The year was 1997, and I was taking the first class toward my English major. The course was in the basement of Wells Hall at Northwest Missouri State University – the regular classroom building dedicated to the English Department, Colden Hall, had been gutted and was undergoing major renovations, forcing us into the library-turned-mass communications building.
I repeated in a group literature discussion something I had heard all my life: ‘Times change, but people stay essentially the same.’ I had heard my dad say it a thousand times.
But when I repeated it during that English Literature class, my professor heard it and wrote it on the board. I was about as proud as I could be. It would be an early (and rare) accolade for me, but one that left a definite impression upon me.
My professor at the time, Dr. Greg Roper, has since moved on from Northwest, but wrote my (borrowed) words on the marker board to emphasize that the world has changed drastically since the medieval period, we were studying, but that the basic needs and desires of people remain basically identical to those that people held hundreds –thousands–of years ago.
I stand by them still, which is saying something: there isn’t much that 19-year-old me had to say that 41-year-old me would find quotable or memorable. And, to be fair, these were borrowed words in the first place, which explains a lot.
I do stand by those words, though, and it helps to guide my mind through troubling times in this world. We are a consistent people: we want food, shelter, company, money, etc. Some folks are honest and some folks are not. There is inherent risk and frequent reward in our existence. Iconic truths are just that – iconic: they don’t change much over time.
A mistake we often commit is to believe that the times in which we live are somehow unique, that the territory we are exploring has never before been surveyed by humankind. We see political turbulence or absurdity from the mouths of high-profile folks, and we falsely think that no generation has ever witnessed such foolishness.
Stupidity finds every generation, and wisdom eludes every group of people. We would by-and-large prefer to be right and win the argument than to learn multiple viewpoints and gain a wiser overview of our lives and times. If social media weren’t such a useful tool in keeping up with family and friends, I would cancel it all: it’s rare that I read an intelligent, thoughtful, useful perspective on anything – just a bunch of biased temper tantrums in reaction to biased news reports.
But when was it really different with people? I grew up without Facebook, but people still spouted off at the mouth or spread false news about this and that. We all still thought we were right all the time, and that the lousy America-haters on the other side of the aisle were wrong.
Is corruption new? Did politicians just recently start caring about special interest money? Are people more opinionated or less informed now than they were years ago? We need to use our common sense and remember that each generation is a fitting tribute to the generations before it. In other words, we deserve what we get from our children, because we raised them to have the same shortcomings that we ourselves possess.
Half the folks I know try to convince me that the U.S. President is leading us to a brave new world. The other half are telling me that he’s leading us to oblivion. I would ask them to read a history book and see that throughout the relatively brief history of this country, presidents and leaders have prompted similar apocalyptic observations from the population. Generally, though, a politician is a transient figure, and the general common sense of the people prevails.
I guess what I really mean is that times change, but people stay essentially the same.
Matt Pearl owns and operates newspapers in King City, Albany and Grant City.