Gift Horse

Frozen wetlands, decaying early docks surrounded by increasing “affluence.”

 “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” may need explanation to younger readers.  At a time when horses were valuable possessions, the idea was that if you received one as a gift, it was improper to search for what was wrong with it.  No matter what, it was, after all, a horse.

Sometimes it seems that everyone is examining our own gift horse _ life in a wonderful era _ in its mouth and elsewhere with microscopes.  Compared to past generations here and now is paradise for an awful lot of folks, and much less hell for others.  Famine is almost banished, diseases have hope of control, frostbite is rare, and entertainment and comforts are at a level unknown even to previous emperors.  “But, but, but,” naysayers cluck.

Part of this is simple lack of time and focus, too much information to digest, and vertiginous sense that all is adrift.  Who has time to read real history?  Rushing from moment to moment seeking ever greater thrills is hardly conducive to contemplation.

Colorful billboard proclaims summer joys in the midst of frigid wind-chill

I recently finished an eye-opening 1934 book A History of Agriculture in the State of New York State by Ulysses Prentiss Hedrick.  Farming upstate in the 1800’s, even with Iroquois subdued and gone, was wretched by modern standards. 

Chopping massive trees to clear stony land, never-ending work inside and out dawn to dusk, preserving your own food, making your own crude tools, struggling with no money, alone almost always.  Worn out, tired, and nothing to do at night in the dark except _ well many women having 10 or more babies (offspring useful to help with the chores, if they survived), most dying eventually in childbirth.  For some women, death became freedom from a hard life.  You need to read the details to appreciate the agonies _ and I know none of you have time.

And yet _ in spite of insects, disease, relentless toil, accidents, and the hardest winters in modern times _ life was so bad where these settlers had come from that many of them considered that frontier as paradise.  At least there was always something to eat, and never any armies rampaging through to rape, mutilate, and loot everything which could be carried off.  

Free pleasure-palace for locals, taken for granted by all, an amazing artifact of our complacent civilization.

Disdaining common sense, capitalists claim human needs are insatiable.  We always want more. We may be rich, may own exquisite and massive objects or property, may live lives that our ancestors could only dream about, but economic declared truth is that we wish to be richer, own more, live better.  We can never be happy as long as there is the possibility that we might exceed our visions.

Yet we are clearly sated at times _ we cannot drink infinite amounts of water or beer, we get sick with too much food, we are unable to sleep all day.  In the midst of plenty, I can become bored and restless.  Happiness and contentment seem to be inner attributes, only modestly enhanced by externalities after a modest plateau of satisfaction is achieved.

I believe the possibility of happy equilibrium is simply achieving a stable situation where I feel relatively secure, exercise general control over my predictable local days, and have hope of changing or eliminating whatever bothers me directly.  That is quite a lot, and certainly sufficient for a good life.  Anything more is whipped cream and illusion, in spite of what advertisers shout at me.

Sometimes, being only human, I do forget my fine fortune: being alive in this day and age, having had a valuable and mostly happy life.  Then I need to remember, read, and contemplate the relatively horrible times endured by my ancestors and all other humans in the not-so-distant past.       

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