If We Knew Better, Would We Do Better?

May 4, 2018

Credit ksmu.org

This is Marideth Sisco for These Ozarks Hills. I have a fact that I didn’t know until a minute ago and I thought I’d share it with you.

Did you know that this is the last episode of the 11th year of this series? How did that happen? Don’t misunderstand. Barring acts of god or congress, I’ll keep popping up on the first Fridays of the month for a good long time to come, unless I’m evicted or until I run out of things to say, which as near as I recall, has never happened.

Still, I’m getting to the age when, as the saying goes, “Time flies whether I’m having fun or not.”  Oddly, though, as my passport to the future creeps ever nearer to its expiration date, life seems to be getting better, not worse. Oh, to be sure, my limbs are getting creakier, my mind and speech occasionally stutter, and I often wander off into memories of other days. But every new day still brings new thoughts, new excitement and new things to marvel at, whether it’s a new miracle of technology, medicine or exceptional human endeavor. But I guess I’m not finished grousing over earth day, and how every day should be that, because some days, being a student of our past, I wish I were more surprised at the remarkably persistent ignorance and cluelessness in which we let in the worst predators of industry and fail to keep tabs on them as they stumble meanly through our miraculous natural world, acting no better than hogs in their destructive power. Sometimes such folks who should know better seem separated only by speech and occasionally clever viciousness from the lower orders of being. Thoughtless would be a kind way of describing that part of the human condition, that has given us decades of despoilers, especially in the mining and lumber industries of the past, who took and took until the land could bear no more, then departed with their winnings and left us a rock pile.

There is the saying that “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” I’m personally not that keen on that outlook, because I prefer to think better of us. I think the world does move forward, although hesitantly, and we do as humans, gradually evolve, dare I say the word.

From the vantage point of being old, having watched this story play out over more than 7 decades now, I can recognize some of the patterns into which we seem to fall. One of my least favorite is the darling of the advertising world, which always asks the same question: “How can I tell this to you so that you’ll think what I want you to think and do what I want you to do?” My first memory of this pattern in action is a story I heard, told as a joke, when I was a child in a small Ozarks village. A boy with a genuinely entrepreneurial spirit and not much of a conscience, it seems, found a small container that had once held candy, and he repurposed it. He covered over the original printing and wrote on the front of it the words “Smart Pills.” Then he went looking for some. He found them in a pasture where some passing rabbit had made a deposit. He put them in the box, went off to school and attempted to sell them to some unsuspecting fellow student. He made up a good sales pitch and eventually persuaded one of his pals to try them, for a nickel. The lad paid the nickel, popped a couple in his mouth and predictably said “Ew. These taste like rabbit poop.” The boy who now had the nickel replied, “See. You’re getting smarter already.”

I’m just sure that boy grew up to do something remarkable, like selling used cars. Or getting into politics?

It’s good to remember that traits like kindness and generosity make up the better parts of our human nature. And a good heart is always a good thing, because deviousness is also natural to us, and self-deception, and cruelty, and consciencelessness. We all carry all those traits. Our beliefs, our actions, our prejudices, all are by choice. The less information we have, the more easily we are led into poor choices. And there is always some entrepreneurial soul within sight or hearing who is willing to sell us more and prettier “smart pills.”

I’m going to put forward a wild idea that I learned many years ago from my grandmother. She was sitting in her rocking chair, sewing quilt pieces together, as the family was discussing some low act done by a young neighbor, who had stolen and sold a stand of old growth timber. They were outraged at his deceit, for he was a distant relative, but they also knew he’d been raised without guidance in an area and a culture not known for its educational opportunities. My grandmother had taught school some years before she married, her spare qualifications being that she had attended the eighth grade twice with high marks, and she’d had the good fortune to have had a very good teacher. So she sat and listened to the outrage and the accusations. When the talk died away, she was asked what she thought of it all. She sighed. “If he knew better, he’d do better,” she said. It’s true. It’s true of all of us. And if we’re to resist the tempting words of those who will always be offering to sell us the finest in snake oil and smart pills, we might benefit from getting our smarts the honest way, by seeking information from a variety of sources, not just those we agree with, and not just those whose job is to reinforce our prejudices. Whatever our beliefs or our patterns of thought, the truth is we are all of us living on the good will and miraculous nature of a tiny, fragile planet in the middle of a vast darkness. There is no spare in the trunk. For every one of us, whether we celebrate Earth Day or some darker victory, whether we view our fragile earthly home with the eyes of a shepherd or a wolf, it’s all a matter of choice. If we knew better, would we do better? As residents of this hard and beautiful and fragile Ozarks, we ought to be smart enough by now to realize the consequences of our actions and the actions of those we trust is what our future will be built on. This is Marideth Sisco for These Ozarks Hills.