This is one of my favorite quotations.  I can't remember where I read it, but I think it was in an article that was published in a historical journal.  From what I recall, the context was this: a historian or possibly a sociological researcher was conducting interviews among older farmers, I think it was in Ireland.  The interviewer asked a farmer named Hugh Nolan (I know the name because I wrote it down and saved it) what he thought about the changes he had seen in his life.  Hugh replied,

Things get better. And they get worse.

I try to keep this thought in mind.  And I don't have to try hard, because it applies so well to so many situations.

It's important to remember that history does not progress linearly, and that just because we have advanced to a certain level as a society or a species does not mean that all our gains are permanent.  Remember the fall of Rome, and the several fires that consumed the Library of Alexandria during the slow decline of that previously progressive, cosmopolitan city.

Hugh's statement is also a reminder that change does not come evenly on all fronts.  We may make better medicines, for example, but people may react to this change in perverse and unexpected ways, such as by increasing their consumption of homeopathic/alternative medicines in the mistaken belief that they are somehow safer than products created in a lab.  We created vaccines that could eliminate longstanding childhood diseases, but that didn't prevent the emergence of an infuriating, tragic movement to withhold vaccines from children.

I doubt that Hugh himself would have agreed with my interpretations of his answer.  He may well have been referring to the improvement of farming and household technologies on the one hand and the decline of traditional values on the other.  But to me his statement has a broader, more poignant set of meanings that I find insightful and instructive, and it's one of my favorite quotations.

Tags: Alexandria, Ireland, Rome, farmer, history, quotation, quote

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