Some Things Never Change
Reconciling technology and deeply held beliefs isn't always easy, suggests a noted educator and international consultant

By Mel Copen

Meteora is one of earth's very special places. Located in Thessaly, in the middle of Greece, nature and man have combined forces to create something unique and wonderful. This article is not about Meteora, per se, but a brief description will make the central theme more meaningful.

It is often more difficult to gain new perspectives when one is at home. Everything is just too familiar, and too many things are accepted or taken for granted. However, visiting an environment that is totally different requires a conscious effort to understand what is going on and stimulates the mind to think and evaluate, often giving new perspectives, even on age-old problems. Meteora is different! And this visit did bring new insights for me.

The landscape of Meteora is spectacular. Hundreds of rock spires rise from the plain, many soaring 1,000 feet. Some stand alone, reaching by themselves into the sky, while others form labyrinths of gray stone towers, many riddled with small caves. In the 10th century, ascetic monks started to settle here and by the 14th century, the first monastery was built. The construction was incredible, with the buildings perched on the tops of these (almost) inaccessible rock towers. Once the rock had been scaled, everything had to be hauled up by rope - construction materials, food and people. Twenty four of these monasteries were constructed, as places of retreat, worship and devotion. The isolation of the location so far from centers of civilization was furthered by the isolation of the individual monasteries as they reached up to the sky.

"When ideological systems conflict, it usually means that people, seeing the world through their own eyes, have concluded that their belief system makes most sense for them. But there has to be a level of tolerance and accommodation that will suit all"

For centuries, the only access was by nets, tied to the end of long ropes, raised or lowered by hand-operated windlasses. Goods and visitors swung wildly as they were raised or lowered, the latter most probably praying that the ropes would hold. These are still in use today, although largely for goods. Centuries later, cables were strung from nearby and more accessible rocks and hills. These are still in use today. We watched in awe as two elderly priests sat, talking, in something that looked like a large wheelbarrow, dignified in their black robes, beards blowing in the wind as the cable transported their swaying cart over an 800 foot chasm.. The only concession to modern times was the fact that the cable motion was motorized, no longer requiring human effort.

Twenty-four monasteries were constructed. Today, many are gone. Others lie in ruin. But 6 are maintained and open to visitors. In recent years, stairs have been cut into the rock faces, some actually tunneling through the rock. Permanent bridges have been constructed, and access is much easier, although in most cases, it is still necessary to climb hundreds of feet to reach the buildings. Only 5 of the 6 are still occupied by their pious dwellers, 3 by monks, and 2 by nuns. In one, the resident population is down to 3 and similarly small numbers are typical of the others. Although in the more accessible monesteries the hoards of tourists that visit (during limited hours) make it difficult to capture the peace and serenity that their original founders created, one can still experience beauty and solitude in those that take more effort to reach. Meteora is truly a place of wonder, contemplation and awe.

But then the discordant shocks!

- The two monks who crossed the abyss, riding the "cable" car from their monastery, immediately went to a building, slid back the doors, hopped into a new Toyota, and drove away into town!

- As we were wandering through one of the more isolated monastaries, completely absorbed with the past, we were brought back to the present by a familiar sound. At the sound of a modern tune, a monk who seemed to be in contemplation, immediately reached into his robes and pulled out a cell phone, leaving the old world, in which we imagined ourselves, to return to today and become engrossed in conversation with someone from elsewhere.

- In the beautiful stone courtyards, tucked into corners, we encountered modern refrigerated water fountains and card phones, presumably to provide for tourist needs.

It was interesting to see the juxtaposition between the old and the new - how easily we adapt to modern day technology in so many areas. In this aspect, wandering around ancient Greece is no different than wandering around Cambodia, or India or Atlanta - everyone carries the world in his or her pocket via cell phone, and where that is insufficient, ubiquitous internet cafes exist to close the gap. The geographic isolation of the past no longer exists, at least when it comes to communications technology.

But the point that really hit me was the differences in how we deal with technology and ideas - how quickly we adopt many forms of technology, and how difficult it is to change thoughts and ideas. While visiting the monastaries I picked up a book that dealt with the concept of Orthodoxy, and the split between the Eastern and Western churches. The split took place in the 9th century - yet the issues still remain, the positions have hardly changed, and the divides seem as wide as ever. I was not concerned about who was right and who was wrong (if that is even a meaningful question), but the fact that groups of thoughtful people can steadfastly cling to concepts for centuries without adaptation. This point was accentuated by one of the main topics of conversation as we traveled through the country - the Middle East (and particularly, the US position). Here again we have issues that go back millennia - where there has been very little adaptation on the part of the many parties who are involved.

The human mind is fascinating. It can be very rational and pragmatic - as illustrated, for example, by the creation, adaptation and spread of new technology. But it can be totally intransigent on matters of faith and emotion. Even sports can generate emotional attachments that transcend rationality. During our visit there was much excitement over a soccer (football, here) match between Spain and Germany, and despite the fact that this is Greece, everyone had an ardent favorite, largely (in the case of people with whom we talked) based upon historical relationships. The emotions seem to transcend logic - and the recent past has shown how irrational behavior can become as people express their support for their soccer teams.

As a youngster, I had often thought that advances in technology would solve most of mankind's problems. Sadly, I have learned that this is not only inaccurate, but some of the "advances" have actually made things worse. We have not always learned to use technology wisely. However, there may still be a lesson to learn here. If we can learn more about how and why we adapt to technology, perhaps we can also apply the same process to ideas. When a new technology challenges an old way of doing things, the ideological sometimes inhibits its adaptation, but sooner or later the value of the technology (usually in terms of what it will allow us to do) will prevail and acceptance will follow. In the case of cell phones and the Internet, the pace has been phenomenal. Surely we should be able to extract something from this process and apply it to ideas and beliefs! When ideological systems conflict, it usually means that people, seeing the world through their own eyes, have conclude that their belief system makes most sense for them. But there has to be a level of tolerance and accommodation that will suit all. This is not to argue for homogenization, but for ways to find a happy medium and allow everyone to live in peace. The challenge is how to take the process of technological adaptation and apply it to thoughts. We must find ways to allow ideas and ideals to change in a manner consistent with the changes taking place in the world - a way that accepts the world as it really is rather than as we might like it to be.

Dr. Melvyn Copen is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in dozens of foreign countries and provides consulting services for businesses and organizations throughout the world. Please share your comments with him via email at

© Mel Copen, May, 2002