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The Life of a Tree
I’ve been sitting in this seat for almost a year now, back in the corner where Mr. McCart’s tired face covers the sponge written illegibly on the board every morning. My eyes have wandered out the window to see the colors on the tree just outside and the hills in the distance change color with the seasons. Nearly every day, in fact, I have told myself that “I don’t care,” and that “I won’t even really use this again,” and my attention has danced out the window and across the field to touch and climb the beautiful tree at the end of the field. If anything, it’s even worse now—the sky is bright blue, the clouds have nearly given up their gray misery, and there’s a slight breeze and a warm aroma floating through the spring air.
Sometime during this year, however, something inside of me clicked. I’m not sure the change was so sudden and distinct as that, but I’m sure it’s there, because now when I let my thoughts wander away from this classroom and out the window, they dwell on significantly different things. If I were to let my mind loose to run rampant in my European History class today, here are the thought processes that might follow: Perhaps I’d start by wondering at the futility of argument (for there almost certainly will be one going on between my peers at any given time), and especially of political debate, where almost always both sides are right and wrong, simultaneously. And, since every discussion about any issue where both sides are right seems to turn into a liberal-conservative debate, I’d probably next move on to consider that within my own mind. Then, as always happens whenever the word “conservative” or “liberal” enters my thinking, I’ll be hit by Metternich’s simple yet striking faith in conservatism based solely on the realization that liberal change and revolution cause conflict and, ultimately, death. Even after that, the thought about a historical man of power such as Metternich will lead my crammed mind into an odd corner of thought—what is it that makes a man great? How are human nature and the rise of an individual to power intertwined? After I circle around these questions for some length of time and triumphantly come to no conclusion whatsoever, I’ll likely make my way to some of the simpler, but often just as deep issues of propaganda, nationalism, wealth, power, racism, war, and human society.
On all of these issues, and the ones mentioned before, I critique both sides as specifically as I can manage and then make every effort to decide that one side of the two is definitively better. On very few, perhaps none at all, even after deep thought, do I make any progress towards a decision that one side is better than another, and I come only slightly closer to being able to fully understand any political view and call it my own. But, that’s okay. After all, I’m fifteen years old—I don’t have any views.
To trigger this lengthy and complex sequence of thought, I need only to set a fairly simple scene, one especially familiar to those who have kindly shared the first period of their day with me: A debate has started about any good controversial subject, and as soon as Mr. McCart asks the class for our opinion, two hands pierce the stagnant air—Ryan’s and Esther’s. And, as quick as that, arguments are being fired across the room in raised voices, and Ryan and connected things back to the military and the government’s necessary repression of the people. Esther hasn’t been trumped, though. She relentlessly attacks the inhuman cruelty of the government, and points out how whatever Ryan has just proved beyond doubt to be foolish and beneficial to only a tiny minority. This, as I mentioned earlier, is where my ability to hold my attention on the class slowly fades, and my thoughts begin to wander.
But, before my mind is entirely gone from this physical room, I’ll likely take a moment to sit back and watch as the discussion slowly becomes the same as every discussion that has taken place in this room before it. I agree with some points from both sides, just as I also disagree with just as many other arguments from either viewpoint. The value of the argument is not what interests me, however. In fact, it is quite the opposite—I’ve come to the realization once again that arguments, over complex issues where every possible solution has both pros and cons, are entirely worthless. Recently, I’ve considered that perhaps conflict and death do not come at all from the original problem, but are spawned instead by disagreement over how to solve that problem. Perhaps the cause of wars and the unnecessary death the bring today is not to be found in the initial disagreement, but in the method of its solution. It seems to me that if this were true, even the “initial incident” would simply have been caused by a solution from some other incident in the past, which was in turn caused by a solution to a previous incident, and so forth. So greater death and destruction is not directly caused by the slightly lesser death and destruction of the past, but instead is caused by the controversy over it all and the inability of the leaders to agree.
I have to laugh a little bit at myself looking back on this, for now that I have proved the debate itself as worthless and even destructive, I move on to consider the actual subject of the debate, and that is the never-ending argument of liberalism and conservatism. To provide a small background of my own political beliefs, both my parents are fairly conservative, although politics never come into play in our dinner conversation. I’ve found, however, when asking my friends, that most of them describe me as liberal. I’m not sure if we’ve simply learned from history that conservatives are oppressive and evil, and so they like liberalism better for being nice the the people (disregarding the many bloody revolutions, I suppose), or if there’s some other reason, but I’ve definitely noticed a trend. I like to think of myself as a moderate who looks not for complete freedom or control, but simply lives based on realistic thought and reason. The truth is probably more that I haven’t got enough real views to be classified as conservative or liberal.
Anyway, I attempt for at least the hundredth time this year to understand liberalism or conservatism. We’ll say that Esther is speaking at the moment, so I’ll begin with liberalism. I understand fully the appeal of giving power and freedom to the people so they can be allowed to live happily and by their own rules. I also understand, however, that it only takes a single person to destroy a society based completely on trust of others. This liberalism with law seems to be idealistic and impractically hopeful. Maybe, then, it is better to restrict the rights of the people to an absolute minimum, and to achieve peace by forcing it down the throats of citizens by holding guns to their heads. This is where Metternich’s belief comes back: yes, it is true that liberal society can be easier on the individual, but the revolutions and wars necessary to create and maintain that democracy are killing huge numbers of people. The only way to successfully, reliably bring about change is to create conflict over it—to die. This conservative outlook is still horrible, though, as it puts so huge an amount of faith in the belief that freedom kills innocent people that it restricts it to the point that people live guaranteed lives, but no longer have the capacity to enjoy them. So, liberalism is happy but naïve, and conservatism is safe but cruel. Neither seems desirable.
To round out this debate between conservative and liberal, I consider the law system we know today. What I’ve noticed about not just government but every form of power today is that it does a fine job, for the most part, at fixing problems. It expects the problems to occur, and then mobilizes troops and passes laws to eliminate that problem. It also, however, does a terribly bad jab of preventing problems. With the entire effort of the earth focused on righting the wrongs of the world, we’ve forgotten that out prisons can only be so effective. For instance, with our great technologies and expensive police force and prison system, we can easily catch murderers nowadays, and put them behind bars for life never to kill again. We can temporarily solve the permanent problem of murder. My thought is this: what if, instead of spending those huge amounts of money we give to the police and the prison, we put all those resources toward ending the need for murder altogether? As often as not, the victim of a murder is just a guilty as the murderer. We make it pointedly difficult and unpleasant to kill someone in this country, and it takes a strong reason to be able to do so anyway.
So maybe from this perspective it seems that “evil” only occurs because there are so many laws against it so that many simply grow up to be that way because the law expects it of them. Maybe, then, if there were no law at all, and people were expected to grow up to have deep respect for their neighbors, a society peaceful nearly to the point of utopia could be created. This is just as stupid an idea as complete restriction and law, for although life will be temporarily happy, it will be so unstable that a single simpleton could overthrow it. Here is where human nature comes into play.
Can humans be trusted so completely to be allowed to live in relative freedom? No. It is too easily abused. Are humans so weak and prone to opportunism that they must be repressed to live in an overly conservative society? No. Plenty of humans are entirely untrustworthy, and even the best of us need to be ordered around to accomplish things at times. Humans are neither dictated by passion nor reason, but rather by some mix of the two.
In my study of historical European culture and of the various philosophies that emerged, rose, and fell, this is my one definite conclusion: There never is one single right answer to any question, any issue, or any conflict. There are many wrong answers, and all through history, leaders have chosen to disagree over these answers, and to fight over it. The world simply needs to learn to agree. Throughout history, we have seen a thousand different examples of empires working toward separate and conflicting goals, people dying, and countries collapsing. What if the entire world came together and decided to do the same thing? What if, though there would surely be parties who would be opposed, we chose one system of rule and stuck with it, and focused only on the pros of it and not the cons? What if, instead of fighting over how to rule a country, instead of fighting and dying for what we believed in, we sacrificed those very beliefs to live happily?
It seems backwards. I’ve been told to fight for my own beliefs even by inspiring little posters in my classrooms with pleasant pictures and smiling people in the background. I’ve been raised to think that my beliefs are what’s most important, and though others may not be wrong in thinking differently, they still do think differently, and that poster tells me to fight for what I believe, not for what they believe. That’s what I think we have to do, and the European Union is demonstrating it right now by sacrificing some of each unique culture’s unity to help promote peace. This is my backwards belief: we have to sacrifice our own beliefs. If we could just agree on one single way to live, and live it, maybe peace would suddenly be much easier. We’ll lose a big part of our own individuality, but I think that is a worthy sacrifice to make if it brings about peace. Maybe if we do achieve peace, though, it will be possible to bring some of that individuality and uniqueness back.
Now it sounds like I’m arguing for the existence of a utopia. It has long since been proven impossible, but I believe that utopia is absolutely possible, and even practical, with time. That seems stupid of me, doesn’t it? How can I expect such greatness from the common people? I ask you to take a look at the country you’re living in today. Maybe you think it’s corrupt and horrible, but consider this: a common citizen from almost any ancient or modern third-world culture would consider our own American society to be a utopia.
So what do I believe in? I believe in progress, and in human capacity for good. I believe that, although truly perfect society is impossible, pleasant and happy life is easily achieved, and all we have to do is choose to agree. That’s what I believe.