There has never been an age that did not applaud the past and lament the present.
“The illusion that times that were are better than times that are has probably pervaded all the ages,” said Horace Greeley.
The Prisse Papyrus, dating back six thousand years or more – the oldest bit of known writing in existence – starts off with these startlingly familiar words: “Alas, times are not what they used to be!” And in one way or another people have been saying that same thing in all the centuries since.
For in the long panorama of man’s progress through the centuries, the trend has been upward, always upward. The way has not been smooth or straight; it has been broken periodically by failures and mistakes, by crushing setbacks and catastrophes, by dark periods of war and depression. But always, irresistibly, the element of progress has been at work. Always, out of every great struggle or disaster, has come a new dawn, a rebirth of life and spirit, the powerful surge of progress carrying man onward and upward again.
Nevertheless, in time of crisis people tend to lose faith in future. Today, too, there are many who feel we have reached the end of progress, perhaps the end of civilisation. There are many who feel the future holds only darkness and despair. It is true of course, that we are faced today with some of the most difficult and trying problems the nation has ever known. It is true that the recent past does not encourage confidence or peace of mind. With half the world in ruins, with millions of people worried and confused, haunted by the spectre of atomic war, it is difficult to believe that there is an element of progress at work.
But we have come through serious crises before… and America has grown stronger with each succeeding crisis. The times may be “ piled high with difficulty,” as Lincoln said in another, earlier period of crisis, but we must rise with the occasion. “ We cannot escape history!”
No; we cannot escape history. But we can learn much from the lessons of history. We can gain strength and courage and understanding from the past , to help us meet the challenges of our own times. “If we but learn the lessons that shriek from the pages of history,” said Bernard Baruch in a recent address, “there is no handicap that cannot be overcome by will power, patience, and application!”
The ever-recurring evidence of history is that no time is as bad as it seems. This time, like all other times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it. Emerson’s inspiring words are true today as they were. The frontiers are never closed; the limits of progress are never reached. The future will be what we ourselves make it.
In the opinion of those best qualified to judge, the world is indeed far from doomed. They tell us, in fact, that in spite of the problems and the chaos of the hour, the future is bright with promise. Spectacular advances are being made in science, invention, technology. In the United Nations the dream of centuries has at last taken shape, and hopeful beginnings have been made toward world unity and a lasting world peace. We are standing at the threshold of an exciting new era of development, at the beginning of enormous progress in every direction. The most challenging opportunity of all history lies before us.
If you doubt this, if you live in fear and dread of the future-there is nothing like a little perspective.
Taken from Light from many lamps by Lillian Eichler Watson