I don’t want to show that much profit in this quarter. Find a few reserves we can take so we can push some of it into next quarter where we expect to have that big loss.Vice President of Finance at a Fortune 500 company
Yes, the above quote is real. And no, it didn’t happen in a recent decade. It happened possibly before the reader was born. And no, I’m not going to name any company or personal names. That’s not the point anyway. I include it here because it seems to be indicative of a general attitude in a lot of businesses. The focus is often on the profit or cash flow of “this quarter” or “next quarter.” And beyond that, the above quote shows that people often feel the need to slant the truth one way or another in order to show the most comfortable version of it.
There are a couple problems with that.
First of all, excessive emphasis on the short term is not good. A company or even a government does need to do this to a certain extent, of course, in order to assure continued efficient current operations. But even the “long term” planning horizon that many people are accustomed to in business is only the next three to five years. The actual long term and the big picture of our relationship to society in general often tends to get lost in the smog caused by our focus on current events.
This has a real effect on our lives and on the corporate and societal structures that we build. It is, for example, why we need government regulations in order to keep factories from dumping so much garbage into our water supplies that they catch on fire or into our air so that we cannot breathe.
Such regulations have become quite effective in the United States and we have, in fact, cleaned up a lot of the messes that started to become so gross a number of decades ago. But the attitude that caused the problems in the first place is still there: People still tend to have a narrow and short-term focus. It’s in our nature as human beings because of the day-to-day necessities of our lives.
And that leads to the other problem: We tell ourselves comfortable stories.
The CEO thinks that company initiative he has his people working on is going to be profitable by the end of the year. He thinks that because his department heads have told him so. And the department heads know that their jobs depend on it, so they’re confident of success. But sometimes they’re wrong. And sometimes it’s because they didn’t pay attention to the big picture. Sometimes a huge, traditional, massively successful company like Sears, Roebuck and Co. falls flat on its face because the entire management team failed to notice a fundamental trend in society. Because they didn’t understand the nature of the participants in the market that their company had been a leader of for a whole century.
We all live in an echo chamber to some extent, whether it’s the people we choose as friends, or the memes that the algorithms of our social media send to us, the social and political organizations that we join, or the religious interpretations espoused by the particular preachers of the church that our parents raised us in.
And so, we tend to have a narrow focus on what we personally consider to be important in life.
Everybody does it.
I’m certainly guilty of it.
We all need to focus on the short term requirements of our lives and our personal goals and stresses to a certain extent in order to even live from day to day. And it’s not even possible to really get a complete “big picture” of our world or of the long view of mankind’s history even if we want to. Even the best historians and anthropologists only have fragments to work with.
But here, where we are talking about the principles of rights and responsibilities with regard to ourselves, our fellow citizens, our nation, and the world, we should at least try for a decently realistic perspective.
When we discuss our rights as being based upon our nature as human beings, or when we critique various actions of our government as either “good” or “bad,” we should have some perspective on what that means in terms of the history of mankind. Because our modern society is the result of a long set of steps in its development, and that is relevant to where we are and what we are today.
For example: I’ve seen some people criticize our current world and especially the United States of America as the “worst ever.” And I’ve seen other people say “human nature is the same everywhere throughout all time and never changes.”
Both extremes are wrong.
Humanity still has a large portion of our primitive and occasionally barbaric nature in our souls. Major events of the 20th century proved that. But we no longer sit around the Roman Colosseum and throw the Christians to hungry lions. In Europe, where the word “decimation” was used to describe a standard practice of old Rome, guilt over the barbarism of the 20th century has driven reforms that would never have been considered by the ancient Huns. And recognition by the United States after those barbaric wars were over that nations who are prosperous seldom wage war against their neighbors drove us to assist in the rapid rebuilding of recent former enemies.
The United States of America has been a key part of that evolution of human civilization.
And we should try to recognize that evolution of our society in the context of a long view of it.
The United States had slavery. But we ended the practice and struggled through our own self-initiated advancements in human rights while the abomination of humans owning other humans was still being practiced in lands from which slaves had been purchased centuries ago.
And yes, we had our imperialistic phase toward the end of a worldwide age of empires. But anyone who criticizes the doctrine of Manifest Destiny as casting a uniquely bad light on American history ought to read up on the history of the Mongols of Asia or the Huns of Europe or even the Aztecs and Incas of Central and South America.
The history of mankind has been a long chain of arduous and sometimes brutal struggles to find our way forward. And at every twist and turn and link in that chain, our predecessors – each civilization, nation, culture, and individual – have been left to figure it out for themselves.
We cannot use the full light of our modern moral sensibilities to judge the past or second guess the course that the evolution of our society should have taken. We need to try to understand each step of that evolution from the perspective of those who were its participants.
Mankind was not given a written instruction book to follow from the outset and so there is no basis for judging each of mankind throughout history equally by the standards of today.
Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan didn’t have our Bill of Rights, or even a Bible.
Yes, some of our forebears, if they were privileged, had the advantage of the recorded history, inspiration, and philosophy of great thinkers of their own past. But looking at things from the perspective of our ancestors, we need to realize, for example, that the printing press, which triggered an explosion of knowledge and understanding, was only invented a few decades before Christopher Columbus made his journey across the Atlantic. Vast numbers of our ancestors – sometimes entire civilizations and even empires – have existed with hardly any knowledge of writing among the vast majority of their population. And even where people were literate, many, even among the upper classes, were engaged in just getting by on a day-to-day basis.
The study of history and the sciences and the contemplation and sharing of abstract ideas among people requires vast amounts of leisure time that simply has not been available for most people for most of the existence of humanity.
The development and exercise of the higher aspects of the faculties of the human mind has been a long and slow process. Our modern sense of ethics and morals and rights and responsibilities is a product of the protracted, arduous, self-administered evolution in thought of those who came before us. And, as a society, we are still learning — some of us more effectively than others.
Deep in the core of the human soul is a primitive essence.
The principle that “might makes right” is basic to our animal nature. It is an entirely natural principle. We – most of us anyway – have collectively learned that it is not the best principle upon which to base a society. We contain higher and more refined qualities and abilities that we have learned – and are still learning – how to use. But those impulses that we share with our animal cousins are imbedded deep within our souls and it has taken us a long time to learn how to use the better parts of ourselves.
And that brings us to another important point:
Historians and anthropologists have an important perspective for us to consider about ourselves.
The antiquity of deep time is real.
Evidence of our deep past has been broken apart and scattered by the ravages of time and an insufficient amount remains for us to be able to piece together an entirely complete and accurate account of it. But such evidence as does exist clearly shows that events of a profoundly distant antiquity happened on a scale of time that vastly exceeds anything we possess any written record of.
The process of the evolution of our society from tribes of hunters and gatherers to our invention of farming and our creation of larger collectives in towns and cities is as much a part of the development of humanity’s current identity as is the invention of Greek democracy or the Roman Republic or the delineation of rights of the people in the Magna Carta. And the process of our evolution from our more primitive ancestors into human beings who can ponder deeply upon the moral, social, and technical questions that we do, is also just as much a part of our nature and history.
We possess an animal nature deep within our souls because the animals that we see in nature are, in a very real and physical way, our cousins. And this is so regardless of whether the diversity of life grew by entirely “natural” means or it had a Divine hand driving its development.
Some people try to claim that our recognition of the reality of deep historical time makes our spirituality irrelevant – that it somehow contradicts or eliminates our need for spiritual “salvation.”
Such a claim is incorrect.
If anything, our recognition of the vastness of the extent of the universe, both in time and in space, should make our appreciation of our origin and the nature and mystery of our Source even more profound.
Our Sunday School Bible picture books are comfortable childhood stories, because they are simplistic.
But reality is much more deep and meaningful.
The story of prototypical mankind reaching for the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil reflects a story of the deep history of our species, and is thus part of all of us. It is the story of the nature of ourselves together with the universal creative Spirit of Life forcing us to make choices between “right” and “wrong” in our lives and to then endure the consequences of those choices.
And our recognition of the profoundly long and arduous nature of that struggle for our species and for our development of our society highlights the importance of what Jesus meant when he said, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me,” (Matt. Ch 16) as we must constantly struggle to set aside the primitive, brutal aspects of our nature, regardless of how deep seated they are in our souls, in order to engage our higher natures and follow what is good and right as the Spirit of Life would indicate for our lives and activities.