Friday, June 10, 2016

Perspective from the Past

Last Friday as one of my students was leaving yoga practice, she commented on how much better her back felt and that it had been only about a week since she could barely move due to an minor injury from overexertion in the garden.  She mentioned how we often don’t appreciate being able to move around without feeling pain.  The same could be said for days when we don't feel sick and a host of other situations that we constantly take for granted.  This is one aspect of perspective, feeling gratitude for what you have instead of unsatisfied or grasping for more and then feeling anxious about not being able to afford it or disappointed about not getting it immediately.

All the advertising and other hype we are exposed to daily preys not only on our insecurities but also on this yearning for more fueled by a shortage of perspective as neighbors and friends try to outdo each other with personal possessions and special experiences.

A book I just finished again brought this home to me.  It was a study of the changes in the standard of living in the US over the past 150 years.  The book, The Rise and Fall of American Growth, showed graphically that the advances in technology that led to an improved standard of living for everyone came at a rate unheard of prior to 1870, but still not at a steady pace.  Most of the life changing inventions came about in the first half of the 20th century, despite the Great Depression and two world wars.  Advances leading to real improvement in how we live have been scarce since 1970 with the exception of a one-time surge in information technology in the 1990s.

The details are not important.  What this 660 pages of fairly dry reading brought home to me was an appreciation for what we have today, conveniences that were unavailable to those living just a few generations ago. 

Begin with not waking up with dead horses in the street.  Before automobiles, the stench of horse manure, urine and carcasses in the streets of most major cities was constant.  They had no sewer system to deal with that and all the other waste.  There was no electricity and conveniences like indoor plumbing and central heating were rare.  Work was hard and dangerous.  Life expectancy was low and those who lived beyond a “retirement age” continued to work, often losing their regular job because they were no longer physically able.

People in rural areas had other problems.  Farm work, which employed over 45% of the working population, was very dangerous, with working conditions as unpleasant as nature could make them.  In addition, they were isolated for long periods with no phone and no radio.  If they needed a doctor or supplies, they rode to town, and arriving there, were at the mercy of the single retail outlet with no way to tell how fair a deal they were getting.  (Competition was limited or non-existent until Sears and Montgomery Ward began to send catalogs.)

Since then our houses have been networked with electricity and water supply (including sewage) along with all the appliances that they enabled:  telephones, radios and televisions, washers and dryers, stoves, refrigerators, microwaves, dishwashers, central heating and air conditioning.  No more walking to the pump to fill a bucket and haul it in to scrub the laundry or wash the dishes or take an infrequent bath.  No more eating only what is in season and worrying about spoilage.  No more freezing in the morning waiting for the stove to heat up, where the first one up had to haul in the wood or coal to start the fire.

Cars and trucks, along with the roads themselves slowly improved to the point where a daylong trip in the past became an easy drive today.  And travel by car has also become progressively safer – and would be safer still, if drivers could put the phone down. 

There are so many other advances and inventions that we take for granted.  Progress in fighting communicable diseases like polio and diphtheria has been enormous.  Medicine offers treatment and cures unheard of even a couple of decades ago.

In the first ten minutes of the day we enjoy so many of these conveniences from the time we curse the alarm, turn on the light switch and stumble into the shower.  Then we get to the drive thru in our heated or air-conditioned cars to pick up a coffee on the way to work in a temperature controlled office, where we can stand around and complain about the most trivial discomforts or inconveniences.

Things can always be better and there is no need to become static with appreciation, but it doesn’t hurt to reflect on what we have, even if only as a barometer to gauge how inconsequential some of our daily problems really are.  That’s how perspective helps keep our lives in balance.

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