I am fortunate enough to be on holiday eGqeberha this week, reacquainting myself and my lovely daughter with my home town.
This has meant hanging out with rare and special childhood friends, and experiencing some very obvious expressions of the circularity of time.
Without consciously trying to, my old friend Cliffie and I have found ourselves precisely recreating scenes from our past. But this time we do it with our children standing in for us, putting a next-generation spin on things.
This has been the case with an afternoon on the trampoline, trips to traditional surf spot The Fence on Kings Beach and even with games of Scrabble. I am pleased to report that all of these activities remain popular among the youth – decades after the millennium turned.
Of course, children today primarily entertain themselves by staring at handheld devices, where in my day we would stand with our noses 8cm from a bulbous television screen. Otherwise, change comes only glacially, if at all.
Seeing my daughter re-enact scenes from my own childhood has been illuminating and also humbling. I am coming to understand that very few of our experiences are truly unique to us.
Liso rode her first wave yesterday on the same surfboard upon which I retired from the sport about a decade ago.
She then segued into bodysurfing, a sport I also enjoyed on Kings Beach. My mother, of course, was an inveterate bodysurfer on Second Beach, Port St Johns and a whole bunch of Transkei-dwelling ancestors before her.
If we zoom out from the more specific joys of visiting the beach with our friends, we begin to discern patterns that vary very little between the generations. We are born; we make friends; we drift apart; we work; we partner up; we break up; we age; we die.
Perhaps we leave something behind: children, or some work that has value.
Because of the universality of life, its almost unvarying predictability, we are able to pass down wisdom through the generations. Human insights from the 1600s, for instance, can remain relevant four centuries later. William Shakespeare remarked during the Elizabethan era that… “Love sought is good, but given unsought is better” and you pretty much understand what he meant.
Not everything in our modern lives is quite so universal, nor as deep. I don’t expect many proverbs about Zoom meetings to retain their relevance in four centuries’ time.
But we are not the generation that transcended our own humanity. We are people – of a type with all the millions that preceded us. Our societies comprise others like us and our interactions define our cultures, as well as our destiny.
How tragic, then, that we seem so little interested in mining the past for more gems to illuminate our present and future!
It is almost meaningless now to point out the wisdom that “those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it”. What this saying fails to account for is the utter pride and certainty that accompanies us as we relive the lives of our ancestors, for better or worse.
We remain convinced that, firstly, we are special and, secondly, things will work out differently this time.
This is the arrogance of youth; the teenager who bemoans the inability of her parents to understand the power of true love as she sneaks out of the house to attend an open party she is banned from. The kid who steals his dad’s car to impress his friends…
As a society, we are like teenagers, convinced we can never disintegrate. Our empire can never fall, simply because we – the mighty us – are part of it. Behold all we have built!
Unfortunately, as those Shakespeares of the ’80s, Metallica, once pointed out: “My lifestyle determines my death style.” In our success lie the seeds of our downfall, be we the Roman Empire, the Kodak company, or a thrash band from California.
Or indeed a society built on individualism, exploitation and consumption. Jared Diamond noted in his book Collapse that often societies accelerate the very behaviour that is killing them, because that is the same behaviour that previously brought them success.
Perhaps we may somehow gain the humility to learn from our parents and forebears, and to adjust our lifestyles and value systems before they kill us.
Let’s not be the Roman Empire, or Easter Island, or the Viking settlement on Greenland – once great but now gone. Let’s be little children at the beach, looking to our parents for guidance and lessons, that they may keep us safe and alive while we live life at its best with those we love.