I am officially on holiday. Darlene and I are in Granada seeing what is perhaps one of the two or three top tourist destinations in Europe—The Alhambra. Aside from this site being a unique and spectacular complex of ancient fortifications and Arabic palaces, it also tells the story of how temporal our lives and our civilizations really are. This one had a pretty good run (about 800 years) before it was conquered in 1492, the same year Columbus set foot in the ‘New World’.
Our visit has been ‘dampened’ a bit by a deluge—the hardest downpour in years if our guide is to be believed. There is nothing like seeing a few thousand mostly retired and uncomfortable tourists being herded in the rain by dozens of equally uncomfortable guides waving umbrellas and shouting at the throng. Everyone, including me, was torn between the desire not to miss anything that our ticket allowed and wanting to retreat to the comfort of a cozy bed-and-breakfast.
This experience was a microcosm of life in general, and it gave me a glimpse of what I imagine life after retirement will be. About a third of us, the Stalwarts, were relatively mellow about the whole thing: we kept pretty much to ourselves, talking to each other and maintaining a running commentary about the tour, the confusion and our place in the pack. Another third, the Cry Babies, were being fairly dramatic about the whole thing and complained a lot—as if the rainstorm was dumping on them personally. The last third was a mixture of Saints trying to help everyone and Itinerant Complainers, those more sinister types who feel entitled to refunds and insist on charging through the masses with umbrellas in full bloom without regard for people’s eyes (or anyone other than themselves for that matter).
All in all, it was quite a scene. If there is a lesson in all this it is that at the end of the day we are all just passing through. Whether we are the Sultan and command a palace or a housewife from Cleveland, we’re all part of the same crowd and sooner or later we’ll end up in the same place—regardless of our metaphorical expectations to the contrary.
Spending a little time in this sort of grand historical context allows one to muse about wanting to be the ‘king’ in times past. The job certainly had its perks, as well as plenty of blood and palace intrigue. While walking between stops on the tour, our guide mused at one point that the golden age of this civilization, while grand, self-destructed through decadence and by becoming trapped in what might be described as a kind of closed conversation with itself—a self-referential relationship with its own values and its own points of view. It was a slow process consisting of denial that anything else was going on in the world and a devouring of itself in a kind of self-righteous arrogance.
This wasn’t the first civilization to fall and it won’t be the last. For our own times, we can only hope that some of the lessons here from Jewish, Christian and Muslim history (as well as some of their ancient wisdom) might illuminate our actions today. If so, I expect it will be one of the contributions our generation can make to those who follow us.