Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, March 07, 2011

My back pages

As I believe I have mentioned here, I am in the process of moving out of my home of 25 years. This is a bit painful, but it's a healthy process as well. Perhaps we should all turn our lives upside down and shake them out every once in a while.

I had two file cabinets, a couple of those old fashioned milk crates, and some shelf space full of papers: everything from old school work, including materials I had collected for my master's thesis and my dissertation but also going back to undergraduate days; to files from my consulting business that got me through grad school; to my repeated, always short-lived attempts to keep a journal (blogger has at long last allowed me to conquer that block, but writing for public consumption is very different); to clippings and articles I collected on subjects that happened to interest me, from the Iraq Weapons of Mass Destruction™ hoax to Ted Kaczynski's manifesto; to my old letters. Yes, people used to correspond by writing out fairly substantial essays on paper and mailing them to each other.

Probably the biggest revelation is how much of my life I had forgotten. I often could not place events in the journals and letters. Did that person really spend a year in Phoenix taking care of her mother during which we had an elaborate correspondence? I have no memory of that whatsoever. It's probably just as well that I've forgotten many of the preoccupations of my tortured youth. I embarrassed myself reading some of the old junk. It's enough to know that I have managed to grow up, at least partially, and that quite literally, I am no longer the person I once was.

I wound up tossing 90% of it. The lost autobiography is no big tragedy. If I do ever write one, it will be largely imagined memory and self-justification, like most of them. But there are a few themes that define what I held on to, persisting interests that I am glad to have discovered as consistent themes in my intellectual life.

The most succinct statement I can make, that encompasses much of what preoccupies me, is the problem of human progress. We're absurdly smart animals, but are we too smart for our own good? The prevailing view is that obviously we're better off than our primitive ancestors. We learned to sow and to reap, to build warm dry houses, to weave strong supple fabrics, to cure disease, to speak with people thousands of miles away, to fly. We have discovered the universe and the secret of life. We are the crown of creation, and we ought to be damn happy about it.

But, it's not so simple. We've bought a lot of pain and trouble for our triumphs, and we may be feeling smug only because we're in a little bubble of time and space that feels just right for a lot of the people who have the leisure to create the zeitgeist. How to turn intelligence into wisdom is the essential problem I continue to pursue. It has been said that we are too soon old and too late smart. Maybe that applies to us as a species as well.


roger said...

our technological accomplishments -- agriculture, housing, transportation, deep water drilling for oil-- have allowed us to think that we are not bound by the limits that all other lifeforms on this planet face. we may trash the entire place before we hit our wall of limits. we are clever but not so smart after all.

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