American Culture

#HopeTuesday: Moving the goalposts faster than the ball – our expectations of humanity’s progress vs reality

We’ve never had it so good. “We,” as in all of humanity, and “good” as in just about every measure of life, liberty and happiness.

by djerrid

Here are a few of the many, many examples. Infant mortality, educational attainment, lifespan, reduction in violence, communication both locally and globally, justice, nutrition, wealth. You name it, we’re better than ever. You are blessed to live in the best time for human beings.

So…why do we feel like the world is falling apart? Why are we so afraid and discontented: with each other, for our future, for our well-being? Of immigrants, of suicide bombers, of the zika virus, of Russia and China flexing their muscles, of the refugee crisis, of the rise of nationalism in Europe and elsewhere, of Trump, Hillary and Congress’s tendency to put party and personal ambition well above the country’s interest, of income and other forms of inequality? You name it, we’re unhappy with it.

So why the disconnect? Why do these concerns overshadow the objective positivity of our current situation?

Simple. We are not improving fast enough to sate our desires for a better world. Our expectations of how things should be are insisting that our current strides in improving our lot are just not good enough.

So, why is that? Well, our eyes have gotten bigger, and so have our hearts.

You no longer read about the news maybe once a day. You now feel the daily/hourly incidents of cruelty and devastation.

Your stomach churns at the horror of the 13 year-old Yemeni girl forced to marry a man twice her age and dying four days later due to suffering “a tear to her genitals and severe bleeding.” It is no consolation that “the proportion of young women who entered into marriage before age 15 declined from 12 per cent to 8 per cent” from 1985 to 2010 across the globe. (That’s tens of millions less girls married over the past few decades.) The young girls in Yemen never had it so good. But that is just in relation to what their forebears had to endure.

So, how can one possibly cheer given the plight of abuse victims around the world, victims like these child brides? We can’t because we now have an emotional connection to someone who is a half a world away, who we knew nothing about before, and whom we will never meet. This “we” is the millions of people who heard or read this story.

This mass media transmission of the world’s horrors drain us. We can’t let it go. We have to contribute in at least the smallest of ways, even if it’s a “like” of the story you read on Facebook (or, now that Facebook has given us a wider range of reactions to choose from, a frown). Our growth in empathy has outpaced our capacity to resolve it. And it is eating us up inside.

This generalized anguish we feel isn’t without benefit, though. Because of the light that has been shone on things like cancer, incarceration conditions, habitat destruction for endangered species, and slave wages for workers, we have been working more aggressively on solving our problems more than we might have otherwise.

But how much of the world’s burdens should we take on? How much should we insist that others do the same? And if we realize the nature of the emotional trap this dynamic represents, how can we balance the need to fix the world with the need to stay sane?

Practice patience. A futile piece of advice if there ever was one. Patience is in short supply when it comes to the welfare of others (and ourselves). How can you relax and be patient when, “for just the price of a cup of coffee a day” you can save an entire family? The suffering of others does not allow for patience. And since we can’t help so many of these people in the slightest, we often grow bitter and disillusioned. We internalize the rage at the injustice and become … discontented.

So, maybe we turn this on its head to ease our tormented souls.

For hundreds of years now, maybe thousands if we account for Plato’s Republic, we have been imagining a perfect society. A heaven on earth. Peace and wellbeing and harmony for all.

Well, I’ve got news for you. This is utopia.

The Declaration of Independence didn’t call for the inherent right of happiness, but the pursuit of happiness. We’ll never get to perfection, and I’m not sure we would want to. Being perfect means that you can only be stagnant and never improve. Utopia, then, isn’t just the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness, but the continual attainment of a greater quality of life, liberty and happiness for all.

Perhaps this is what you can internalize. And ease your mind.


2 replies »

  1. I like your thinking. Best of all possible worlds today, better world tomorrow. In corporate buzzword bingo that’s “continuous improvement.” If a global pandemic doesn’t do us in, or a giant flaming asteroid, I think we’re going to the stars. As human imprinted androids, but we’re going nonetheless.

    Thanks for the thoughts,


    P.S. Dr. Eeyore Wilkins, desert rat, ivory tower bon vivante. This piece was written for YOU 8^)

  2. Thanks, Frank! The best word I’ve found for it is “excelsior”, Latin for “ever upward”. Let’s hope that it is literally as well as metaphorically.