Here is a poem I encountered back in high school and it has always stuck with me. We citizens of the United States are notoriously lacking in historical perspective. It is a serious challenge to take a longer view. We need to learn how to do that.
Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind
The past is a bucket of ashes.1 The woman named Tomorrow sits with a hairpin in her teeth and takes her time and does her hair the way she wants it and fastens at last the last braid and coil and puts the hairpin where it belongs and turns and drawls: Well, what of it? My grandmother, Yesterday, is gone. What of it? Let the dead be dead. 2 The doors were cedar and the panels strips of gold and the girls were golden girls and the panels read and the girls chanted: We are the greatest city, the greatest nation: nothing like us ever was. The doors are twisted on broken hinges. Sheets of rain swish through on the wind where the golden girls ran and the panels read: We are the greatest city, the greatest nation, nothing like us ever was. 3 It has happened before. Strong men put up a city and got a nation together, And paid singers to sing and women to warble: We are the greatest city, the greatest nation, nothing like us ever was. And while the singers sang and the strong men listened and paid the singers well and felt good about it all, there were rats and lizards who listened … and the only listeners left now … are … the rats … and the lizards. And there are black crows crying, “Caw, caw," bringing mud and sticks building a nest over the words carved on the doors where the panels were cedar and the strips on the panels were gold and the golden girls came singing: We are the greatest city, the greatest nation: nothing like us ever was. The only singers now are crows crying, “Caw, caw," And the sheets of rain whine in the wind and doorways. And the only listeners now are … the rats … and the lizards. 4 The feet of the rats scribble on the door sills; the hieroglyphs of the rat footprints chatter the pedigrees of the rats and babble of the blood and gabble of the breed of the grandfathers and the great-grandfathers of the rats. And the wind shifts and the dust on a door sill shifts and even the writing of the rat footprints tells us nothing, nothing at all about the greatest city, the greatest nation where the strong men listened and the women warbled: Nothing like us ever was.
When we vaunt ourselves as the best, the greatest, the chosen, the first..., we blind ourselves to all perspective. We fool ourselves and think the world is made in our image. We are the center of creation, the pinnacle of history.
We are not.
This does not mean we cannot rejoice in who we are and what we accomplish, only that we must recognize that everything is in a context, all life is part of a great web, we are part of that greater whole. There are other ways of seeing things, of thinking about things, of doing things, of solving problems, of celebrating what is good.
The gift of studying foreign languages has helped me understand this. That and visiting other cultures where I could meet truly wonderful people who are just like me, yet who live differently as they meet the same human challenges in their geographic, historical and cultural context.
Life, and any culture, can be amazing and awesome and magnificent without ever being perfect, the best, or the greatest. So can individuals. So let's chill and allow each to shine in its own way. Light involves the entire visible spectrum, not just one hue.