Recently I posted a series of questions on social media. I wanted, and received, feedback revealing how we as a society understand certain concepts that are central to a civilization. Need, work, and identity are necessary in order for a culture to thrive, but perception of what constitutes those things varies widely. When those varying perceptions clash in a battle of wills, a civilization teeters on the brink of collapse. Differences of opinion don’t have to be a death knell, however; if considered carefully without prejudice, they can become a stronger, more stable framework that incorporates every possibility.
As evidenced by many of the answers given, we often get stuck in one pattern of thinking, a pattern that applied to a particular society with particular tools at a particular time. We look back with disdain on past eras, talk with pride about progress, celebrate increased opportunity for prosperity, while at the same time treating everything that led to our current situation with contempt. New ideas, different opportunities, can’t be good ones because our grandparents didn’t have them. New tools must be luxuries because our grandparents didn’t need them. Little consideration is given to how new ideas, new opportunities, and new tools changed the civilization in which we live.
As little as a hundred years ago, the automobile was unaffordable by all but the wealthiest. Roads were narrow and unpaved, traveled by pedestrians or horse-drawn vehicles. Some of the bigger cities might have the convenience of streetcars or elevated trains, and long distance travel relied on the railroads, but even those were recent developments. Communities were smaller and more self-sufficient; schools were smaller, with their primary focus teaching basic literacy skills, as children entered the workforce early to contribute to the family’s support. The children were educated in the factories, the fields, the construction sites, or if they were very lucky, behind the counter of a store. The arts were expensive pursuits that the common citizen could not afford to pursue and that the wealthy, although they enjoyed the entertainment gleaned from artistic production, considered demeaning. The wealthy, focused on increasing their wealth and status, pursued a classical higher education and built careers in business or politics. Information about the world outside one’s immediate community was limited to rumors or newspapers, and arrived slowly if at all. Telephones existed but were expensive and often communal.
Now, a century forward, our nation would be unrecognizable to the people of the past. Not only are automobiles so common that roads, communities, and cities are built around access by car, but the train has been made obsolete by air travel, a possibility barely even imagined at that time. Schools are not only available to the average citizen, but require attendance of every child under a certain age. Not only does every citizen have access to higher education, but lack of a college degree has become a barrier to employment or advancement. Not only are telephones common, but the invention and development of computer technology has turned phones into handheld instant access to information and long distance communication. Improvements in transportation and communication opened up the world beyond the community, allowing the average citizen access to opportunities impossible in small communities. Family businesses can now become large corporations with worldwide customer bases in a relatively short amount of time thanks to the ability to network and market via the internet. Creative pursuits are now not only possible for the average citizen but often extremely profitable, even independent of established circles.
The world has changed, and with it the definitions of concepts. Bare subsistence by the definitions of a hundred years ago is now considered a moral standard to be achieved, as if barely avoiding starvation and exposure in a world of plenty makes one virtuous. The opportunity of exercising one’s God created individuality by using one’s God-given abilities to support oneself has expanded the definition of work and jobs, yet we cling to the outdated insistence that only doing manual labor in the employment of another is “real work.” Intellectual pursuits, although glorified in the form of insistence on college attendance, are still despised as leaching off of the “real workers” of the world. Those same opportunities only exist using the great connective powers of modern technology, making technology a necessity in our culture, yet we call it a luxury and religiously advocate to prevent the pursuit of our God-created identities.
A hundred years ago these opportunities did not exist. People didn’t have a choice. The average able-bodied citizen was forced to ignore and repress individuality in order to survive. Life was hard and the people who endured it often equally so. Those who possessed physical or mental disabilities couldn’t conceive of even the limited opportunities available to the able-bodied and able-minded. Most were institutionalized, tortured with experimental treatments for conditions that no one understood, and often died young. Some few with undeniable gifts in the arts found patrons who allowed them a semblance of a normal life, but even they were often ostracized by society for “scandalous” behavior and ended up self-destructing. Their lives held no value to other humans because as far as society was concerned they could not contribute a fair share.
In our age of information, understanding, and opportunity, attitudes haven’t changed. Oh, we talk a good game, but we still insist that everyone meet the same standards, perform the same work in the same way, rise to the same challenges, produce the same outcomes. In an age where individuality is so obvious and tools are so readily available, we despise differences and try to force uniformity. In an age of plenty, we try to force poverty. In an age of information, we try to force ignorance. In an age of opportunity, we try to force disadvantage.
In this incredible time and place, we have the greatest of opportunities. We can choose to value every life, every contribution, every ability, every effort, and every challenge without prejudice. We can support the intellectual and the manual laborer with equal respect to the different types of effort required. We can accept the vast amount of time and skill required to produce an artistic endeavor and take time to enjoy the result with respect that the artist cared to bring joy into our lives in the form of entertainment. We can provide relief for our loved ones who suffer from visible or invisible differences in ability, and ensure them the opportunity to contribute in their own equally valuable way. We can recognize that need is as individual as individuals, and support each other without disdain or dismissal. We can break away from conformity made unnecessary by opportunity, and choose to celebrate the designed individuality of every member of God’s creation.