Several years ago I had the chance to hear popular Vanderbilt philosophy professor John Lachs deliver a talk titled “The Human Race: Both Better Off and Better” to a small suburban group of perhaps 20 people.
Lachs opened his presentation by telling the group that he hoped the evening would be “a dialogue rather than a lecture”—something that proved to be a mistake. A couple of women began vying for the title of Most Interruptions During a Single Presentation. One man seemed determined to turn the discussion toward speculation regarding the likelihood of extraterrestrial intelligent life.
Lachs gamely soldiered on, giving a much-abbreviated version of what he had planned to say, I suspected. Despite all the static, though, his message from that evening has stuck with me, and I think about it often.
Better off than our ancestors? Of course we are, he argued. Think of the deaths because of childbirth, disease, hunger, cold, and the generally wretched lot of our counterparts of a thousand years ago or more.
Better? That too, he insisted. Until relatively recent history, if someone bigger and meaner wanted something you had, they might well kill you in order to get it.
I’m writing this column from the coronary intensive care unit of a hospital in Sioux City, Iowa. We were visiting family in the region when my husband had a heart attack two days ago. Thanks to caring, competent treatment—Dr. Bruce Stavens, MD’80, is one of the cardiovascular surgeons here—my husband is doing well.
Better off? I’m certainly a believer right now.
Better? I’m filling the time between ICU visits reading a novel of historical life, a tale full of young princes imprisoned and never seen again, full of corrupt clergy, enemy heads lopped off and left on the town bridge for all to see and beware. I’m thinking John Lachs may be right.
I also thought of Lachs’ assertion recently when I came upon this passage in Paul Conkin’s history of Vanderbilt University, Gone with the Ivy, about campus life in the 1890s:
“Until 1899 the campus floated on its own sewage. … The students pumped their own water, often drank from a common dipper. … Because of dirty pipes and fears of epidemics, campus authorities urged students to drink only the cistern water. … [One] can only speculate about students’ bathing habits, either in Liberty Hall or in the scattered boarding houses … .”
With so much fear and uncertainty about the global economy right now, a bit of perspective can do more for flagging spirits than an upswing in the Dow Jones. So can inspiring stories like the one in this issue about alumni who are devoting their lives to preserving our planet.
Thanks, Professor Lachs. I’m not sure anyone else heard your message that evening—but I did.