Sixth century B.C. Greek philosopher Heraclitus, like many who came before and after him, noted the endless flux of existence, he with a particularly rich metaphor that ensured his name would be etched forevermore into the canon of universal wisdom: “You can’t step into the same river twice.”
True enough. The sun rises, the sun sets, and before it rises again, however placid the intervening hours may have seemed, nothing and nobody is exactly as it was the day before.
We’re a day older, a dollar richer or poorer, and, inconveniently enough, our planet a day closer to the exploding fireball it will inevitably become in the course of geologic time. (Whereupon all its parts will change into something else.)
Out of all this comes a synthesis: new knowledge, insights, accommodations and compromises that come together in a fresh and life-giving new reality that honors humans’ dual needs for both tradition/security and change/novelty.
But until that final cataclysm, amidst the swirl of constant change and evolvement that the very nature of existence demands, human beings will often give way to it only under duress, kvetching all the way, bemoaning the loss of the old ways, the old town, the old rules, the old religion.
And perhaps most problematically, the old prejudices that sustained historical dominance and exploitation by certain groups of other groups. When change threatens in those cases, there is often hell to pay, with cultures in ferment and blood in the streets.
News item from the June 7 “New York Times”:
“Last month, Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, signed into law one of the harshest pieces of anti-gay legislation in the world. Homosexuality was already illegal in Uganda, a conservative East African nation, but the new law calls for more stringent punishments: Ugandans now face life imprisonment for engaging in gay sex. Anyone who tries to have same-sex relations could be liable for up to ten years in prison…And a vague clause mandates a prison term for anyone who promotes homosexuality; rights groups fear this clause threatens local agencies that provide medical treatment for vulnerable L.G.B.T.Q. groups in Uganda.”
Out here in California, where I’m visiting my daughter and her wife who share a joy-filled and well-loved little guy who just churned past his first birthday this week, Uganda seems not the 9,300 miles or so that it is from here, but more like a million miles, on some distant planet where no wind or water disturbs the smooth and unbroken passage of time.
Fifteen years ago, I sat with my then 9-year-old daughter, sexual proclivities unknown, in front of a banner for a photo declaring our (Unitarian Universalist) church’s opposition to California Proposition 8, an effort spearheaded by conservative religious groups to ban gay marriage and enshrine the prohibition into the state Constitution. The proposition ultimately passed, and I well remember the sense of utter disconsolation that such a thing could happen in what remains arguably the most progressive state in the nation.
“Where can we possibly go from here?” was the dominant question on the lips of everyone on the losing side of that election.
Then came its nullification on constitutional grounds by a federal court in 2013, followed, a mere two years later, by the United States Supreme Court’s decision to legalize gay marriage across all the states in the union. The speed of that historic development took nearly everyone’s breath away on both sides of what had been a vehement gay marriage debate.
But these eight years later, after dire predictions from the losing side of doom for the institution of marriage and the family unit itself, gay marriage is commonplace. Gays marrying each other hasn’t, it turns out, deterred heterosexuals from embarking on the same, often arduous voyage of marriage, and the children of gay marriage are part and parcel of—and increasingly visible in—American life.
The relative banality of that story at this point in history has forced right wing culture warriors to move on to a fresher, more currently viable (for them) frontier of their ever-present rancor: transgenderism.
And this is about the time we should try to place all this in better context by fast-forwarding more than two millennia from our friend Heraclitus to the 18th century and a core idea from the German philosopher of three first names: Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.
Hegel had a huge impact on the history of philosophy and its grapplings with conceptions of God, logic, the acquisition of knowledge, and the process of individual and cultural change. I’ll focus only on the latter here, given the profound upheaval, divisiveness and rancor of this era in human history, about which anyone paying the least bit of attention is no doubt aware.
Boiled way down, Hegel embraced a “dialectical” view of human history that sat on three prongs he called “thesis-antithesis-synthesis.”
Namely, I proffer an argument out into the culture: “Gay marriage good! It’s a matter of human rights!” I support that argument with my best points of logic. That’s the thesis.
Inevitably, I will get blowback for my views (because never, in all of history, have humans unanimously agreed on anything). “Gay marriage bad! Marriage has always been between a man and woman!” Other contrary arguments follow. That’s the antithesis.
The arguments play out for a day, weeks, months, millennia. Eventually, though, the better arguments win out, but only because the original thesis and antithesis have both been swept up into a new “synthesis” that preserves the best of the original arguments and places them in the service of a new, more broadly shared reality.
This synthesis ideally has room for both progress and tradition, because it recognizes not only the multiplicity of perspectives on any given matter, but the fact that they will always clash. Along with the additional (and most important!) reality that human beings are utterly schizophrenic on one key, overarching matter:
We all want things to be better than they currently are (CHANGE!!!), and we all want a stable reality with nothing that we know and love ever changing. (RITUAL! TRADITION!! HOW THINGS USED TO BE!!!)
These contradictions play out in our towns: “Those ugly new Main Street condos, what’s happening to our town?” Along with: “Downtown has really come to life, love the new brewpub!”
And in our relationships: “Oh how enchanting he/she is, I think I’m in love!” And: “He/she is driving me nuts, I didn’t sign up for THIS! What should I do?”
Out of all this, hopefully, to varying degrees in varying forms, comes a synthesis: new knowledge, insights, accommodations and compromises that come together in a fresh and life-giving new reality that honors and encompasses humans’ dual needs for both tradition/security and change/novelty.
Hegel helps me when I feel down in the doldrums about the seemingly tortuous pace of change, whether cultural/political or personal. He gives me a deeper appreciation (and patience) for the antithesis to the thesis of inevitable, steady progress, whether in human rights or anything else.
In truth, no progress is ever inevitable or steady. Quite the contrary, actually, given our all-too-human resistance to change, and the fact that sometimes change isn’t all that great a thing anyway, because it comes too fast, without sufficient deliberation. And because sometimes the change agents in a society just want change so they can impose their own views and power on everyone else.
This is why true progress is almost always bumpy, halting, a half-step back for every step forward as we collectively absorb, assess, and adjust to any new reality that the dialectic works itself out to.
“How can people hang on to ancient superstitions from pre-scientific, pre-logical modes of thought when the evidence is right in front of us about so much of the actual world we live in?,” I wail out to the wind.
And by the same token, “How can I keep allowing myself to get triggered by the same old perceived slights dating back to my childhood when I’ve learned so much about my own and others’ psychology in the last half-century?,” I wail out to the bedroom walls in the waking spaces of a restless night’s sleep.
The answer is always this: Change is hard. And slow. And grudging.
Of course (!!!) Donald Trump has a constituency willing to look past his obvious personality disorders and criminality when he promises to be the bulwark against all the change buffeting our modern world, all the new social, political, technological and religious realities we must struggle to adapt to.
Confounding as his support is, and as much as it requires a firm, clearheaded, and dogged antithesis, demonization of his supporters, some or even many who may be friends or family members, does nothing to shrink the constituency he still commands, or any constituency that history reveals as misbegotten.
Change, riding ever faster on the currents of modern communications technology and globalism, has come too quickly in one domain or other for most everyone, but especially for those not given or required to adapt readily to its pace.
Most of that difference, as we see in voting, religious and employment patterns nationwide, divides along urban and rural lines—urban dwellers pushing change, rural pushing back against too much change, too fast. But I see resistance in some matters even among progressives, who are not nearly as monolithic as their detractors who label them all, in Ron DeSantis’s dismissive phrase, “the woke mob.”
“Do we really have to elaborate our damn pronouns in every email and assume every person is a ‘they’ until they tell us theirs?,” I, along with various tradition-bound lovers of grammar, have asked on more than one occasion.
Nobody is above hewing to tradition in any given matter, and, indeed, a person or culture without tradition is unmoored, floating in a turbulent sea of constant churn and chaos. We need many things to hang onto, some good, some no longer of use. Discerning which is which is no easy task for anyone, and all of us, imperfect beings with blind spots that we are, miss the mark with regularity.
The answer to this conundrum is traditional as can be, and key to every religious and ethical system ever devised.
It is available to progressives and traditionalists, Democrats and Republicans, atheists and believers, young and old, gay and straight, black and white and brown alike:
Start with humility, then add large, consistent dollops of generosity and compassion atop their foundation in love.
Love of life, of others in that life, of the cosmos and every god one cares to fathom within it.
And of ourselves, and all the wounds, hurts, slights, lousy genes and rotten deals we may have been bequeathed by a fate we can but dimly discern. A fate that both beckons and enables us, if we listen very closely and think very hard, to be our best, most “synthesized” selves, a nicely balanced amalgam of tradition and progress, with our eyes and ears and hearts close to the earth and those around us, and everything that we love and want to encourage and preserve about them.
Love the raw energy here of Joni, CS&N, and John Sebastian—as one commenter put it: “That was a serious dose of hippy happy right there!”
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Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: email@example.com
Flux by Brendan Murphy, Australia https://www.flickr.com/photos/murphyeppoon/
River & stones by Aaron Burden, Baltimore, Maryland https://unsplash.com/@aaronburden
Dam by Jacek Dylan, Kraków, Poland https://unsplash.com/@dylu
Beachfront and grandson by Andrew Hidas https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewhidas/