It seems like there is nothing but bad news in the papers – wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Palestine; the Ebola virus; and, if you travel to the red states, Obamacare and Obama himself. It actually seems like the news is worse than it has ever been, and in a way we do have reason for concern. An Islamic Caliphate could spread throughout Europe and, thanks to unrestricted immigration, cover our hinterland. That is if a virulent, highly infectious, and unstoppable virus doesn’t decimate our population first.
The good news is that this is nothing compared to the Holocaust, the Civil War, or the Bubonic Plague. Hong Gil-dong lived on a small rice farm in Korea in 1225 AD. He had heard rumors of the advances of the armies of Genghis Khan, but couldn’t possibly believe that his quiet, untroubled patch would be invaded and destroyed by his marauding armies. Although territorial wars were nothing new in the early Middle Ages in Korea, legend had it that the heroic figures of the time were forceful but not brutal. The Emperor Wang Geon, for example, was much loved, and when he decided to unite the entire peninsula under one government, the people fought beside him as he attacked Later Baekje in 934 and received the surrender of Silla in 935 and conquered Goryeo and Hubaekje only two years later.
Nothing in the heroic nationalist wars of Wang Geon could have prepared Hong Gil-dong for the brutality of the Mongol hordes. Village after village was burned to the ground, pregnant women raped and eviscerated, men disemboweled and decapitated and their bloody heads impaled on spikes; and when the hooves of the armies of the steppes were heard thundering in the distance everyone ran in terror.
The Mongols took no prisoners and cut every man, woman, and child down as they ran, slicing, spearing the living and trampling the fallen.
Now that was bad news.
The War of the Roses and the Hundred Years War (1337-1453) which started in Europe not long after the time of Genghis Khan killed an estimated 3.5 million people. The armies of France and England were perhaps not as bloodthirsty as those of the Mongols, and spread over a century only a few thousand people were killed each year; but four generations of peasants, not unlike those in Korea, suffered famine, homelessness, and death because of the territorial and imperial ambitions of kings.
If that wasn’t enough, the Black Death killed an estimated 200 million people during the 14th century – the same period of the Hundred Years War. If one didn’t die at the hands of marauding armies, death from the plague was almost a certainty.
Things got no better. Wars continued during the supposedly enlightened Renaissance, and imperial struggles were the rule in Asia. In fact, no period of history has escaped mass murder, massacre, and brutality. Our own Twentieth Century was one of the most bloody, disabusing anyone of the notion that humanity was on an upwardly moral trajectory. Stalin, Hitler, and Pol Pot personally accounted for millions of deaths. World Wars I and II killed many millions more. Africa was not spared, and the Second Congolese War at the end of the century accounted nearly 4 million dead.
Although the world is rife with minor conflicts – ISIS, the Taliban, al-Shabab, al-Qaeda, Palestine, Ukraine – there is so far little threat that any one of them will blow up into a full-scale conflagration any time soon; so our news is really not that bad. However, if history is any predictor, some major regional or world-wide conflict war will definitely happen this century.
Now for the good news. Bake sales are held every week, the Fourth of July picnic on the Tombigbee River was a big success, the new minister at St. Paul’s Church gave a rousing sermon on Sunday, The Lion King is playing to packed houses at the Kennedy Center, little boys still love Tyrannosaurus Rex. Beach Week at Rehoboth was a blast and so was the family vacation on the Outer Banks. Uncle Morty actually liked his Christmas tie and Muffy Shields-Lacombe is delighted with her new home in Potomac.
A rarely-performed but important play, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town is all about good news. Grover’s Corners is a quiet, ordinary, and very normal town with butchers, bakers, schoolteachers, and housepainters. Everyone is respectful and good and want only what all people want – good health, a modest income, and a happy family. The play, however, has a chilling ending. In the final scenes the dead of Grover’s Corners look down from Heaven at the peaceful, simple routines of those still alive. Emily goes back to visit and is saddened by nostalgia and loss; but more than anything by the fact that she did not appreciate life when she was living it. As Simon Stimson tells her, “Yes, now you know. Now you know! That’s what it was to be alive. To move about in a cloud of ignorance. To spend and waste time as though you had a million years…Now you know that’s the happy existence you wanted to go back to. Ignorance and blindness.”
Not only that, Stimson says, but our self-centered, routine simplicity, we trample on others. In other words even in the seemingly idyllic world of Grover’s Corners, happiness has a dark side. In the face of death and eternity we waste life as if it were a trifle; and in our quest for perfect happiness we deprive others of theirs.
Nothing is what it seems. Happy marriages often conceal deceit, anger, and frustration. Bad marriages may the best of all. For all intents and purposes George and Martha (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) not only want to kill each other but to inflict savage pain and suffering; but as the play goes on it is clear that they like each other, and in the final scene after they have flayed each other down to the marrow, they profess hope and love. People were dying of cancer at the Fourth of July picnic. Their daughters were autistic and disruptive. Their sons had been killed in Iraq.
Yet despite Thornton Wilder and the gloomy prospects of history, life is not without its happy moments. There is no longer any economic or social reason to have children. They cost more than their return on investment. The importance of continuing the family line, important for English kings, died out years ago. Additional hands to carry water, herd sheep, or fetch firewood are no longer necessary. What children provide – in addition to reflected pride in their success – is innocence. There are no caveats to a child’s joy at a birthday cake.
If we as adults take Wilder’s advice, we will savor the last run down the mountain before getting on the next lift. We will create our own good news; but as we get older happy headlines become harder to write. There is no good news in our inevitable decline, let alone the prospect of our extinction . Savoring becomes all the more important, but the more difficult. Even a prisoner on the way to the gallows who notices every detail of the faces, trees, dust, and flowers around him must also see them as unremarkable and meaningless.
Buddhists and Hindus say that there is neither good news nor bad news, only news. At best life is a perpetual wheel or a process of spiritual evolution through reincarnation; and in both cases individual events along the way mean nothing.
Shakespeare knew that history was determined by human nature, and that life would always be a series of predictable and understandable events. Tolstoy wrote about an ‘accretive’ theory of history according to which every event was influenced to such a degree by every other than preceded it that no action was meaningful in itself. Existentialists, influenced by Nietzsche, emphasized the existence of the individual as a free and responsible agent determining his own development through acts of will. There was no good news or bad news only individual, willful action which validated human existence.
The happiness of the young is like that of Grover’s Corners – spontaneous, innocent and naïve – for which they can be excused because from the vantage point of youth everything looks rosy; but for the rest of us happiness is an exercise in keeping bad thoughts stuffed into emotional closets; keeping mortality at bay; and accepting wars, aggression, and incivility as temporal, temporary, but permanent.
I read the papers less and less. Not because they seem to report only bad news – I am inured to that and expect it – but because nothing really is new. History does in fact repeat itself in ever-turning cycles. Human nature never changes. People do the most unspeakable things to each other. After a certain point insight comes only from distance and remove. News doesn’t matter, but the factors that make all news predictably similar are. Dostoyevsky and Shakespeare are far more important than Michel Foucault or Herodotus.