Anyone fortunate enough to have lived through the entire 20th century might appreciate this photo taken after the United Nations summit last week.
It shows five of the most powerful individuals in the world - the leaders of the Security Council's permanent member countries - in a New York hotel room. They are all smiling at the camera in relaxed fraternity. This was not a council of war nor a peace conference after a war. They had gathered to discuss peacekeeping and a growing disparity between rich and poor.
Such a friendly meeting of world leaders was inconceivable a century ago. Russia was then ruled by an autocracy and, within a few years, a revolution would ignite decades of strife at home and abroad. China was under the spell of an empress and conservatives who opposed modernization. Britain and France were democracies, but Europe was on the verge of both a mechanized arms race and rising tension that would culminate in two world wars.
The United States was the fortunate one, relatively isolated by geography. But it was still part of a world filled with suspicion and aggression in which violence was the presumed solution to international disputes - not negotiations or the rule of law.
To be sure, wars are still conceivable today and nuclear weapons still hang like a Sword of Damocles over the human race. The threats now, however, are more environmental and economic.
Today's headlines can still throw a blanket of despair on humanity. But much of the fear in the world has dissipated as each challenge of the 20th century has been leavened with fresh perspectives and new ideas.
Back to the photo. It's a sign of how expectations now march in lockstep with progress that we treat such a triumphant image as merely prosaic.
Reflected in their smiles is a tacit acknowledgment that the ideals of humanity can be made real.
A century-long backward glance does more than hint at progress. It also points to the inevitability of that progress. And seeing that will help unfold progress much more rapidly - and universally.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society