On Gratitude

Considering kings and chicken sandwiches...

I've been reading Hilary Mantel's third 'Wolf Hall' novel and thinking about Henry VIII.

It struck me that despite being one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the world, he almost certainly lived a life materially worse than all but the very poorest in our society today.

He had no access to dental hygiene, antibiotics, or physical therapy. The injury he sustained horse-riding in his thirties had rendered him pretty much immobile by his late forties.

He lost a son and several siblings to diseases that we no longer have to think twice about.

He was confined to reading the Bible and whatever else could be copied for him, by hand, by the monastic scholars of the Renaissance.

Today, I have instant access to almost every notable thought, image, or expression in human history, carrying it around in my pocket wherever I go.

Though culturally rounded and linguistically sophisticated, he never saw anywhere other than the British Isles, France, and the Low Countries.

Even a journey up to the Minster at York would mean days of slow, horse-drawn discomfort.

He couldn't even marry his girlfriend without having his entire country excommunicated by the Pope.

I've always been a staunch believer in the power of progress and remain totally convinced by the empirical evidence that suggests unequivocally that the world is getting better and better with every passing decade.

Ronald Bailey and Marian Tupy's book '10 Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know' (a title that effectively plays to my vanity) lays out some pretty astonishing statistics on the matter.

Between 1981 and 2020, the global absolute poverty rate fell by 42%.

Many natural resources we thought may one day run out are not only becoming cheaper, but actually more abundant as our ability to find them improves.

Since 1990, the average life expectancy across the globe has doubled.

Over 80% of the world's population now receive a basic education, as opposed to less than 50% in 1950, and less than 20% in 1820.

There's been plenty written on the strange gulf that seems to exist between the actual quality of our lives and our often troubling experience of them.

Despite this astounding progress, 65% of Americans surveyed in 2021 felt that the world was getting worse.

Perhaps it was a poorly-timed question - after all, we were in the midst of a global pandemic.

But I can't help but feel like it's the prevailing mood of the age.

My brother even gave a similar verdict on the world last weekend.

Now, my brother and I have lived lives that are examples of such staggering relative luxury that, up until half a century ago, they would barely have been conceived of.

And I'm not saying this to highlight anyone's ingratitude or hypocrisy - I can be just as guilty as my brother (or the 65% of Americans surveyed in 2021).

It does seem odd, though.

I think the reasons we lose our perspective on progress so easily are manifold, but there are a few main culprits.

Firstly, we are now inescapably bombarded by information and news about the world which, very naturally, highlights the most negative in almost every instance.

By definition, global trends of gradual improvement aren't news - they are invisible background ubiquity, like slow-growing grass.

Though we enjoy incredible material advantages, perhaps this has come at the cost of some of the spiritual, social and religious traditions and connections that bring a sense of meaning into our lives.

Finally, as the descendants of socially hierarchical primates, we aren't conditioned to pay much attention to the state of global society; we're far more concerned with our own relative position within it.

Comparing ourselves favourably to Henry VIII doesn't always feel like much of a consolation when we can't even compare ourselves favourably to our more successful friends, our parents, or, worst of all, the strangers we are constantly shown on the internet.

As a remedy to this, I've been trying to stop and smell the flowers a little more often.

And I don't mean just in terms of my own life - I mean I've been trying to recapture that sense of wonder I feel when I really stop and think about the human world and how incredible it is.

Because when you walk slowly and mindfully through an average day in our 21st-century lives, it's also not impossible not to be stunned by what the ingenuity and cooperation of humankind allows us to do.

On Sunday, I was delighted to take the band to the Great British Food Festival at Hardwick Hall - one of Britain's most beautiful stately homes.

For a moment, I found myself basking in the glory of Robert Smythson's Florentine Architecture while eating a freshly prepared Sri Lankan Curry.

Moments later, I was on stage, playing songs I'd written with a fantastic band; our acoustics digitally curated by a sound engineer, manipulating them in real time via iPad and Bluetooth.

After the gig, we drank coffee from Ethiopia. I jumped into my personal Japanese car - part battery, part petrol-powered - and zipped across the Pennines: a beautiful, snaking drive bathed in the golden sunlight of early evening.

On the journey, I listened to Jordan Peterson's new exploration of the Book of Exodus. Six of the seven foremost religious and secular scholars illuminating one of the most foundational texts in the Western Canon, beamed by satellite into my car.

This doesn't just sound like science fiction - it is science fiction.

Or certainly would have been, even forty or fifty years ago.

And I understand that I'm an exceptional case.

But these daily miracles exist everywhere you look in 2023.

YouTuber Andy George, in 2015, decided he would make a chicken sandwich from scratch.

He decided, for the entertainment of his audience, to pretend that the global supply chain didn't exist.

He dug and planted a garden, to provide him with wheat for the bread, and salad for the sandwich (let's be honest: no chicken sandwich is complete without fresh tomato).

He collected and boiled seawater to get salt.

He milked a cow so he could make cheese.

He raised and, tragically, killed a chicken.

The whole process took him 6 months and cost him approximately $1500 dollars.

Thanks to centuries of incremental global progress and cooperation, I can grab one off the refrigerated shelf of almost any convenience store for about £2.50.

And I might even moan for a moment about that.

A pragmatist may describe life as the exchange of work for calories. We expend physical and mental energy to replenish the stores of (ironically) energy that keep our body alive.

The minimum wage in Great Britain is £10.42. Let's call it £10, for the sake of my substandard maths.

That means today, you can swap 15 minutes of my work for about 450 nutritionally complex calories - about a quarter of our daily average intake.

And I’m not saying this to deny that real suffering exists in the world - it undoubtedly does.

But think about this for a moment.

The sandwich - named after John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, who needed a convenient snack he could eat without a plate to fuel his late-night gambling and drinking sessions - wasn't even popularized until the 1700s.

Which means Henry VIII never even lived to see the chicken sandwich.

The poor bloke.

Keep dreaming,


Rob Jones & The Restless Dream

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