Giving Thanks for Today

Ozzie and Harriet

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

For some strange reason I found myself thinking about super powers the other day. Not about how cool it would be to have one but mostly about how useless they’d be in the real world. Without a horde of super villains to fight against, what practical good is super strength anyway? For the most part comic book abilities seem better suited to creating mischief than doing anything productive or interesting. The one exception I happened upon was time travel. Not necessarily even to mess with stuff. You don’t need the ability to change the past or profit from a preview of tomorrow’s headlines to make time travel totally awesome. Simply being able to observe the universe unfold over a period longer than a human lifespan makes it a power worth having.

It would be fascinating enough to walk the streets of 22nd century America but what about in the year 3012? Imagine plucking someone from the Middle Ages and dropping them in Times Square. What a mind-blowing experience. The differences between today and the next millennium are likely to be even more dramatic given the accelerating pace of change. I imagine a future of increasing global harmony and prosperity and one where everyday technologies seem magical by today’s standards.

And yet we don’t know for certain what tomorrow holds. It’s possible that future generations will look back and see that the beginning of the 21st century marked the pinnacle of human achievement. It may be that there aren’t even any future generations to ponder such things. We may find that tomorrow is not such a great place to visit, let alone to live.

1950 US Civil Defense “Duck and Cover” Campaign

Given that uncertainty, and in the spirit of today, I’m taking a moment to reflect on how incredibly thankful I am to be alive at this moment above all others. We may not know the future, but we do have a sense of the past and it’s pretty hard to think of a better time to be alive than right now.

That’s not always how we see things, though. It’s more common to remember the past with a sense of nostalgia; to think that Ozzie and Harriet and Norman Rockwell portrayed a fulsome picture of American history. And even if they offer some kind of window there is much they leave out of the portrait.

I don’t doubt it was a reasonably good time to be Ozzie, but I wonder whether most women today would trade places with Harriet. During World War II women entered the workforce to fill positions vacated by soldiers sent off to fight. Rather than being rewarded with the recognition that they could do any job a man could at war’s end, they were instead actively encouraged to retake their rolls primarily as housekeepers and mothers. Women’s magazines featured articles, often written by men, titled “Don’t Be Afraid to Marry Young,” “Cooking To Me Is Poetry,” “Femininity Begins At Home.”

Even facing this pressure to accept a subservient roll, Harriet still sat atop the world in comparison to some of her countrymen and women. Her era was also one of segregation, where Jim Crow laws were enforced through violence and intimidation. Lesser, but very real, discrimination against other ethnic and religious minorities was also commonplace. However good it was for Ozzie and Harriet, the ’50s and ’60s were decidedly less good for other large portions of our population.

But even Ozzie would probably choose to live in present-day American over his idyllic era. He’d enjoy a longer life for starters – about ten years longer on average. His family would earn a real income nearly twice as high as the one he enjoyed. Perhaps most of all, he’d be happy to see that his neighbors traded in suburban bomb shelters for swimming pools and two-car garages – the threat of imminent nuclear holocaust a distant nightmare.

The Problem's We All Share, Norman Rockwell

The Problem’s We All Share, Norman Rockwell

He’d also see a modern America of expanded freedoms. It may be conventional wisdom to think otherwise, but it is true that we are more free today than we were then. Back in his day every young man was subject to the military draft. As far as government policies that infringe personal liberty go, conscription is pretty hard to top.

On the economic front, Ozzie’s top individual income tax rate reached as high as 91%. It was illegal for him to own a telephone (they were rented from a single monopoly phone company) or a bar of gold. The price and routes of air, train, and truck traffic were regulated by the government, as were bank account interest rates and the price of natural gas. By today’s standards government intervention in the economy was absolutely breathtaking, and that was even before the Nixon administration imposed wage and price controls in 1971.

And who, in Ozzie’s day, would ever dream of being able to live our location-independent lifestyle? Modern information technology now allows us to live and work from anywhere in the world. But that isn’t even the entire story. Equally important is today’s vastly more flexible relationship between employers and employees. We may be lonely voices on this point, but we really do see the demise of the old “employment for life” status quo as a good thing. Mostly because I can’t think of a job or an employer I’d ever want to spend a lifetime with. Variety really is the spice of life. Also, I can’t imagine trading away all of our existing freedom for the mere promise of a defined benefit pension to be paid out sometime around my expected expiration date. Naturally today’s work arrangements hold greater risk for employees, but we’ll gladly accept a lifetime of pursuing opportunities and interests over a safer but stultifying continuity any day.

Of course the U.S. isn’t the only place that has vastly expanded freedoms and living standards. Since 1972 the number of electoral democracies around the globe has tripled to an all-time high of 123. Along with improved governance came greater respect for human rights and often economic growth. Three decades ago 52% of the developing world population lived on incomes of less than $1.25 per day. By 2007, that percentage declined to 22%. Notwithstanding real (and oftentimes imagined) geopolitical concerns regarding the rise of places like China, their economic growth is improving the everyday lives of people at a rate unseen in human history. Billions of people suffer less today than they did a generation ago. It is an accomplishment nothing short of miraculous.

Still more remains to be done. Far too many people still live under the lash of autocratic and corrupt governments. Poverty, hunger, oppression and violence are still real presences around the globe. Many in Europe face depression level economic hardship, and domestic unemployment remains a chronic problem. Times are indeed tough, both at home and abroad.

But times were always tough. We just don’t always remember them that way. Nostalgia has a way of airbrushing life’s difficulties out of our collective memories. And while it may be comforting to remember our lives through rose-colored glasses, this historical editing has a way of diminishing how we perceive the blessings of today. The things we’re thankful for seem smaller in a world we imagine to be getting worse. Only the exact opposite is true. We have much more to be thankful for than any generation in history. I’m spending this Thanksgiving in celebration of that fact.

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10 Comments on “Giving Thanks for Today”

  1. digger666 November 22, 2012 at 9:23 am #

    Reblogged this on digger666 and commented:
    Superb, Shannon and Brian…and Happy Thanksgiving…and many thanks for Harriet, Ozzie, David and Ricky.

    Like

  2. John November 22, 2012 at 10:21 am #

    Amen, brother. God bless America!

    Like

  3. Rev. Paul McKay November 22, 2012 at 10:27 am #

    Reblogged this on Jitterbugging for Jesus and commented:
    My globetrotting cyberworld friends Brian and Shannon give some superb perspective on where we as a nation have been, where we might be headed, and how utterly blessed we are today–far more blessed than we realize when the present is framed against the not so distant past of characters such as, say, Ozzie and Harriet. Very well done, Brian and Shannon. And Happy Travels as well as Happy Thanksgiving.

    Like

  4. Rev. Paul McKay November 22, 2012 at 10:29 am #

    A very powerful think piece, really well done.

    Like

  5. Emily November 22, 2012 at 2:48 pm #

    Excellent post. It’s fashionable today to bemoan how much worse things are than they used to be. And sure, things aren’t perfect, but they never were. I prefer to look at things the way you two do. If that makes me an eternal optimist, so be it. I’ll be sharing this. Happy Thanksgiving!

    Like

  6. Sid Dunnebacke November 23, 2012 at 7:53 am #

    Well said, all around, Brian.

    Like

  7. Huw Thomas November 24, 2012 at 6:44 am #

    Interesting thoughts. What would be really fascinating would be to get you to reblog this in 20 years time and see if you still agree with yourself!

    Like

  8. nakitaaudrey November 27, 2012 at 11:08 pm #

    Lots to be thankful for indeed! Nice post

    Like

  9. louisva November 30, 2012 at 2:44 pm #

    As I still am trying to catch up on emails and this post warrented a comment beyond thanks Rev. McKay for posting this on your blog or it would have gone unseen. Having been born in the south in 1950, all of this is familiar to me. My mom grabbing me and steering me to the “CORRECT” bathroom or the “CORRECT” water fountain. I am grateful that those things are in the past yet I am concerned about the ultra-conservative members of Congress that think this was the “good ole days.” We need to stay on our toes and not let this be our future (as if covering one’s head in the school hallway would have done anything – all it did to me was at first frighten me then I began to see the absurdity and ended up laughing and getting in trouble). Here’s to a more fair and peaceful future. Also my thanks go out to Brian and Shannon – I do not know you folks but any friend of Paul McKay is a friend of mine. Thanks for your work!

    Like

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. A World Without Work: Star Trek Edition | Everywhere Once - November 28, 2013

    […] year we spent this day giving thanks for how much better the present is than the past (seriously, the “good old days” actually blew). Today we’re spending Thanksgiving thinking about how much better the world is becoming than it […]

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