You are not here merely to make a living. You are here to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, and with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world. You impoverish yourself if you forget this errand.
- Woodrow Wilson, twenty-eighth President of the United States (1856-1924)
I don't stand in any queue to praise the life advice of a US president. However, Wilson's words have meaning deeper than the obvious, which is inspiration given to pump up an audience for a speech.
First of all, this simplistic explanation of the meaning of life or the purpose of life seems nothing more than a hollow platitude. Where does he even get this idea?
I propose that Wilson knew his history. He could see the progress of humankind over the centuries and millennia.
Looking back at the quality of life in what Christians call the Old Testament of the Bible, it was brutal. Slavery was common. Any nation that was more powerful than its neighbour would likely attack that neighbour, enslave the men, kill the children and take the women as extra wives so they could reproduce more children for the conquering nation.
The average lifespan was slightly below 30 years. Those who didn't die in childbirth or from disease would die in battle or in a massacre. The Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) was full of violence, sacrifice and brutal death. It was tribal in the most primitive sense of the word.
By the first century CE, the time of Jesus of Nazareth, little had improved. In those times, the Jews and their neighbours were all members of tribes and all tribes had grudges against the others, feared the others and (usually at least once in a generation) conducted battles against them.
The Romans, trying to bring peace to troubled lands, treated their Middle East territories as being populated by expendable, primitive, low-life people who they treated with far less dignity than Saddam Hussein treated the Kurds. Crucifixion was a daily event where several people could be hung by the side of a road together. Except the Romans recognized the skills of the Jewish artisans whom they employed to create beautiful works of art for Rome. The artisans were prolific, but few in number.
In the time period of Jesus, historically the most peace-loving person who ever lived, violence was a way of life. The teachings of Jesus about peace made him an anomaly.
During Europe's Dark Ages, most people were, effectively, slaves to their protector, the lord of the area. While Italy experienced the Renaissance, Britain was still primitive and brutal, as exemplified by Henry VIII who killed two wives and got rid of the others by various and nefarious means. How his daughters fought each other for dominance after Henry's death, killing by the dozens in the process, give further evidence of the ethos of the times.
Today we actually count the number of soldiers who die in battle, give them formal and dignified funerals and give some financial compensation to their widows and families.
Despite the brutal acts of murder (in Rwanda, with machetes, for example) and genocide today, the world is actually a more peaceful place than it has ever been before in history. Someone was responsible for that. Many someones. Over long periods of time.
What Woodrow Wilson asked his people to do was to continue that long tradition toward making the world a better place to live. He asked them to do what they could, no matter how little it seemed to them. Every effort counts.
When we look at how horrid the world is today, we must put it into perspective. People live longer than ever before, stay healthier than ever before, have a decent chance to find happiness that their predecessors never had and we have an opportunity to move the markers along to a better world. Few before us have had such an opportunity.
Let's rise to the challenge and do our parts to make the whole world a better place to live, not just our own homes and communities. All we need to begin is the right attitude.
Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems, a guidebook for parents and teachers who want to grow children who will take responsibility for the future of our planet so that it will be better under their watch.
Learn more at http://billallin.com