For the week of December 30, 1998   thru January 5, 1999  

Farewell to the old

Commentary by PAT MURPHY


The countdown begins to a new century, and those of us who make it through 1999 and into 2000 will be special people: we will have lived in two centuries.

To the young born thereafter, we’ll be a matter of some awe – old-timers who remember the "old" 20th century, but are alive in the "new" 21st century.

I often thought my father was one of the luckiest men I’d ever met for having lived through some of humankind’s great dramas and moments of history in two centuries, although as an infant in the tail end of the 19th century.

He was born in 1897, in the century of Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War, Gettysburg and the emancipation of slaves; discovery of X-rays, the massacre of Custer at the Little Big Horn, patenting of the telephone, George Eastman’s development of a box camera, and heaven knows what other remarkable historic episodes.

But then, after 1900, while living in North Carolina, he wasn’t far from where the Wrights gave birth at Kitty Hawk to flight; he was at sea with the Navy in World War I, celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal, saw the dawning of commercial air travel, survived the Great Depression, endured the despair of new wars, saw polio and other diseases conquered, enjoyed the marvels of new inventions (radio, television, air conditioning, computers, autos, supermarkets), and lived to see astronauts walking on the moon.

The melding of old and new centuries inevitably is a moment of celebration, a time for predictions and hopes for something better in the next 100 years than the 100 years fading into history.

Optimism always is never fully justified. Just as the 20th century has been a frantic mixture of humankind’s generosity, corruption, venality, inventiveness and discovery, conquests in space, charity, brutality and courage, the 21st also will be a century of unfailing disappointments and triumphs.

Will our successors do any better to make the world a better place than we did in the 20th century?

Yes and no.

Science and a world of better-educated young people will have unimaginable tools for licking just about every disease and malady, for increasing food production, for extending life routinely past 100 years, for controlling weather, for conquering language and political barriers, for exploring and settling in space.

But venal men and women with corrupt ambitions and voracious greed will continue to ply unscrupulous schemes in politics, commerce, the professions and international affairs.

And as the 21st century fades 101 years from now and the 22nd century dawns, the same hopes for something better will be on the lips of our children and grandchildren, who also will find a mixed bag of humankind’s best and worst.

But optimism in the human spirit outweighs pessimism. Which accounts for our instinctive annual farewell to the old and cheerful outlook for what’s ahead:

"Happy New Year!"

 

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