Looking at Christmas cards. Seeing pictures of Mary and Joseph on the road, or in the stable with the baby. They did not get into the inn. They had to make the most of very rough conditions. Some thoughts occurred to me so I decided to share.

Even if they had gotten into Herod’s palace, or even somehow became the guests of Caesar himself, what I have here is unimaginably superior. In my modest house (it’s old, and it’s drafty, and it’s not that big) I have: insulation and central heating, hot and cold running water, flush toilets, electric power, telephone, internet, cooking gas, refrigerated and frozen food, medicine as needed in the cabinet, more than sufficient clothing, a piano, and 5,000 or so books. I can communicate with anyone I want to anywhere in the world instantly. I am within walking distance of two pharmacies where I can get antibiotics if needed. I and my children are a short drive away from emergency medical care. Dentists and physicians know about germs, and soap, and can give me anesthesia. If I had to, I could get in my car and drive anywhere in North America in a matter of hours or days. If I absolutely had to, I could get on a plane and go almost anywhere in the world within hours or at most days. This is wealth beyond the wildest dreams of Caesar, or Herod, or Charlemagne, or Louis XIV, or Queen Victoria.

There is no immediate prospect of a hostile group or gang, or my own rulers, driving me out of my home, taking my stuff by force, or murdering me or my family. If I have a dispute, I have enforceable rights, though the system is far from perfect. I am in no immediate danger of attack for practicing my religion. I can possess lethal force to defend myself and my family. I can vote, speak, publish, protest, petition, assemble, meet and organize to have an impact on the government I live under, without much likelihood of personal danger. Political disagreements, even over matters of great consequence, rarely lead to blows. This is a level of freedom and security which has been known to a tiny fraction of one percent of the people who have ever lived.

I have gratitude to all who came before us and gave this to us. And there are many defects and failures and challenges ahead for us, and much of what we have could be lost, and some of it is in the process of being lost. But we have it good, and even better things are within our grasp. Let’s keep it going.

17 thoughts on “Gratitude”

  1. Amen to that. I’ve read that people feel rich or poor not by measuring their wealth in absolute terms, but by comparing themselves to others. I like to compare myself to the pharaohs of Egypt. Poor bastards didn’t even have basic cable.

  2. Although the ancients had plagues and famines, they didn’t have STDs. They didn’t have chocolate, coffee, tea, coke or cigarettes. No sugar. Very few fat kids.

  3. We live in the land flowing with milk and honey that any earlier human culture would have considered a realization of paradise.

    I am reminded of a story I heard many years ago about a visit to the US by Kruschev and his wife. Kruschev was, of course, his blustery self, while Mrs K was taken in tow by the first lady, Mamie Eisenhower, and shown around Washington, taken to museums, etc. Everywhere they went, Mrs K’s standard comment was, “Yes, it’s very nice, but we have better in Moscow.”

    Finally, she was taken to a neighborhood A & P grocery store. The ladies were shown around the store, and as Mrs K saw the aisles of canned goods, coolers full of meat, shelves of bread, her eyes got wider and wider. At last they came to the fresh produce, and she could contain herself no longer. She started to repeat her standard response, but the words stuck in her throat, and she broke down crying. That was the end of the tour.

    The story may very well be apocryphal, I don’t know. I do know that my grandmother could go to her local grocery store and bring home all the good, wholesome, fresh food she wanted for her table any day of the week, and often commented to me when I was little that we simply didn’t understand how good things were compared to years before.

    None of this bounty simply happens, like some form of Garden of Eden. It is the result of centuries of careful thought, attention to detail, and back breaking work.

    Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

  4. I’ve been working on the final edits of my current book, “Daughter of Texas” – which is due out in April, and the sequel – due in December of next year, which involves immersion into the world of the 19th century frontier, and a lot of thinking about, and mapping out how people lived back then … and the sheer number of hours of grinding and backbreaking hours of work it meant, to keep a household in any kind of comfort and good health.
    Washing laundry – by hand. Butchering and processing and curing meats … again, by hand. Planting, nourishing and harvesting — and processing vegetables and fruits from the garden. Milking cows and processing the milk into butter and cheese. Spinning and weaving cotton and wool into thread and then into cloth … caring for the sick – and in the days before antibiotics, that was no light chore…burying loved ones, who died of ailments easily remedied in this century. Don’t even get into the chore of cooking and baking in a wood-fired iron stove.
    We have it lucky, in this century. And so many people don’t even begin to guess how lucky they are!

  5. “Washing laundry – by hand.”

    My mother was born in 1919, and told me that she well remembered her mother boiling water on the stove to clean my grandfather’s white shirts and the bed linens.

    I’m quite sure I read that a not-uncommon cause of child mortality way back when was scalding, caused when pots of boiling water (for laundry) tipped over. I just cannot imagine the horror.

  6. PercyD…”I’m quite sure I read that a not-uncommon cause of child mortality way back when was scalding, caused when pots of boiling water (for laundry) tipped over. I just cannot imagine the horror”

    In the TV miniseries “The Awakening Land,” which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago, the heroine is making soap over a fire when her younger sister runs into it while playing around–and is burned horribly and soon dies.

  7. PercyD:,
    why, I have boiled my son’s diapers in that same manner; it’s not that difficult, you just have to be careful. And the white linen really were getting white. Certainly less mortality and injuries statistically than comes from driving!

    Dan, you have nothing else to think about in the shower? What about your lovely lamas?

  8. I would like to see a chart showing the amount of energy expended on work in a typical American household over the last 240 years. I would like to see that broken down to show how much is (a) human muscle power, (b) how much animal power, and (c) how much other types of power. I am sure we would see a steady and accelerating decline in (a), a decline then the disappearance of (b) by the mid-20th century, and a geometric increase in (c).

    As to children and cooking accidents, they are fairly common even now. In older kitchens, where there were open fires or iron stoves used for various tasks including cooking, large families, overworked wives, small interior spaces, poor lighting, and little conception of built in safety features the absolute number of serious injuries was certainly much higher, even with a population a fraction of today’s.

  9. Molly Hughes’ Victorian Family series, which Helen wrote about here, provides a good picture the old days, and if you look at all five books in the series, you can see the slow but steady transformation of the world for an ordinary family over the course of about a century. Life was very hard, people, especially children, died suddenly of things we would not think twice about today.

  10. I recall reading an article several years ago which stated that in 1800, 90% of work in the US was done by muscles, whether human or animal, (I don’t recall the breakdown) while in 1990 or so the figure was only 10%.

    When we look at the developing countries of the world, China, India, Brazil, et al, we are watching a recapitulation of the later 19th and 20th centuries. It will be especilly intriguing to observe the cultural and social convulsions they will certainly go through, and how they handle the many transformations their progress toward modernity will inevitably entail.

    My guess is that the flexibility that modernity requires will either mean their more rigid social elements must give way, or that the progress will falter as political controls and social conventions impede the many evolutionary steps that needs be taken.

    All in all, the 20th century wasn’t that kind to large parts of the world. Perhaps the examples of the rise, depridations, and final collapses of major collectivist experiments will give some of the current crop of pols around the globe a bit of pause before they traipse down those slippery paths.

    But, then, I’ve always been an optimist in the long term.

  11. Charles Steinmetz, the great scientist who worked for GE in the early part of the 20th century, was once approached by a PR man who desperately sought his help. The PR guy had been hired after making a lot of promises about how much press coverage he could get the company. Now, GE had sold a large turbogenerator and wanted the sale well publicized. But the PR man couldn’t think of any good angles. Could Steinmetz suggest an approach?

    Steinmetz got out his slide rule and calculated that the power produced by this one machine would exceed the total muscular energy of the entire American slave population at the time of the Civil War.

    Not a totally fair comparison, of course, since much of the work done by slaves demanded varying levels of skill and judgment, as well as pure musclepower–still, an arresting comparison.

    (Sorry, no link–can’t remember where I read this story)

  12. The great movement toward “scientific homemaking” was heavily influenced by industrial efficiency experts. This led to the life of women in mid-twentieth century, with the station wagon and vacuum cleaners; these were the years of Readers’ Digest Condensed books, book clubs, and large magazine readership in journals that published a fair amount of fairlly good fiction. Human nature being what it is, we were prodded into thinking that life was stultifying and, in some hyperbolic feminist tracts, not unlike a concentration camp. So, now, we push ourselves and our husbands as we try to do it all. But we have central heat (the greenies seldom make the point the Lomberg does – the greatest improvement in air quality people breathe was when we stopped gathering around a fire of burning wood). Our house didn’t have central heat nor air when we moved in – the thought of raising children with space heaters frightens me. But how much better those space heaters must have been to people who had warmed themselves by a fireplace or breathed the air of burning wood or coal.

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