Can we just stop complaining now? Even more important, perhaps: How ‘bout we cut out the fear, the foreboding, the heavy mantle of doom?
Hear me, folks: Never, ever, in the entire history of humankind, have so many had it so good. And whatever the ebbs and flows of your temporary situation or mine, or the tremendous individual suffering that undeniably continues around the world as I type these words, things on a global scale are getting better all the time—as they have been for the last 50,000 years, give or take.
“CONFUSED, CONFLICTED, TIRED NATION” read the recent newspaper headline. O.K, so those ISIS fanatics are awful, pure evil, subhuman in their explicit cruelty.
Ebola will get worse before it gets better (and it will get better; we can be quite confident we’ll die from something else).
And the economy isn’t exactly humming along (only a 4% growth rate!) and the Repubs and Demos are at each other’s throats per usual and we’re worried about our failing schools and deteriorating infrastructure and about things in general just seeming to be going to hell.
And I am here to say: Get a grip.
Sure, suffering still abounds, millions go to bed hungry if they have a bed to sleep in at all, babies still die, loved ones are taken by illness and accident, the old grow decrepit and infirm. We are sentient beings, to whom bad stuff will always happen.
Polio, plague, smallpox, one-third child mortality before age 5, a whopping 94 percent human mortality before age 45—all gone.
But there is less of that bad stuff today than ever before, in every way, by any measure we want to examine. And if we’ve struggled our way up to, oh, the lower middle class in a developed nation, we are living, dear people, better lives, with more abundant choices and mobility and options for pleasure and enlightenment, than any king’s family a century ago.
If you’re a data hound ala Doubting Thomas and won’t believe anything unless you can see the wounds in Jesus’s palms, wait, no, I mean charts and graphs that demonstrate conclusively how every measure of human life shows things getting steadily better since people began noticing things and recording what they saw, then I refer you to this extraordinary website, a data-lover’s delight: http://www.ourworldindata.org/.
Meanwhile, consider just a few basics:
Polio, plague, smallpox, one-third child mortality before age 5, a whopping 94 percent human mortality before age 45—all gone.
Clean water systems and soap and roads and stores and pleasant welcoming people eager for your patronage and social interchange in virtually every nook and cranny of the developed world.
More food choices and variety at every neighborhood farmer’s market or grocery store than have ever existed anywhere, no matter how wealthy the past locales have been.
Nearly the entirety of the world’s knowledge accrued over thousands of years available on a device you carry in your pocket (not to mention the ability to use that device to chat up or write a quick note to reach people all over the world in real time—right now).
I know we have problems, problems galore. The world is a dangerous place.
I’m just trying to think back to some golden time when we had no problems and the world was tidy and serene.
Can some enterprising reader find me one of those times, please?
I’m pretty certain it wasn’t in one of the cities being overrun by Genghis Khan in the 13th century, all its inhabitants given the choice of capitulating and becoming slaves or else being slashed to death, with the city laid to waste. A 2011 research project at the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology suggested the death toll at his hands was some 40 million people, with enough of their farmland reclaimed by forest to have caused the earth to cool. “The most unsung Environmentalist ever,” one sardonic commenter observed.
I’m pretty certain the golden time wasn’t in Europe during the Middle Ages, when according to a book excerpt on the subject by UC Berkeley Press:
“The typical medieval urban environment was a toxic mix of filth, noise, rats, flies, and terrible stench emanating from streets filled with raw sewage and garbage…As those who have studied urban life during the Middle Ages are fond of pointing out, the only real sanitation laws involved ordinances requiring homeowners to shout ‘Look out below!’ three times before emptying chamber pots out of their window and onto the streets.”
And you won’t find much sunshine here, I guarantee you: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_genocides_by_death_toll.
Perhaps the real Eden was out in the fair fields of country living, you say? Would that be when “homes,” if one could call them that, were “unventilated, unsanitary, cold, and damp?” When a family’s scrawny animals were brought indoors in order to survive long winters, there to relieve their bladders and bowels on loosely strewn straw a short distance away from the open hearth where family members huddled to survive the cold, whacking the rats who regularly raided their poor quality grain supply?
Under these conditions, “Bathing and laundering…were virtually impossible, and the typical winter diet—salted meat and fish, bread made from poor quality grains, and watery ale—virtually guaranteed illnesses caused by dietary deficiencies, infectious agents, and indigestible or toxic foods.”
I’m also pretty certain the Golden Era wasn’t during the London Blitz of May, 1941, when German warplanes laid siege to the city for 57 straight nights, setting a good part of it afire and then returning regularly through the following September. More than 1 million London homes were destroyed and some 40,00 of its citizens perished. (The British returned the favor in July, 1943, laying waste to nearly the entire city of Hamburg in a massive firebombing that killed 42,600 civilians and wounded another 37,000 in a concentrated eight-day assault.)
For the life of me, I can’t remember enduring anything similar to that here in Santa Rosa.
If we’ll commit to a few hundreds of thousands of additional history pages, we could no doubt get an even more fulsome picture of wars, famines, pestilences, genocides, natural disasters and economic calamities around the world, variously affecting every nation in every era. For most of them, being a “CONFUSED, CONFLICTED, TIRED NATION” would have been an astounding improvement in their fortunes. But let us spare ourselves, for now, the gruesome details, which continue today, yes, but on a far reduced scale compared to the past.
Humans have always lurched from crisis to crisis, hard times and material want being such a given and regular state of affairs that it has actually been the norm, the basic state of things, “Nothing to see here, move it along now…”
As in most other things, we’re just not all that special in the challenges we face, however foreboding they may seem. I suspect at some point, somewhere, there will be another terrorist atrocity affecting our nation, covered breathlessly by the media and memorialized regularly thereafter. And it will be a supreme tragedy indeed, unbearable, for those directly affected. But life will go on, people will continue to live and die and barter and laugh and grow food and have sex and make babies, and the world will continue to turn on its supremely calibrated ellipse.
Late in my mother’s life, I was sitting in her room asking about our arrival on these shores from Germany. My parents had bounced around there as displaced persons after World War II when the Soviets occupied their native Hungary and there was no going back. My father and mother were 34 and 27, respectively, when they packed up their suitcases and three children for the ocean voyage to New York Harbor in 1952. I was the youngest at 8 months old, my brother and sister were almost 4 and 7.
My parents look rather dashing in their heavy European coats, don’t you think? But the reality was rather different.
My father spoke just a few words of English, my mother just what she had learned in high school. My father had been a track star in Europe and had spent most of his life developing that prowess, rather than many marketable skills aside from his bright and engaging personality. My mother was a housewife.
The local newspaper in Woodbridge, New Jersey, where we landed to occupy the living room of a distant cousin who had reluctantly agreed to “sponsor” us as a condition of our immigration, ran the photo above because of my father’s athletic notoriety.
Sitting with my mom, I asked about particulars of the overseas voyage, and the conversation went more or less like this:
“Did you have three meals a day in a cafeteria?
“Yes. There were meals at regular hours.”
“What about in between meals? Was there a cafe or snack bar where you could buy something if you got hungry?”
“No, but it wouldn’t have made any difference anyway, because we didn’t have any money.”
“Well, how much money did you actually have?”
“We didn’t have any money.”
As in ‘zero’ money, not a penny?”
“Zero, not a penny.”
So, the summary line on that particular career move: Emigration to a new country where they stayed on a highly temporary basis with a distant, put-upon cousin they had never met, with three kids, minimal language, no skills, and not one penny in their pockets. At 34 and 27 years old.
And I’m worried about whether my retirement portfolio will hold up if I make 90?
“Some people see the glass half full. Others see it half empty. I see a glass that’s twice as big as it needs to be,” joked the comic George Carlin.
So let us acknowledge our abundance and sheer, dumb good fortune to be avoiding the privations of hunter-gatherer life, the slings and arrows of Genghis Khan’s Mongol hordes, the genocides of Stalin and Pol Pot, and even the upturned chamber pots of European cities whose romantic cosmopolitan delights we are delighted to take in today.
The truth is we’ve never had it so good, and with all due apologies to Charles Dickens: These are the best of times, and the best of times.
I believe humanity will prevail, as we always have, because we can do and feel into things like this, with an unquenchable desire for more, more, more:
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Deep appreciation to the photographers:
Rotating banner photos top of page courtesy of Elizabeth Haslam, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
Eiffel Tower photo top of page by Christian R. Hamacher, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/people/christian-hamacher/
Paris fireworks photo by Yann Caradec, Paris, France, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/la_bretagne_a_paris/
“Tulip Stair” photo at the Queen’s House in Greenwich, England by Russ Mcginnly, U.K., some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mcginnly/
The bullet in JFK ended the good times. After that, Johnson (Vietnam), then Nixon (Watergate), then Reagan, an affable loser, then…..
Well, the income disparity nowadays didn’t come from nowhere…
Waldo de Baldo
You touched on it, but these times appear so dire in part because we simply know what is going on. 150 years ago it took many weeks for news to reach from east to west coast. Now any and all information is instantaneously at our fingertips. This avalanche of available information is at once stunning, supremely futile, and utterly paralyzing. This is of course another blog post (maybe you have covered it). I noted this phenomenon most acutely during the recent financial crisis. The constant doom and gloom of a world economy circling to the bowl had me in a daily funk. What to do?! I just turned it off. I buried my head in the sand and ignored it. What could I do anyway? My SEP retirement statement would come in the mail and I knew it was getting hammered, but I simply tore it up and stuck it in the recycle bin without looking at it.
And things got better. Mankind is nothing if not stoic. Sometimes the best thing to do is to take care of the simple things we can do within our reach, which allows us to take back some sense of control. We can extoll our children to “Be good human beings”, which I did almost every day when I used to walk them to school and leave them at the corner to face their day. We can do good work. We can endure when tough times inevitably come. And when the Good Times return, we might remember to not cling to them. “So we beat on, boats against the current…….”
The photo is sublime. Do I apprehend correctly you are the babe in arms? You look much like your father. A more hopeful picture could not be imagined. And gives foundation to the very words you wrote here.
Considering how many unhappy and/or drug-addicted people there seem to be in our society we might question whether we can really judge “best” in terms of financial well-being. Apparently the road to happiness involves more than just accumulating things, which Americans do seem to do better than anyone in history.
I’ve long felt that it would be hard for my own personal life to be much better, but that doesn’t stop me from worrying about my grandkids’ and their kids’ future.
Walt, I snagged a portion of an NPR interview earlier in the week with the ourworldindata author Max Roser, who carefully elaborated his approach of “zooming out” for bigger picture long-term historical trends rather than short-term blips, dips, and sideways meanderings. And even on income equality, as you’ll see in a key graph on his personal site at maxroser.com, the long-term trend in every country from 1906 to now shows dramatic gains in income equality, not regression. Despite the current growing income disparity in this country that has been well-documented and requires our attention, it joins virtually every other measure of human well-being that has seen relentless, steady gain over the centuries. Could something like global warming reverse that trend? Possible, but its ramifications remain to play out, as do the possibilities of a large-scale nuclear confrontation. We shall see what we shall see, but meanwhile, here we are, and I find it more useful to live in hope. Roser’s data helps me in that.
Dennis, yes, I probably way under-emphasized the media’s role in fanning fear. I feel like throwing things every time the evening news trots out the crisis du jour with a narrative and tonal frame that signals the end of the world, when actually, the story involves a murder hundreds of miles from everywhere. But we’d better run to lock our doors, because the killer is still on the loose! And don’t go anywhere near Dallas either—everyone’s been infected with Ebola there!!!
It must be obvious, when taking the long view, that people in our socioeconomic bracket, coupled with the decades in which we were growing up (aka baby boomers), made our frame of reference for that which constitutes ” the best of times” a pretty high bar. We had little to fear (with the exception of an amorphous cloud around THE BOMB), good food, good shelter, good education. So, when thinking about the future, our expectations would naturally be closing in on the nirvana. When the future proceeds to loaf towards mediocrity, it is natural to conclude that “things are going to hell”. My Dad was a classic Depression child, having to deliver papers, eat bean sandwiches, and take all spare change to a jar in the kitchen to share with the rest of the family. My Mom was raised in a coal camp in Eastern Kentucky, no running water, picking berries from wild bushes, and eating chicken once a week. So, I think you’re right, in a life-security sense, we are sooooo much better now than 75 years ago. And, your parents saga is quite moving. Count your blessings, and hope for resolution of the small items which seem to irritate the dudes on the 24 hour news cycle.
I am intrigued by this post. I think it’s worth exploring WHY everyone feels so oppressed, worried, scared. Why is that the dominant mood and reaction? Where is the recognition of good fortune and circumstance, where is the hope, appreciation, resiliency and perseverance? Where is the joy?
Dennis, It’s so interesting to me that you saw such hope in the family pic, as obvious as it is. I’d focused more on the disparity between how my folks appeared and their underlying situation, but if their gesture wasn’t about hope & faith & just chugging on in the face of great adversity, it wasn’t about anything, so thanks for helping me see that afresh.
Loren, absolutely true, money & material well-being is no be-all/end-all—we still have to work out our salvation and make our meaning—but grinding poverty and chronic exposure to crime, illness and other dangers makes the achievement of happiness and emotional prosperity a far more formidable task, I think.
Moon, the story of your own parents brings home in sharp relief how close we still are, chronologically, to what seems almost like a completely different world and eon. Remarkable stuff; thanks for sharing that.
Angela, the older I get the more I’m seeing hope and joy as a matter of intention—especially once baseline material needs are met. (Loren, this somewhat loops back to your comment, I think.) But there’s a complication to that view, too, in the matter of basic, genetically endowed disposition, it seems. People do seem to be born under slightly different clouds & orientations, and then the environment weighs in to perhaps enhance or perhaps chip away at that disposition. In either case, “choosing” to be happy and see the cup as half-full may be as much influenced by orientation as anything else. This is where tools like the Myers-Briggs and Enneagram can be helpful, I suspect. I may ask someone with background in that domain to weigh in here!
Wonderful post – equally wonderful comments and reflections – reminds me of how I had to reframe my assumptions after hearing Steven Pinker describe the “Surprising decline in violence” http://www.ted.com/talks/steven_pinker_on_the_myth_of_violence?language=en Love the data website link Andrew – reflecting on how we as individuals, even though in Maslow sense (hierarchy of needs idea) we are better off than ever, as you so clearly elucidate – some pretty clear evidence suggests more of our population is on various anti-depressants etc – is it because “I like myself better on Prozac” as one psychiatrist noted from a patient not wanting to stop taking them, even though the presenting symptoms were no longer present…?
At some level the notion of “choosing” or self talk, is most interesting – in psychology (hey, I have a “B.S.” so I get to BS!) the school of Cognitive Behavior Therapy is one of the view approaches to mental health that actually has data indicating it works…and at its heart is the idea explicitly teaching people how to “choose” what to think/focus upon/managing the self talk and/or media input like Dennis noted… I am not at all sure how valid the various typologies are in terms of truly helping people be happier, communicate more effectively, etc. (MB or Enneagram) – again, my data is years old but these various models of putting folks in groups to better understand themselves and ourselves often wind up creating new unintended “chains” or perceptual filters that can limit perception/relationships etc…I suspect spending the time meditating or hiking in the woods would do as much or more good… Thanks for stirring it up once again!!
Kevin, you’ll never catch me arguing against the life & mental health-enhancing benefits of hiking, meditating etc, that be sure! I’m also much more disposed toward the kind of cognitive behavioral therapies you mention than I used to be, given how valuable I find the role of intention and existential choice. That said, it becomes very interesting to pit intention against the powerful forces of our unconscious and the fact of just how EEEEEE-rational humans can be, especially when facing crisis and a fear situation.
And dang if I don’t find Jung having a lot to say when I awaken from a monumental dream of being literally on top of the world one moment, viewing its vast expanse from a huge rock outcropping, then finding myself suddenly riding some kind of vehicle and cascading at crazy speed down down down, dipping under the earth’s crust and heading deep, deep underwater. I think a rational behavioral rubric will serve me only so much in getting ahold of that recent dream!
Great conversation ladies and gents…and magnificent family picture Andrew. One way to deal with all the media fear mongering is to turn it off, put a leash on your dog and on your walk say something kind to every person (esp. the elderly) that you run across.
That would definitely fall into the category of “intentionality,” Joan, a “DO something, don’t just stand there and kvetch” kind of approach. So much gets down to where we want to place our attention—or where we allow it to be snagged & lured. And deciding that it’s finally time, like someone who pushes themselves away from the table or bottle or crack pipe, to ignore media hysterics and that pinging in-box and get on with living an actual life.