Arrows of History: the ongoing battle between dispersion and synthesis

Arrows of History:

The ongoing battle between dispersion and synthesis

Kenneth Burchfiel

We started out together. It’s hard to imagine, what with every corner of today’s world now populated by the human race, but all of us called the same land home back when humanity first started out.

It didn’t stay that way for long. Within the course of thousands of years, we swam and walked our way to Asia, Europe and even the Americas. This was a race that desired to move apart from one another, regardless of the reason. There were better opportunities where others had never set foot; better lives where nobody had ever dreamt to live. When our greatest enemy was nature, humans naturally banded together to survive. But as our efforts to overcome and control nature paid off, we ended up becoming each other’s greatest enemy. So began one people’s flight from another.

By the Middle Ages, we had all but forgotten our common ancestry. Everyone was part of a different clan, owner of one spot and land and enemies with everyone outside of it. Like rainwater on a car window, some of these clans grouped into nations, but the same mentality persisted. Mali wanted little to do with the people surrounding it. The Cherokee Indians only wanted the trade goods of other tribes; their cultures and stories could stay at home. The onset of the eighteenth century came replete with scores of countries, most of whom wanted only to separate themselves.

And yet, despite our predisposition to distance ourselves, there existed also a strange urge to draw closer to one another. This vestigial structure of the earliest days of humankind showed itself in the treaties we made with other countries, not to mention our fascination with those beyond our borders. Though drowned out by the desire to remain separate, the voice inside their heads that said, “Return, return” never left.

Just about every event in history falls into one of two categories: one, those that draw people apart, and two, those that bring people together. Much of the recorded era falls into the former; our establishment of boundaries, development of independent governments and xenophobic acts all effected isolation and dispersion from one another. By the 1900s, though, the latter category was filling up. International migration led to the blending of two formerly separate cultures. Borders in many countries fell as ethnic and political groups embraced each other’s heritage. Diplomats and ambassadors worked to improve local understanding of distant lands.

Resistance aside, this trend of coming together never abated. Its crescendo has produced some of the defining events of modern times, from the fall of the Berlin wall to the creation of the United Nations to the deployment of peacekeeping forces in Darfur. We are not yet a race free of division, as evident by the wars and border disputes continuing today, but the force of divisiveness has been largely tempered by the hope togetherness brings.

Some 40,000 generations ago, our ancestors all lived as a whole community. We are a world that, unaware, has begun to follow their example.

Togetherness doesn’t entail moving back to central Africa and packing billions of houses back-to-back. All it takes to live in the same land as everyone else is an understanding that this world, vast and uncharted as it might appear, belongs to all of us. God did not carve borders into the rock. The newborn American can smile at a newborn Namibian, naturally unaware of any man-made zone between them.

I wish not to subscribe to the utopian idea that a unified, assimilated world will be a perfect one. Civil wars occur far more frequently than world wars, shared borders or not. Nevertheless, if we make efforts to replace our de facto ignorance, suspicion and resentment of other countries with that kooky term called love, we might just close out the century together. Our ancestors would be proud.

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