Growing Up Civilized

I watch documentaries. I used to watch tv and movies, and read to escape more than to be informed. That was when I was younger, and believed in romance. I devoured fantasy and science fiction because they were colorful and fed my inner life with the stuff of dreams, and required nothing from me. But now I am older, and have a different hunger.

I devour history now, and watch quality documentaries. I pursue knowing rather than feeling.

The American Experience episodes about the Triangle Fire, about the American relief effort during the Russian famine of the early days of Bolshevik power… Prohibition… The history of the conquest of the West… Ken Burns’ documentary series, The Civil War, and the later ones about the conquest of the American West, The Freedom Riders… Such a wealth of clarification, of context and knowledge!

I am simply astounded at how much is not taught, is glossed over, is ignored in the American public classroom. I want to encourage people everywhere, every age, to sit down and discover what we have missed, what we should have been told about, should have been moved by, so that now we would have some actual comprehension of where we came from, of how we got where we are now, of the heroics and the abominations of our government policies, to really get it, that these times are set in a context that led straight here. We have to understand that there have always in human history and society been the takers and the givers: the greedy for personal power, and the ones who strive to make the world better than they found it. This dichotomy is part of the human experience, our options, our opportunities to choose every day what kind of effect we will have in the world. We can’t not have an effect. So we must choose with care, with consciousness, what that will be.

Without knowledge, we are naive, we are vulnerable, we are set up to be, or feel powerless in the face of great political machines and monsters, of progress for the sake of change rather than improvement. Without knowledge, we cannot choose with consciousness, with intelligence or integrity.

It seems to be an assumption that control and power, that advanced technologies make us great and define our civilization. But these things are not the foundation of civilization. They may be a product of it, but if they are not accompanied by the mindset of civilized people, then they miss the mark, and we remain simply very clever barbarians.

Civilization is defined by how we regard the suffering of other living things. It is the quality of welcome we offer strangers, it is tolerance of difference, appreciation of diversity. It is choosing to be conscious, to accept responsibility for our personal effect. It is looking beyond ourselves to the needs of others, of the larger community, with the understanding that we all thrive together, or not at all. It is about considering long term causes and effects, rather than short term gratifications.

When it comes down to it, civilization is about growing up.

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