Sunday, May 31, 2015

Nothing New Under the Sun

On the list of ideas that aren't new is graphics depicting human development from infant to elder. Just Google it.

What has been is what will be,
    and what has been done is what will be done;
    there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

Newness is the burden of youth. (Me)

I can remember having the illusion of originality.

I had it as a musician, a writer, a seminarian, a preacher: the sense that what I was doing was new, unique, never before created or experienced. This song I was writing was unlike anything ever composed before, this sermon was looking at this verse from a brand new angle, this editorial was revealing the truth that no one had ever put in words before, this paper was synthesizing theology and aesthetics as no thinker ever had. And as far as my own knowledge was concerned, I was right about these things: I had never encountered these ideas before. At times, the reception to what I had created supported my conviction in their excellence. Just as often, though, my professors or parishioners responded with suggestions that I might benefit from expanding my knowledge base. That brand new idea, hot off the forge of creativity? They'd heard it. Worse, they'd had enough time to live with it that they'd rejected it, long before I came up with it.

Being young, I naturally assumed these older voices were speaking conservatively, that they just weren't ready for the radical brilliance of my intellect. It didn't strike me--couldn't, in fact--that maybe, just maybe, if I'd read more, listened more, studied more, I'd realize that, as the Preacher writes in Ecclesiastes, there really is nothing new under the sun. Thousands of generations of humans have thought all these things, tested them, and rejected the unworkable ones.

Such wisdom is not, sadly, to be had during the hot years of youth. The wisdom of the Preacher comes only with experience. Parents of adult children learn the hard way that there are some things they just cannot teach the next generation: they must figure it out for themselves, and all their parents can do is stand back and watch them fail.

Do I sound pessimistic? I don't mean to. I'm writing from a growing sense, nurtured by two years teaching 500+ music students in a low-income school, that human beings, like all things that live, pass through stages in predictable patterns. Kindergartners arrive at school borderline feral, wild things in need of taming, unable to walk in a line or sit in a circle. First graders have usually mastered the basics of functioning in a school community, but are easily shattered by a harsh word from a peer. Second graders are obsessed with pecking orders, and injure themselves and each other trying to get to the front of a line. Third graders are enthusiastic about learning. Fourth graders are teacher pleasers. Fifth graders can't wait to get out of here. I paint these pictures with broad strokes knowing that there are exceptions, but knowing, too, that these are the conflicts I will see played out next year these age levels, but by different children than before.

The same process of developmental stages carries on throughout childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. I first encountered the notion of adult development in graduate school, and was stunned by the thought that I might still be going through stages in my golden years. There was never going to be a point at which I could relax, knowing I'd arrived, and there would be no more age-related transitions for me to experience. Everything I would go through had been experienced by others, and would go on being experienced, as long as homo sapiens continued to exist as a species.

Thus, I had to spend enough time behind the wheel for driving to become instinctual. I had to spend enough time in relationships for a break-up not to be the end of the world--and even as recently as eight years ago, it still felt like that to me--just as I had to lose a few jobs to develop the resiliency not to be shattered every time a potential employer told me they'd hired someone else. The newness of any experience had to wear off for me to attain master of whatever skills were involved.

All these lessons I've learned, all these stages I've passed through, I see others of my generation immersed in, as well. Looking ahead a decade, I can see what it'll be like for me to ease out of this work that consumes me now and into a life of less structure and more choice.

Human institutions follow the same patterns of development as human consciousness. I wrote recently about the cyclical nature of British democracy: Labour governments nationalize industries, Conservative governments privatize them, and the nation takes it in stride. American democracy has cycles of its own: the four year Presidential election cycle, the eight year cycle from idealistic new President through frustration with the reality of working with Congress to the lame duck who can do as he (or, eventually, she) pleases by executive fiat because there's no election left to fear, the ebb and flow of the middle ground of American voter sensibilities. It's all happened before, it'll all happen again. There's nothing new under the sun.

For all the cycling, there are shifts in wisdom that are unmistakably new: in all the recorded history of human civilization, same-gender marriage has never existed before as a government-sanctioned institution. In all the history of human life on earth, humans have not, until this era, possessed the technology both to induce and reverse climate change. At the same time, we are now on the verge of being able to colonize other worlds. 

These are things that are new under our sun, that may lead us to think that we really are at a moment of change unlike any that has ever existed. And truly, the experiences we are having now with technology are unique in human history.

And here's the rub: who's to say we're the first species to experience these things? For all we know, these steps toward transcending the boundaries of earthly existence may be a developmental stage that has been experienced by countless species across the universe.

And no, that's not a new idea, either. In fact, it's a staple of science fiction: the visitation of our planet by a superior mentor race of aliens here to nurture us through this stage in our existence just as they, in the same moment in their own history, were guided through their own transition millennia earlier.

Because there's nothing new under any of these suns. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, universe without end, amen.

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