Lessons From Greece

For the past few weeks, my wife and I have been out of the country — in Greece and Spain to be specific. In every aspect, it was a wonderful trip. The scenery, the food, the people were all unforgettable.

And as all of you no doubt know, having conversations with people from another land usually reveals that we do have things in common. On this trip it was one thing in particular. — I swear to you that I did not initiate discussions that led to this conclusion. But once our new friends determined that my wife and I were somewhat acquainted with world affairs and open to “foreign” views, they felt compelled to ask a burning question: “What in the world is your President Trump doing?!”

They were more than just curious or puzzled, they were deeply concerned, some even a bit frightened. Sadly, we had no answer to give them since we’re in the same boat. I suspect that our puzzlement over our President gives us a common bond with people all over the world. — What a legacy Donald Trump is creating!

But moving beyond that embarrassing reality, I want to pass on a few thoughts that visiting ancient lands stimulated. Any time you travel to places with such deep history, you hope you’ll be rewarded with new insights, or at least strong reminders, of how we (the human race) got where we are today and perhaps receive some hints on where we could potentially be headed.

I know that no historian would ever state with certainty that he or she knows what precisely lies ahead for our nation and our world. Having just returned from viewing archeological digs of long-buried cities and crumbling remnants of former empires, I have no doubts that not too many years from now our world will look quite different from what we know today – for better or for worse. I’m holding on to the hope that “for better” wins.

That big changes are ahead for our nation and world is hardly a unique observation on my part. Technology alone is changing every society around the globe with breathtaking speed. Environmental change is, and has always been, another major factor in shaping a society’s fate. On my trip I saw one really big example of that. And then there are the organized activities of people that can radically affect a society’s future, usually through war. I saw examples of that too.

Twenty-five-hundred years ago, during the golden age of Athens, their populace no doubt thought the life they knew would last forever. (Their slave might have hoped for something else.) But years of war with Sparta, weakened Athens. Then Alexander’s dad came down from the north to end their independence and they never regained it until quite recently. Today, the ruined remains of the Parthenon stand over downtown Athens as a majestic reminder of the impermanence of even great civilizations.

However, the place that left the strongest impression on me was in another part of Greece, on the island of Santorini. One thousand years before Athens’ golden age, the Minoan culture thrived on the islands of Crete and Thera (Santorini).

On Thera, the city of Akrotiri had over 25,000 inhabitants. Located on the southern tip of the island, Akrotiri was a major seaport boasting buildings that were amazingly modern by our standards. Many were three stories tall with stuccoed walls, light wells and indoor plumbing. (Yes, the toilet was on the third floor with piping into a city system.) The walls of the homes were decorated with sophisticated paintings, and mosaic tile floors.

Until recently, archeologists were unaware of the existence of this place. It was only in the late 1960’s that any of it was seriously explored. Today only 3% of the city has been uncovered but it has provided a trove of brilliantly preserved artifacts. So imagine, three thousand five hundred years ago there was a thriving Mediterranean civilization boasting skilled artists, architects, stonemasons, international merchants – a very advanced society. And it disappeared, literally overnight. What happened? The volcano at the island’s center blew its top. (Some think this is the source of the legend of Atlantis.)

Certainly all those thousands of Therans, living a life that even by today’s standards was comfortable and relatively modern believed that the life they knew would go on “forever.” But an environmental catastrophe intervened and ended it all.

I guess what I’m saying is that no matter how certain we might feel that our way of life will be around for many generations to come, we shouldn’t take anything for granted. The centuries of man-made and natural disasters remind us to avoid complacency. However, the creativity displayed by mankind over the centuries does keep giving us cause to hope. — And as for the actions of our President Trump, he just keeps giving us and our friends around the world reasons to worry.

Nels Howard
NTDO member since 1973