it is actual comfort to me. The common response I hear, when I tell people to chill and to remember the long sweep of history, is that there is no reason they shouldn’t keep fighting for human progress. They say that just because we have come so far in so short a time doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep pushing to go further. We should never be satisfied with what we have, they say.
And, well: I think we should be satisfied with so much of what we have, and keep pushing, if pushing is your thing. But as to your mental health, I propose that a little historical perspective can go a long way.
This morning, a piece crossed my Google feed about time and perspective (the algorithm knows what I’m thinking before I do): five facts that will mess with your perception of time, read the headline. Here’s one: recorded human history began 5,000 years ago, but for 50,000 years before that, humans occupied a cave in Southern Spain where they “slept, ate, procreated, and painted remarkable works of art that have lasted over the millennia.”
History is full of these crazy, conception-bending facts (two more: sharks are older than trees; tyrannosaurus rex existed closer in time to humans than to stegosaurus).
My son recently picked up a graphic novel version of Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens. Later when I asked him how it was, he expressed some surprise at learning that the agricultural revolution was actually in some respects a bad thing, at least in the short term. People worked much longer hours; they were less healthy; and violent men used the excess crop to establish armies, fund wars of conquest, create the feudal system, and trap millions in poverty and subsistence living.
Yes, sometimes progress really does run in reverse, whether for some people or a lot of people.
Consider the mass extinction of Native American populations throughout the Americas when they became exposed to European disease. As many as 90 percent of the native populations of New England, the DR, the Yucatan, and other “first contact” locations were simply wiped out in a matter of a few years. That is as close to a civilizational apocalypse as one can imagine (but only because it’s quite hard to imagine the actual apocalypse that nearly wiped out all of humanity after a supervolcano eruption 70,000 years ago).
I’m not trying to get all morbid here. I’m just saying to the what about human progress? crowd, that you, too, should be grateful to be alive here and now.
And, for the most part, I think people are happy. This, even despite the chorus of newscasters, pundits, preachers, and politicians telling us that everything is worse than ever or that damnation and tyranny are just around the corner.
The pandemic was a nice reminder that when it comes down to it, being healthy and alive trumps most other considerations. Meanwhile, history shows us that war, disease, and death are very much the norm and not the exception. The main problem as I see it—at least as pertains to our mental wellbeing, our equanimity, and our ability to make sense of the world—is that we all have exceedingly short memories. They hardly span back a few months, much less a few generations.
An approaching nervous breakdown
There’s an old Bertrand Russell quote I like:
One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one's work is terribly important.
Sometimes I feel as if society has collectively fooled itself into thinking something is terribly important that isn’t and has a nervous breakdown as a result. There are terribly important things in the world, but also let us keep our eye on the ball.
I remember when Trump had just been elected and my grandfather was still alive. I asked him what he thought of this clownish, corrupt, would-be authoritarian who lied compulsively and seemed intent on using the presidency as his own personal piggy bank and soapbox of grievance. My grandfather replied that he had seen the rise of Hitler, escaped Germany, had family members murdered in the holocaust. He himself had lived through a coup d’etat in Brazil and a years-long military dictatorship that tortured and exiled dissidents.
This too shall pass, he said. This, perhaps, is the only wisdom that has always been true.
Today we have authoritarian regimes on the march, democracies in peril, inflation run amok, economies on the brink. We have seen a loss of faith in institutions, a loss of connection to each other, and the loss of our collective ability to focus on what really matters. Sometimes, it all feels pretty bad.
My advice: turn off the news, and read some history.