The biologist Robert Sapolsky had a recent essay in The Wall Street Journal on the Christmas Truce of WWI, where he discusses how cooperation might develop under difficult circumstances. I wrote a blogpost on the same topic here a few years ago (in fact, it is still the most viewed thing on this site), and I think we cover much of the same ground. Sapolsky’s essay is better, which I’m fine with; it’s Robert Sapolsky after all.
At the end of the essay, he presents a thought experiment about trying to fast-forward mentally through the passage of time and seeing the present through the eyes of our older, wiser selves.
“The philosopher Daniel Dennett has pondered a revealing scenario: Someone is undergoing surgery without anesthesia but with absolute knowledge that afterward, she would receive a drug that would erase all memories of the event. Would the pain be less agonizing if she knew that it would be forgotten? Would the same happen to hatred, if you knew that with time, the similarities would become more important than the differences?
A hundred years ago, in a place that was hell on earth, those with the most reasons to hate one another didn’t need even the passage of time to see the similarities. And they were able, however briefly, to cooperate—and to establish some small measure of peace.”
I think the lesson is valuable, since it provides one more method to keep our baser impulses in check. Utilizing the lens of the future — even if we can never truly know what the future is until we get there — could help us gain a little more distance from our immediate circumstances. The hope is that such reflection might provide perspective as to whether hatred and conflict are worth it in the long run.
The optimist in me likes to think that in the future, people will have figured these things out (what’s the alternative?). If so, then those of us alive today will appear myopic and foolish.