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Myth and truth of progress
By Orson Scott Card December 23, 2010

In the depths of the Depression in the 1930s. No money to buy Christmas presents. She feels lucky to have work at all, cleaning house for her cousin the doctor; she knows that he can hardly afford to pay her because nobody can afford to pay him.

Five children at home. The oldest daughter quit high school to work for what little she can get. The boys, too young for fulltime employment, do whatever they can earn a nickel for.

The next daughter is mentally retarded and must be watched and cared for. And the youngest girl is the only one who can do it, though it's hard for her to bear the taunting of neighborhood children.

So the mother leaves work and comes home on Christmas Eve. There's nothing in her hands except the groceries for Christmas dinner. Her cousin the doctor gave her a little extra and she bought meat.

Her youngest greets her at the door, helps her put away the groceries. "A roast!" she cries.

"A little one," says the mother. But her daughter only hugs her and thanks her.

But later, the mother sees her youngest looking out the window. Last week's snowfall now lies grey with soot, as grey as the sky. "Oh, Mother," says the girl. "It has to get better now, doesn't it? It can't be worse than this."

But the mother knows: It can.

Because there can be war, and she has two sons of an age to fight in it. To fight and perhaps to die or be maimed. "It can always get worse, dear," says Mother cheerfully. "That's why we're grateful for what we have."

Now we're in a recession again, with no idea whether it will get better or worse before it's done.

And as I watch the politicians and economists and businessmen flailing around to find solutions for problems that were within their power to cause, but not to solve, I keep wondering why they imagine their combination of half-measures and overkill, of too much of the wrong thing and too little of the right, if there is a right thing to do, will actually stem the floods and tides and quakes of history.

Of course they must do what they can. And perhaps they will succeed, and once again the great economic tide will rise, and there will be prosperity again.

But peace? Not likely, when implacable enemies refuse to accept defeat.

What about harmony? Again, there's little chance of that, when every group has picked out certain people and made devils and monsters of them in their minds, so they can hate them and see no good in them.

What that little family in the Depression knew, and many families know, is this: The great tides of history have their ups and downs, but each family floats in its own patch of sea, which might go up when all the rest go down, and down when all the rest arise.

Society as a whole believes quite firmly in the Myth of Progress, the idea that the march of history leads inexorably upward. Aren't we all much better off than our ancestors were?

Coaches, boats, trains, cars, then airplanes carried us from place to place, ever faster. Progress!

We have nearly eradicated smallpox and polio. People who would have been crippled now walk with replacements for their joints. Progress!

America grows enough food to feed the world; no one has to be hungry. Progress!

Then I try to see this world as God might see it. Though I lack his wisdom, I do have some access to his word, and I think he does not see us as being caught up in an endless rising tide of prosperity.

Just as families can have economic disaster when all the rest of the country is prospering, so individual human beings can destroy themselves morally despite -- or even because of -- material prosperity or technological advance.

There is no moral progress, in all the sweep of human history, no rising tide. We human beings, as a group, remain as we always have been:

Weak enough that our body's desires too often rule us.

Fearful enough that we surrender our will to others who tell us what to do, just so they'll allow us to belong to them.

And, too often, evil enough to take pleasure in dominating others and bending them to our will.

God's work is the same in all ages of the world, with technologies high and low, in the midst of peace or war, in prosperity or poverty: to help us find the light within us, and gain the strength to rule our own bodies, to take responsibility for our own lives, and to nurture others rather than control them.

The Myth of Progress is that all humanity will endlessly improve.

The Truth of Progress is that each individual can improve, whatever other people might or might not do.

And within our families, if we raise each other in righteousness, then let the world offer whatever trials it will, we will be unharmed in the deepest places in our hearts.


I wrote another column this week. Very philosophical. Full of truth, I think. But the next morning I got up and wrote this one instead. Closer to my heart. For those who might like to read it, the first one is online at .

Copyright © 2010 by Orson Scott Card

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