The Quest Goes On
Where does it start and where does it end? Is there meaning for life that is optimal, ultimate, and final, and upon which everyone must agree? Does it make a difference whether the pathway is love, enlightenment, fulfillment, peace, or verifiable truth? Of course, it must, but some things in life are beyond knowing and must be taken on faith. Even so, there is direction to life that is knowable though the destination is unknown. Traditionally, families, cultures, and community institutions provide the accumulated wisdom and support to guide people in their choice of directions.
Every age contains those who believe the human race is moving in the wrong direction. The basis for their concern, or alarm, takes various forms depending upon the events of the times. Bettering the world, saving souls, spiritual growth, salvation, social justice, personal and sexual morality, peace, health, poverty, race, environment, climate, theological orthodoxy, evolution, abortion, stem cell research, homosexuality, feminism, good for all versus good for the few, lobbyists, national self-destruction, and hope versus doom are a sampling of the list that goes on and on. Every issue is a cause and every cause is a call to arms.
Knowing the past is a reliable way to assess the future. Prophets are good historians and their most dire predictions come when people forget the past. To define, defend, and effectively transmit the hard earned lessons of the past for the benefit of the future is an essential task of families, cultures, and community institutions. But, imparting cultural wisdom is labor intensive and time consuming, and people are distracted and impatient with short attention spans. The failure to learn and understand these lessons of life erodes traditional values and leads to instability of society. Successful societies identify, maintain, and propagate core values that facilitate the capability to analyze, understand, prioritize, and solve problems.
New problems will arise and old ones will recur in varied form. New knowledge will be discovered and new technologies will be developed. Change and challenge are constants and societies must adapt. Successful adaption consists of disciplined response based upon core values and measured experience. History provides examples of unwise and tragic decisions based upon ignorance and lack of understanding. Persecuting groups of people as the cause of Black Death and bleeding to cure disease come to mind. No matter how ridiculous these are in retrospect, the future will render similar judgment on decisions and practices of today.
Many things can cause significant change for society but fall short of transformation. Natural disasters, congressional laws, and Supreme Court decisions are examples. Take your pick from the impact of hurricanes in Florida and New Orleans upon home owners' insurance, the impact of US energy policy upon global distribution of wealth, and the impact of court decisions upon property rights, abortion, and racial integration. Much less common are watershed events that are broadly disruptive and lead to transformation of society. After these events things are not the same and changes continue in a new direction at an accelerated rate. This happens when a large segment of the population has a similar experience over a short span of time that causes a shared alteration of basic mind-set. To accomplish that requires a big event and it is rare.
Among such events none surpasses World War II. Many factors, reasons, and consequences are identified as associated with the changes resulting from WWII but two are pivotal. The United States and its citizens were thrust front and center upon the world stage and the country experienced prosperity on a scale never witnessed before in history. The prosperity is all the more pronounced because it follows a severe economic depression, it expanded to encompass a broad segment of the population, and it is remarkably sustained with only brief pauses over sixty years. The expanding view of the world, growing prosperity, and reshaping of the American culture are closely associated and mutually dependent.
Political and economic systems are but two components of society but in the American culture politics and economics have become strong forces that exert powerful influence upon the flow and direction of life. Together, they establish the agenda, set priorities, allocate resources, reinforce each other, and expand to control adjacent activities and systems. Politics and economics are tools facilitating an expanding view of the world, growing prosperity, and changing culture. The strength and appeal of the American culture is consumerism based upon prosperity and individual freedom of choice. A culture with broad public appeal is more powerful and aggressive than any army.