As we hurtle through space on our little earth ship, round and round our sun, at about a hundred thousand miles per hour, we oblivious passengers continue to war with each other. I don’t want to believe that humans have a genetic inability to live together in harmony, but that may be true, and, if it is true, it’s fatal.
As a high school history teacher in the 1960s, I often quoted from Winston Churchill’s six-volume history of the Second World War which he referred to as the “Unnecessary War” because of the serious flaws in the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War One, coupled with the lack of will on the part of the former allies to stop Hitler’s early aggressive moves against neighboring countries. In Churchill’s first volume, The Gathering Storm, he cites a poem which appeared in a weekly humor magazine called “Punch.” He said he read it when he was about nine years old, and it had stayed in his memory throughout his adult life. This is that poem:
Who is in charge of the clattering train?
The axles creak and the couplings strain;
And the pace is hot, and the points are near,
And sleep has deadened the driver’s ear;
And the signals flash through the night in vain,
For death is in charge of the clattering train.
In my history classes, I suggested to the students that it isn’t death that is in charge of the clattering train. Our collective ignorance, our collective lack of initiative, our collective desire to avoid conflict, our collective lack of wisdom means nobody is in charge.
Churchill saw World War Two approaching more clearly than any other statesman of his time, yet his speeches and writings were often derided and challenged until that war was upon us. Humanity survived the Second World War, but millions of humans were scarred or dead. We may not survive a third world war because we’ve become too efficient at killing each other. I don’t believe we will destroy our little earth ship, however. I believe it will continue an annual circle of the sun, a bit more scarred and scorched, perhaps, and a lot more quiet. But the future can be so much better, if only we were wise enough.
I’m thinking of a line from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, the eleventh century Persian astronomer poet. It’s a line I used to write in chalk on the blackboard of my history class, a line I wanted my students to ponder. I quote it now, exactly as I see it in my memory in white chalk on a black board: “The bird of time has but a little way to flutter. And the bird is on the wing.” Ken McCullough