When I was in the military, one commander told us that “comparison is a childish behaviour”. I never understood why. In contrast, the more I thought about it, the more I realize that comparison is inevitable.
To compare, we have to define the subject and an attribute of that subject we can use for comparison. As a collective, we have come up with all sorts of categories in an attempt to separate one thing from the other.
The benefit is obvious – We can investigate the cause and effect between different things better. However, this clarity of thought comes at a cost. Ill-directed categorization has created unnecessary problems like racism and gender inequality.
What is interesting is that no matter how hard we define the boundaries of a category, there is no guarantee that one attribute can/cannot affect the other.
When we compare a nation, we can say one country is wealthier than the other. However, that does not necessarily mean the wealthier country has better social cohesion. What’s beyond our understanding is how will social cohesion affect a country’s wealth. This is not intuitive to us.
I found this amusing because we very often are interested in a collection of traits rather than a singled-out characteristic. For example, we are not so interested in how much money a country makes but rather, as an individual, I want to know if I should migrate there. Even wanting to find out ‘how investable’ a nation is depends on a basket of attributes.
When we try to find a practical answer to a realistic question, we find ourselves asking about the relationship between different attributes instead. Instead of how swollen the reserve of the country is, I want to find out how it affects the economy, how stable it is, and will the social fabric weaken as recession hits. These are things I want to consider when deciding for a migration.
If we apply this thought to the study of history, instead, we find ourselves asking a different question. Mastery of history suddenly is not about how well you can memorize the facts and its consequences after a significant event. Because, first of all, how will we learn from our mistakes when we only know it happened but we do not know why it happened?
History will repeat itself if we do not change the cause – A three-year-old can tell you that.
Of course, not everything has to be deducted bottom-up. With a lack of understanding for foundational concepts, we can try to guess what could be the antecedent cause based on the outcome by studying the likely influencing attribute. I think that is what studying history is for.
Instead of being overwhelmed with the mystery of the universe, we can enjoy the good news this realization brings. If everything is deeply interlinked, beyond what we can intuitively perceive, then perhaps a ‘tragedy’ might not be as bad as it sounds. In contrast, we will learn to stay on guard after a celebration.
The next time when a ‘tragedy’ happens to you, remember, do not underestimate how things may unfold beyond our immediate comprehension. Always seek out the possible path that leads us to break down and rebuilt into someone tougher. And when you need a boost, seek out the connection between different fields because that is where the gold mine is.