A book I recently read, and one that I am reading now, are having profound influence on my sense of gratitude for how lucky I am to live in the time and place I do.
I recently finished City of Thieves by David Benioff. It is a hero’s journey that occurs during the German siege of Leningrad. A young Russian Jew is arrested by the Russian army for breaking curfew. While in prison, he is paired with a charismatic army deserter and the two of them are sent on an impossible journey by their captors. It is during the journey that they are exposed to horrific weather conditions and to man’s inhumanity to man.
It is a well written and haunting story.
Although it is a work of fiction, it is well researched and the history is accurate.
I have read these type of novels before, they always provide perspective and a reinforcement for how lucky I am: I have never lived in a city under siege, I have not witnessed atrocities, every morning I wake up to heat in my house, hot running water, all the food I could want, access to modern medical care, a great family and career, the list can go on.
And, whether it was coincidence or fate, I started reading Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist
Ridley is a British journalist, scientist and author of several books. This particular book discusses the evolution of man’s standard of living. He argues that through trade and learning, humans living conditions have steadily improved and will continue to improve. I love these kind of well written non-fiction books, there is insight on every page.
But it was this passage from chapter one that put my life in further perspective:
“Imagine that it is 1800, somewhere in Western Europe or eastern North America. The family is gathering around the hearth in the simple timber-framed house. Father reads aloud from the Bible while mother prepares to dish out a stew of beef and onions. The baby boy is being comforted by one of his sisters and the eldest lad is pouring water from a pitcher into the earthenware mugs on the table. His elder sister is feeding the horse in the stable. Outside there is no noise of traffic, there are no drug dealers and neither dioxins nor radioactive fall-out have been found in the cow’s milk. All is tranquil; a bird sings outside the window.
Oh please! Though this is one of the better-off families in the village, father’s Scripture reading is interrupted by a bronchitic cough that presages the pneumonia that will kill him at 53 – not helped by the wood smoke of the fire. (He is lucky: life expectancy even in England was less than 40 in 1800.) The baby will die of the smallpox that is now causing him to cry; his sister will soon be the chattel of a drunken husband. The water the son is pouring tastes of the cows that drink from the brook. Toothache tortures the mother. The neighbour’s lodger is getting the other girl pregnant in the hayshed even now and her child will be sent to an orphanage. The stew is grey and gristly yet meat is a rare change from gruel; there is no fruit or salad at this season. It is eaten with a wooden spoon from a wooden bowl. Candles cost too much, so firelight is all there is to see by. Nobody in the family has ever seen a play, painted a picture or heard a piano. School is a few years of dull Latin taught by a bigoted martinet at the vicarage. Father visited the city once, but the travel cost him a week’s wages and the others have never travelled more than fifteen miles from home. Each daughter owns two wool dresses, two linen shirts and one pair of shoes. Father’s jacket cost him a month’s wages but is now infested with lice. The children sleep two to a bed on straw mattresses on the floor. As for the bird outside the window, tomorrow it will be trapped and eaten by the boy.”
Ridley, Matt (2010-06-10). The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (P.S.) (pp. 12-13). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
For another similar perspective, read: America in 1915: Long Hours, Crowded Houses, Death by Trolley
As I finish this blog, I recall a conversation I had with a friend a year ago, at one point, he said to me ” Mike, my wife and I make $250,000 a year and I don’t feel wealthy.” This from a man who is hard working, humble not at all materialistic.
As I reflect on the above statement and the above books, I can’t help wonder why we are so damn unsatisfied. We are stressed, work too much and spend less time with family, all because our consumer driven society keeps telling us we should have/deserve more. I think a main problem is that we don’t have perspective. All we know is post World War II America. We don’t realize that we have so much more than humans have ever had.
We should all spend a minute a day being thankful that we are generally safe and that we live in the time and place we do. Then take another moment to reflect on how life used to be and move on with our day.