Culture, Political Economy

Our Luxurious Lives

Old Fashioned Water PumpA few months back I wrote a post called “Our Land of Plenty” in which I reflected on the superabundance of food available to us in the United States. I pointed out that we today have access to a greater amount and greater variety of food than the people of any other civilization in the entire history of the world.

In this post, I’d like to continue on that theme by calling attention to how luxurious modern western life really is.

While there are always going to be some discomforts, our lives in the United States today are more comfortable than almost any other people’s from the beginning of time. Yet how often do we take the time to consider and appreciate this fact? I would venture to guess that the answer to this question is “seldom to never.” Oftentimes, instead of being thankful for how good we have it, we like to complain about those things in our lives that aren’t perfect.

For example, we gripe when the weather is warm and muggy, and we forget that we have the unprecedented option to escape to air conditioned areas indoors. We also complain when it’s cold outside, and fail to appreciate that all we really have to do to make ourselves more comfortable is to turn up the thermostat. For most of us, there’s no gathering wood, no starting fires. It literally takes a turn of the wrist for us to perfectly control our climate.

Then there’s transportation. Most of us gripe about having to drive in a car for a few hours to get somewhere. We forget that in order to travel the same distance, our forefathers—if they were wealthy enough to do so—would have had to hitch up a carriage and spend several days on the road, staying at inns along the way. On those same lines, we like to gripe about 15-hour airplane flights to Europe while forgetting that a mere two centuries ago, that same trip would have meant several months at sea with a very real possibility of dying. Our travelling ancestors had bigger worries than lukewarm, in-flight meals.

Another modern convenience I think we often forget to appreciate is indoor plumbing. The fact that we, even as middle class  or working class people, can take a hot shower in our own homes every day would have been totally unbelievable to even the wealthiest aristocrats of the middle ages. In this regard—as in many others—the poorest among us are living better than even kings of centuries past.

Returning to the topic of food, I think we also take for granted the convenience of modern refrigeration, which allows us to safely store many products that were often eaten partially spoiled in past times, leading to serious health problems.

One final point I’d like to mention is our ubiquitous access to the internet. We live in the information age. The answer to almost any question—whether important or not—is instantly at our fingertips on a wide array of devices like desktops, laptops, tablets, and smart phones. While bibles and other books were once kept chained up because they were so expensive to produce, we today have a world of information at the flick of our index finger or even at our verbal command.

Let’s face it. At least from a physical perspective, we in the 21st century western world have been born into the easiest possible time and the easiest possible place to be alive. Ever.

In general, we today lead more comfortable lives than any other people in history. But among its many other lessons, history shows that comfort isn’t the best way to improve a people’s character. The greatest generations are born out of times of hardship rather than times of luxury.

There are a couple of morals to this story. The first is that we ought to have a better appreciation for how good we have it. Instead of whining about how low the water pressure is, we should be overjoyed to have hot water flowing into our homes at all. Instead of complaining that we’ve only got leftovers in the fridge, we should be thankful that we can even safely store food.

The second lesson is that we should realize that our present conditions are a perfect recipe for molding us into a soft, indolent people, and that in order to keep ourselves from becoming this, we need to begin practicing such things as fasting, mortification, and self-denial. If our current environment won’t shape our character in a positive way, we have to make an extra effort to do so ourselves.

Thirdly and finally, we should all recognize and consider the fact that we might not always have it as good as we do now. The recent hurricanes in Texas, Florida, and especially in Puerto Rico have shown how quickly all of our creature comforts can be taken away. There may well come a day when we don’t have our perfectly controlled climates, our hot showers, our ease of travel, and our instant access to information. Let’s not make our happiness dependent on our modern conveniences and easy way of life.

I’d like to close by paraphrasing G.K. Chesterton, who once said that the best way to appreciate anything is to realize that it might be lost. To that end, let’s appreciate our modern comforts, and let’s also realize and be prepared for the possibility that we might not always have them.

 

Nicholas Kaminsky

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