Expansion and Contraction

There are natural cycles and patterns on planet Earth that impact us all, sooner or later. One of these is expansion and contraction. This cycle can be noted in so many aspects of our life and lives. In our breath, we inhale to a certain point as our lungs expand, and when they have reached their apogee we must exhale – giving our lungs (and body) a chance to remove what is not useful for us, and allowing our lungs to eventually become empty so that we can once again breath in some new, fresh air. We unconsciously repeat this cycle many times a day, and countless times over the course of our lives. And as it is with our single human body, so it also can be with the collective human body.

I have been thinking quite a bit these last months about the periodic expansion and contraction of global outreach across the course of human history. I suppose it is only natural I should be reflecting upon this phenomenon at this current moment, given that I have spent much of my adult life studying and working in the area of international education, which has expanded exponentially in recent years along with so many other aspects of global connections and interface. This Spring saw much of this collapsing as a result of the current pandemic. Right now, people from the United States cannot even travel to many places beyond our borders, and our own government has issued a no travel warning.

If you had told me on New Year’s Eve 2020 that less than three months later, we would be facing such a situation, I would have looked at you and wondered if you had drunk too much champagne. The possibility that global travel could pretty much shut down so rapidly seemed neigh impossible. And how wrong I would have been.

And just as I have wondered why the possibility of living through a moment in history when there is a global pandemic had never crossed my mind until it happened, I have been ruminating about why I have assumed that extensive global travel and affairs is the natural order of human societies.  Even a few snapshots from places I have lived show otherwise.

Japan. I lived for one year in a rather rural area of Western Honshu in a town called Toyama, where I taught English. In this region at the time, I was one of a handful of people of European descent: one was a doctoral student studying Japanese linguistics, the others were missionaries. From the little Japanese history I had studied prior to my arrival, I had learned that Japan had been literally closed to the outside world for several centuries and had only opened up in 1853 when Commodore Perry steamed into Tokyo harbor.  I lived in Japan a bit more than a hundred years after that opening, and aspects of Japanese society still seemed to me quite insular. This was not necessarily negative. In fact, there was a real sense of communal understanding and reciprocal support among Japanese I have never experienced before or since.

Chile. My first experience in Chile was during the 1980s when a dictatorship was in place as well as a serious economic crisis. The economy was in shambles, some people had to buy one tea bag at a time at the stores for lack of money, and a nighttime curfew the norm of the land. Except for the political exiles who had been forced to leave the country, most of the rest of the populace had little funds for travel. Besides, Chile was considered a bit of a pariah state at the time. And yet during that harsh time, there were some real elements of softness and creativity. Life was slower, people less materially focused, and there was a general sense of camaraderie among people that decades later during Chile’s economic boom no longer seemed to exist. It was as if by focusing in upon family and friends at a time of real danger and uncertainty, a special ethos and bond existed that was later disrupted by the hustle and bustle of modern-day capitalism.

Spain. I studied abroad in Madrid Spain as a university student right when the country was emerging from decades of authoritarian rule under Franco. When Franco was in power, most folks had little opportunity to leave Spain, and in some cases even their home villages or towns. And while it might not have been apparent at the time, what percolated all those decades below the surface later gave rise to what became known as the “destape” – when everything, including social mores, expanded extravagantly when the country opened to the world. And yet there is a local man who is Spanish who has told me of his fond memories of the village he grew up in in the region of Galicia during Franco’s time. “It was really simple our life in the village,” he told me, “but it was a great life in its own way. We grew all the food we needed, we knew all the neighbors and we helped each other out. That way of life is no longer.”

These various vignettes are just a few examples of the way nations and global structures seem to oscillate between times of growth and expansion, and periods of inward contraction. At a global level, there are times of empire, such as the Roman empire that extended throughout much of Western Europe and even into Northern Africa. And these are always followed by periods when local groups and peoples then take the helm. Even though we have tended to view these latter times as somehow ‘not as advanced or positive’ as the times of empire, is that really the case? The Romans themselves could be quite barbaric in many ways.

And so we find ourselves right now at a tipping point, in which the global expansion that has been going on in most places around the world has been forced to slow down significantly due to the impact of a tiny virus. While part of me regrets the scheduled trips I could not take this Spring (3 of them), another part is philosophically reflecting upon the possibility that we are now moving into a period of contraction and inward-looking as a society, and around the world. And just like I can’t stop my lungs in their process of expansion and contraction, perhaps there is not much any of us can do to stop the process we are now living through collectively. Except, maybe, just accept it for what it is and find inspiration and solace in what these new times may be offering.  

Published July 2020 in Monadnock Shopper.

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