Reflection 271: Uses of the Past

June 5, 2012

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

I am a participant in the Quaker Institute for the Future (QIF) 2012 summer research seminar meeting this week at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor. In the early minutes, while we were centering ourselves in silence, I became aware of the loud ticking of a clock. It was an electric wall clock driven by a motor, not by weights and a pendulum, so it had no need for a noisy escapement, but there it was, ticking away simply because clockmakers cater to the public delusion that clocks ought to tick. I thought of functionless metopes (beam ends) in stone temples dotted around ancient Greece, structures fashioned after ancient wooden temples, but having no true beam ends because they had no wooden beams. After all, how could a temple serve as a temple if it didn’t look like a temple ought to look?

Little white cars these days look like they rode off the screen of Star Wars because Star Wars set standards for what helmets and vehicles ought to look like in the future. Now that we live in the then future, what else can we expect cars to look like? I still think houses in New England ought to look like my grandfather’s house in Plainfield, Vermont—complete with woodstove in the kitchen and woodworking shop in the barn—because that house defined for me how a house is meant to look. Movies keep getting made to look as they did in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. We just can’t seem to let go of the old days when our tastes were formed once and forever. Over and over again it’s the same story—back to the future.

But it did strike me as strange to be sitting in a college seminar room equipped with a clock that affected a fake ticking sound as an echo of yesteryear while I was trying to coax my mind into engaging the future. That relentless beat nicely illustrates the problem we are up against in carrying past expectations around inside our heads as we grow more entrenched in what seems to be the future but is really an extension of times we’ve already lived through. Stuck, stuck, stuck, stuck—that was the message of the room we were assembled in to plot our way ahead. How ironic is that?

Fact is, the past is hard to shed because it’s built into the very habits, memories, and expectations we carry around with us as we go. And in our styles of reaching out to the world based on those tired expectations. Even though we realize it no longer works, we still lug it around, lug it around without realizing it because if we shed it, we’d no longer know who we were. Which is who we were once upon a fantasy time when our styles of grappling with the world were formed.

Creatures of limited imagination that we are, we know what we like, and like what we know. So much for change, so much for progress.

Later in the day, one QIF participant gave a presentation about bringing our economy up to date in workable form. He pointed out that the U.S. Constitution empowers Congress to collect taxes and pay the debts for the common defense and general welfare of the United States, and, too, to borrow money on credit. It was Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton who led George Washington to float the nation on monies borrowed from banks in New York, a habit that has endured for over 200 years. Hamilton, a man who would not leave politics alone, came to a bad end in his duel with Aaron Burr, as the nation is facing a dire fiscal situation today.

So now we pay interest to the financial services industry for the privilege of borrowing its money, when there is no reason whatever for doing so. That particular habit is driving us into the poorhouse, making paupers of a great many hardworking people. Yet we think it is the only way to fund the nation because it’s a habit we picked up so long ago that it’s now simply business as usual as the founding fathers had it in their day. We haven’t the imagination to change to a less suicidal way of paying our bills with interest for the privilege of doing so. Hostages to the moneyed elite, we send jobs overseas and listen to the ticking of the clock as it tracks the national debt, while that same elite avoids taxes and prospers immensely on bonuses paid with public monies. Strange business. Where is it written we must play by that scenario?

Progress is largely a matter of ridding ourselves of a beloved set of bad habits, yet we remain slaves to that tradition, as some advise us it is our moral duty to do. If we are to be free, we must come round to freeing ourselves. There is no need for a sovereign government to borrow from a moneyed elite. It’s time to free ourselves from the grand old tradition of national indebtedness. To go bankrupt for the sake of a political idea is a risky venture gone wrong. If we are to head for a brave new future, we’re not going to get there by listening to the ghostly ticking of the same old clock in our heads.

With thanks to Keith Helmuth for truly facing QIF toward the future, I remain as ever, y’r friend, –Steve

One Response to “Reflection 271: Uses of the Past”

  1. Much more than enough foolishness. Common Sense and abundance for all in the sacred commons of Mother Earth…She is Not For Sale! The Future is Now! In Gratitude, R.E. Hogan

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