Reflections on reaching 75
Apr. 23, 2014
Having now for 75 years followed life’s path, I find the climbing more difficult, the upgrade steeper, and the trail narrower as I move on. There are moments, however, where one can rest, look back, and reflect on the journey.
I have lived during the terms of 13 presidents and through 6 wars, one of which, the Second World War, was necessary. In light of what has happened in North Korea, that “conflict” was probably justified. Vietnam was not. The Gulf War, Afghanistan and Iraq remain questionable and long term they may be viewed as not worth the effort.
The Vietnam War, the sexual revolution, the drug culture, and the erosion of religious faith had profound effects on society in the last half of the last century. Legal or illegal and right or wrong provided less restraint than good or evil – the moral absolutes of an earlier time.
The churches of my youth were filled with people seeking meaning, purpose, and direction. Secularism, materialism, self-indulgence, and my church’s failure to renew itself and confront its own failings undermined its influence. With a new emphasis on love, compassion, tolerance, and understanding, that may change.
Age provides a frame of reference. It makes one a witness to extraordinary changes – some good, others bad – that have occurred over a lifetime. The one constant is human nature. We are flawed creatures. Some of us struggle to identify and overcome weaknesses while others are oblivious. Are we more honest, more truthful, or less violent? Is our democracy better able to identify and serve the common good? Are we becoming “exceptional” due to our weaknesses rather than to our strengths?
That we have made important progress in many areas is undeniable – race relations, gay rights, health care, and technology, for example. At times it appears that technology is consuming us. While recognizing its importance and inevitability, I worry that in a communications age, we are wed to our devices. Knowing more, we understand less. Constantly stimulated by trivia, we have less time for reflection and prayer.
I have long been of the opinion that what we view as progress carries an entirely new set of often unanticipated problems, some of which are more difficult to solve than the underlying condition. Each so-called remedy or reform brings a whole new set of challenges.
The unintended consequences of industrialization are contributing to climate change. Technology is eliminating jobs and will continue to do so. Improved health care means people are living longer. With more money needed to care for the old and infirm, fewer resources are available to address the needs of the young and productive. The challenges of the 21st century will be every bit as difficult, and the consequences of failure more devastating than those of the past.
Great wealth underscores our most enduring inequality – the disparity between the “haves” and “have-nots.” In what may be the most insidious threat to the future of our democracy, the power elite, in aiming to protect their status, may be able to corrupt the process of governance. We are at a tipping point and so far we seem incapable of resolving this dilemma.
History teaches us that great nations come and go. External threats foster internal decay. Decline is inevitable. Power and wealth carry the seeds of their own destruction. Great societies tend to falter from dysfunction, corruption, inflated notions of their own invulnerability, and naïve beliefs in their own “exceptionalism.”
Throughout history, empires have been born, one by one, have enjoyed a period of influence and prosperity but eventually have taken their place in that long line of has-been nations, dreaming of a glory that has slowly receded into the gathering mist shrouding empires of the past.
Remember the final lines of “Ozymandias” as Percy Bysshe Shelley describes an immense monument half buried in the desert. On the pedestal, these words:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings;
Look on my works, ye mighty and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law.