We hear about wars, violence, poverty and other ills almost instantly these days. The problems that people face with health and relationships are openly discussed. We debate how to deal with them while also feeling a sense of satisfaction that we are becoming a more “woke” society even as some cling anxiously to old ways of thinking and doing things. We are so anxious that we consume medications, alcohol and even illegal drugs to still our pain. We begin to wonder if we are somehow mucking up our own existences and those of our children. We believe that surely we are capable of doing far better in our efforts to make the world safer, kinder, more peaceful. We believe that we have the tools but somehow fall short. We hear lectures about our imperfections and feel guilt. At least we are led to believe that we have somehow been complicit in the demise of all that is good.
Now that I am retired I have time to indulge in classes in history, travel to places whose evolution of thought shaped the world in which we live today. I have learned that if there are any strict conclusions to be drawn about the state of the society in which we now exist it is that we have come a very long way from the darkness that once ruled. In centuries of old not even kings and queens were immune from travails that were devastating and deathly while the common folk were at the mercy of the whims of a ruling class into which they had little hope of gaining admittance. Slowly but surely the marvelous imagination of humankind has changed all of that.
Queen Anne, of the Stuart line in English royalty, endured seventeen pregnancies only one of which resulted in the successful birth of a child. That son died at the age of eleven. At the close of the seventeenth century life was often brutal even for the wealthiest. Families toiled with little hope of reprieve from their labors. It was not uncommon for a worker to earn less than twenty pounds in a year. The idea of freedoms was only beginning to take hold and would burst forth in the next century in an imperfect but revolutionary form that would slowly but surely change the trajectory of potential for all people.
I think that we all too often underestimate the miracles that are all around us. While we have yet to achieve human perfection in any of our social constructs we have come farther than even our most courageous and enlightened ancestors dared dream. Women still lose babies but not to the extent of long ago times. When a child is born there is a sense of assurance that he/she will grow into adulthood, a luxury that we take for granted in ways that would astound the parents who came before us. We complain about injustice, just as we should, without celebrating enough that we already have so many freedoms that did not exist in the long ago. In other words we may be living in the best of times without even realizing it.
That does not mean that we should be content with the status quo. There is always room for improvement, but our guilty breast beating may be overly dramatic. The truth is that most of the evil and want in the world is an anomaly rather than a way of life. When I drive down a crowded freeway in my city I notice the jerk who weaves in and out of the traffic without regard for safety because he is the exception, not the rule. Millions of people across the globe are living with a sense of decency, thus we take note of those who are cruel and unjust. We see them because they are so unlike what we have come to expect.
I only need sit in the room where I write to witness the ingenuity and glory of humans. I hear music coming from a device that brings the greatest talent of the world into my home. I work by the lights that were unknown for thousands of years. I tap my fingers on the keys of a computer that holds more knowledge than the great library of Alexandria. I am immune from cruel diseases that my grandfather saw firsthand. I have works of art hanging on my walls that might have once been only the possession of kings. I am warm in the winter and cool in the summer because machines that keep me comfortable whir away. I hear the buses conveying the neighborhood children to schools where they receive educations that were at one time only the purview of the wealthiest. I am free to worship and think as I wish and even to openly tell people my thoughts without fear of being imprisoned. How can I not be thankful for my many privileges when I think of how wonderful life has become for an ordinary soul like me?
No, we are not yet perfect, but we are far from being deplorable. We are moving forward continuously and often at a pace more rapid than at any time in history. We will no doubt see many more great wonders that are products of our human capacity to think and invent. There are geniuses and thinkers and visionaries among us who will lead us forward and past the turmoils that threaten our well being. It is our way and I have every confidence that we will persist.