Monday, September 21, 2009

What It Is, Ain't Exactly Clear

Sitting on the beach over the weekend, basking in a late Summer sun, a cool breeze slipping over the sand, surf pounding the shore, I was struck by the thought of how the sand I was digging my toes into, the sand that kept getting on our beach blanket, the sand my daughter was forming into castles, started its life as hard, seemingly unyielding stone, a million or so years ago. The pounding surf, its roar at times physical as well as auditory, even at its weakest, could be seen pushing large stones onto the beach. The sand, the stones... they had been part of mountain ranges or continental shelves at one time, huge expanses of upthrust rock, exposed to the elemental forces of nature, the friction of surging water, scouring wind, burning heat, and bitter cold. The titanic forces which shaped the Earth, gave it the substance and form we know today, were now replaced by the slow and inexorable forces of erosion and decay. No thing, even a thing built by the universe itself, can withstand time and tide.

We triumphantly declare that we have built our homes, our cities, our governments, on "solid ground." We see only the surface, not unlike the metaphoric iceberg. We act as if the ground will never move, never change, will stand for eternity. Nature shows us otherwise. It shows us the true face of the universe: change. Sir Isaac Newton enumerated and outlined the ways of the universe centuries ago, and even though Einstein supplanted some of Newton's knowledge on the scale of the very small, on the scale of the very large, the Laws of Thermodynamics still apply. In essence, they tell us that things will never, truly, stay the same, that everything will run down in the end. Order becomes chaos.

It is, no doubt, why evolution works via the auspices of natural selection, and why those organisms that can adapt to change most readily, tend to survive. Those who adapt, spread. They grow in number, consuming resources until the resources dwindle and natural forces take over, causing the population to decrease, and forcing the organisms to adapt to the new set of environmental circumstances.

What sets Mankind apart from most organisms on Earth is not just our supreme adaptability, but our constant attempts to impose order on our environment. Cities, roads, laws -- these are all products of our desire to make things better, more efficient, safer, more productive. Rather than be subject to the vagaries of natural forces, we seek to mitigate them, block them, or make them work for us rather than against us. We have taken natural selection to a new level, a level of self-selection and self-invention, straining against the limitations imposed on us. We seek to carve order out of the chaos.

While it has created much success, and allowed us to become masters of our globe, perhaps it has also filled us with hubris, believing we are somehow beyond the grip of the mundane world. Every so often, via hurricane, or earthquake, or tsunami, nature reminds us, that it is not so simple.

So, too, is it with our social order. For if we strive to adapt the world to our needs, we also seek to adapt society to our wishes. Some people, some groups, feel that things must be just so. Those groups and people are opposed by others, who wish things to be some other way. Each person, each group, sees the world clearly, through their eyes, tinted by their beliefs, and has the blueprint for success for the whole human race. No matter how well-meaning, inevitably there is conflict, for not everyone believes the same thing, or if they do, they do not necessarily believe it in the same way. Compared to the mountains, human will is even more unyielding.

It is amazing that human society has managed to survive for millennia, given it's propensity for turning on itself. No matter what order we may create, we eventually give in to pandering, proselytizing, fear, and our animal passions, and tear down that which so much effort created. Empires rise and fall. Nations come, and go. Communities live, and die. The cycle goes on, for what is torn down is invariably plowed under, built over, and new things rise from the ashes of the old. Change marches on.

America is currently seeing a swelling of outrage, the like of which has not been evident since the isolationist movement, which intended to keep us out of WWII, or the civil rights movement of the 60's. The ruckus and uproar over changes in government policy, the attempt to reform and build up universal health care, to add new life to the Supreme Court, and handle the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan differently, leads some to believe that their country is somehow being pulled out from under them, a conjurers trick meant to strip them of their liberties and destroy the "American way of life."

This is nothing new.

While some have intimated -- with some degree of truth -- that much of the acrimony is stirred by sour grapes, inherent racism, and partisan politics, the fact is, the over-arching cause is simple: change. Inevitably there is change in America, and Americans don't like it. Presidents come and go. Policies that are upheld by one administration are reversed by another. Things that were considered political suicide gain new life. The ebb and flow of life in America remains the same -- only the details change, as years pass. If many in this country are said to be angry, one only has to look through the past 200 years and more of our history to realize that at every stage, people were angry. Voices have always risen in opposition to change, whether it was women's suffrage, slavery, Indian affairs, the taxes on tea, the prohibition of liquor, the price of gasoline, entry into any one of many wars... the list goes on. When Americans feel that the direction of the country is wrong, they stand up, and they say so.

Whatever you may think of the motivations, the messages, and the actions of those who protest, it is the very fact that they can protest that means this country is doing just fine. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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