When I first started studying history, I had an amazing and sudden insight: people throughout time--no matter when or where they had lived--were just like me. I'm sure for most people this was an obvious conclusion, easily reached by everyone except someone who had spent the first half of his life studying machines.
For me, however, the idea that, if I really studied people from a certain time or place, I could eventually understand them and realize that our commonalities were far greater than our differences was quite an epiphany. (For those of you who don't know, an epiphany is that sudden moment when you are studying late at night, all alone, and have a mental breakthrough. Like Archimedes, you jump up, yelling "Eureka, I understand it.")
An epiphany is the second best feeling in life. If you don't know what the best is, you probably shouldn't be reading my blog.
And through the years, I think I have been fairly successful at climbing into the heads of people who lived during the times I have studied. I haven't been very successful with slave owners or the French in general, but overall, I think I have done okay. People in the past are easy, the people I have the hardest time understanding are the people in the world today.
Thirty years ago, my wife and I made a trip to Zhongshan, China. This was so long ago that most people still called it Red China. China had just started opening up its free economic trade zones and we were among the first to visit. This was a great time to visit China--the whole country was on the verge of a dynamic tidal wave of expansion, but the most common vehicles on the road were bicycles and weird reproductions of a 1949 Ford stake bed truck. This was a country with one foot in the future while the other was firmly planted in a time before I had been born. The China we visited was closer to the 1940's than the present.
My wife and I had lunch at the Chung Shan Hot Springs Golf Club, which boasted a golf course designed by Arnold Palmer. Strangely, the golf course--the first in China--also boasted a Ferris wheel. While we ate our meal, we had a perfect view of the Ferris wheel, and about a hundred yards past the carnival ride, we could watch a farmer plow his rice paddy with the help of a water buffalo. I asked, and my guide assured me, that the expense of riding the Ferris wheel was well beyond the means of the farmer.
I still wonder what the farmer thought about as he labored behind the water buffalo. Did he feel anger at a world that could afford the incredible extravagance of wasting so much money on a Ferris wheel while he labored in his fields using technology that was thousands of years old?
I have to admit, the farmer is not the only person in today's world that I have trouble understanding. I have visited sweat shops in Honduras and watched while children made soccer balls. Do those kids ever get to play with one of those balls? I have had my share of mindless jobs where the fingers do the work while the imagination soars to an imaginary escape. What do those children think about as their nimble fingers sew those seams? Are they grateful for a job that feeds them even as they make toys for children far luckier than they are? Do they hate those children?
What do those people think about as they labor to make the endless stream of crap we buy: that cheap and useless garbage that our country squanders its fortune on? (You know--the the x-ray glasses, the bobble-head dogs, and the chia pet dolls, etc.). What does a man think about while he works desperately to make items that possess no conceivable practical value? Does he hate the people who degrade him with pointless labor or thank them for the employment that feeds his family?
A Roman farmer two millennia ago probably worried about his children, the fight he had with his wife, and what the weird aches and pains he was experiencing meant about his future health. He worried about the price of his crops, the weather, and his livestock. I can understand that man, but how do I ever understand the man who plows his field in the shadow of that Ferris wheel?
I'm still waiting for that epiphany.