Going to Hope in a Handbasket


“Not only is another world possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”             Arundhati Roy

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Fear sells. Blood and guts sell even better. What really grabs our attention? Out and out panic. That largely explains today’s so-called news channels, talk radio, actually much of commercial media. The worse it sounds, the greater audience share they grab and the more money they make. Trouble is, they also make up minds and harden hearts and plant misery where optimism could so easily flourish.

But they’re wrong.

Sure, it seems we’re in big trouble. Structures we count on to be stable are crumbling—finance, health care, education, consumption driven economies, us versus them mentalities, you name it.

Remember the parable of the mighty oak and thin reeds? The oak boasted of his immense girth and height, mocking the reeds all around him for their weaknesses. But the reeds could withstand wind, lightening and the weight of snow. The oak succumbed while the reeds survived, stronger than the oak in their ability to bend and stand again. Big institutions are fighting transparency, reform or annihilation with everything they’ve got, believing that strength means rigidity. Meanwhile a shift is happening on the grassroots level, as flexible and self-correcting as reeds in the wind.

Times of change are destabilizing and difficult, but ultimately valuable. After all, what’s broken, corrupt or simply no longer workable must be fully revealed before it’s healed or transformed into something much better.

Look more closely. Things are getting better all the time. In fact amazing evidence shows that we’ve long been on the path to health and harmony. Here are a few examples.

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We’re Smarter.

Intelligence continues to increase from generation to generation. In fact, to accommodate continuously increasing intelligence the IQ test must be renormalized (standardized to keep the average test results at the 100). This is called the Flynn Effect.

Between 1932 and 1978, mean IQ scores in the U.S. rose 13.8 points. If your grandparent received IQ score results of 98 back in 1932 they’d have been deemed of average intelligence. That same grandparent, if administered today’s tests, would be considered to have a borderline mental disability by current scoring standards. IQ scores have risen even higher in some other countries: 27 points in the UK between 1942 to 1992. Of late, developing countries seem to be experiencing the biggest surge.

Many explanations have been proposed, but the increase can’t be definitively pinned on genetic improvements, improved nutrition, greater familiarity with testing or better schooling.

According to Cornell professor Stephen J. Ceci, the most direct gains are not in subjects that are taught (math, vocabulary) but are shown in parts of the test that seem unrelated to schooling (matrices, detecting similarities). In fact, test gains have been enormous in areas requiring the child to apply his or her own reasoning, such as arranging pictures to tell a story or putting shapes in a series. Although teaching children does return positive results, what a child learns through the natural stimulation of everyday life has a more profound effect. For example, a study to determine the effect of schooling on rural children in India found that the increase in overall intelligence from a year of age is twice the increase from that of attending a year of school.

IQ test scores don’t relate to what truly provides satisfaction in life. But the Flynn Effect is intriguing. Factors we can’t completely explain are giving us the intellectual capacities to deal with a ever more challenging world.

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We’re Healthier.

Studies conducted by Robert W. Fogel, a Nobel laureate and economic historian at the University of Chicago, show that in a few hundred years human biology has changed in startling ways. We are more resistant to ill health, more likely to recover when faced with disease and less likely to live with chronic disability. We are also smarter and live longer. Fogel calls this radical improvement “technophysio evolution.”

An interview in the University of Chicago Magazine quotes Fogel as saying, “The phenomenon is not only unique to humankind, but unique among the 7,000 or so generations of human beings who have inhabited the earth.”

Fogel doesn’t necessary attribute the changes to genetic shifts.  Improvements in medical care, nutrition, sanitation and working conditions may cause epigenetic changes.  These are shifts in gene expression that can last through many generations without altering underlying DNA.

Information amassed by Fogel indicates that chronic diseases such as arthritis, heart disease and lung ailments are occurring 10 to 25 years later in life than they did 100 or 200 years ago. Interestingly, well-being may be more strongly affected by conditions each individual faces in utero and during the first few years of life than previously suspected.

Fogel’s most dramatic proof of technophysio evolution was found by comparing Civil War veterans to subsequent generations. Researchers examined health and longevity data of 45,000 Union Army veterans, including over 6,000 black soldiers. Military records revealed that young American men of that era commonly suffered debilitating health conditions. Approximately 65 percent of men from 18 to 25 years of age volunteered for the Union Army. But arthritis, tuberculosis, cardiovascular disease and blindness disqualified a quarter of them. And the military of that era wasn’t choosy. Incontinence and blindness in one eye didn’t disqualify a recruit. Even the youngest men lived with chronic disabilities. Fully one-sixth of volunteers between 16 to 19 years of age were rejected for serious health conditions.

By the time Civil War vets passed the age of 65, 68 percent of them suffered from arthritis, 76 percent from heart disease and over 50 percent from back problems. World War II veterans at the same age, in contrast, counted among their ranks 48 percent as arthritis sufferers, 39 percent with heart disease and 30 percent with back problems.

These remarkable health gains don’t diminish our current struggles with cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, autism and other serious health conditions on the increase. Despite the blessing of bodies more resilient and healthy than those of our ancestors of just 150 years ago we suffer the effects of environmental toxins and nutritionally squalid diets. To fully accept the gift of health and energy from our ancestors, it seems we must expand our awareness to make positive changes here and now. That way our choices continue to benefit our descendants.

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We’re More Peaceful.

We function best through cooperation and harmony. Even our body systems are in greatest sync when we are peaceful, according to studies at the Heart Math Institute. It may be taking us quite a while, as a species, to get accustomed to living in larger settled groups but it seems we’ve come a long way in the last few centuries.

And peace is how our species has come this far, despite what history tells us. According to anthropologist Douglas Fry, evidence shows that for 98 percent of human existence on earth we lived in small nomadic bands that thrived precisely because warfare was avoided. He presents compelling proof in his book, Beyond War: The Human Potential for Peace
along with the message that human beings have highly developed capacities to seek and maintain peace.

Psychologist Steven Pinker points out in an essay titled “A History of Violence” that public cat burnings were a popular form of entertainment in the sixteenth century.  Although we pay more attention to atrocities now than ever before, the horrors of slavery, genocide, barbaric punishment and vigilante justice were accepted as commonplace a little more than a century ago.

Empathy for people of another race or class? Not a typical attribute even a few generations ago. Pinker notes, “Conventional history has long shown that, in many ways, we have been getting kinder and gentler.”

As Pinker cites specific data, the good news gets better. For example, the homicide rate has declined from a rampant 24 murders per 100,000 Englishmen in the 14th century to 0.6 per 100,000 in the 1960’s (5.4 per 100,000 in the U.S. in 2008).

No matter what the angle, the view is good when we look at more recent U.S. history through this lens as well. Despite what ranting pundits and blaring news promos may indicate, crime rates have been steadily dropping per capita since the 1970’s.  Some analysts say by as much as 50 percent in 15 years.  Despite staggering economic losses, crime has continued to decline recently.

The ecumenical organization Project Ploughshares reports,  “Peacebuilding efforts do work. Although one conflict is too many for those being killed and wounded, there has been a significant decrease in the number and intensity of armed conflicts over the past 10 years.”

We’ve come a long way without direct efforts to educate each person in the ways of negotiation, mediation, intervention, reconciliation, heck, even listening skills. Imagine turning our attention toward cooperation and mutual respect. Surely acknowledging the human tendency toward peace welcomes greater possibilities for harmony in the years to come.

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We Care.

Never before in history have so many people worked tirelessly and selflessly to benefit others. Paul Hawken writes in Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Social Movement in History Is Restoring Grace, Justice, and Beauty to the World
that the abolitionist movement was the first major movement by human beings to advocate on behalf of others without seeking advantage for themselves or their particular social or political group.  Since that time, such efforts have grown with astonishing vigor.

There are now over a million organizations on the planet working for environmental stewardship, social justice, the preservation of indigenous cultures, and much more.  These groups don’t seek wider acclaim, they seek to make a difference for the greater good.

Artist Chris Jordan has made a mandala of the names of those million-plus organizations.  His work is inspiring—-make sure you look at the images up close as well as the whole picture.

It’s time to turn our attention away from doom-shrieking media. While it’s valuable to be informed, such knowledge is useful only to the extent that it motivates us to turn more consciously in a positive direction.

A heavy heart, or worse, a hardened heart, makes it nearly impossible to raise a child or plant a garden or grow a benevolent future.

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About Laura Grace Weldon

Laura Grace Weldon is a writer and editor, perhaps due to an English professor's scathing denunciation of her writing as "curious verbiage." She's the author of "Free Range Learning," a handbook of natural learning and "Tending," a poetry collection. (lauragraceweldon.com) She's working on her next book, "Subversive Cooking" (subversivecooking.com). She lives on Bit of Earth Farm where she is a barely useful farm wench. Although she has deadlines to meet she often wanders from the computer to preach hope, snort with laughter, cook subversively, talk to chickens and cows, discuss life’s deeper meaning with her surprisingly tolerant offspring, sing to bees, hide in books, walk dogs, concoct tinctures, watch foreign films, and make messy art.
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3 Responses to Going to Hope in a Handbasket

  1. Great point! It seems that people like us who think that the world can be better and change for the better are a minority, and I believe that we are in fact a minority. This earthquake in Haiti is horrible, however, many good things happen each day, but the news media will only let us focus on the number of deaths in the earthquake. If they did instead focus on the positive things in life, I think that the world would become a much better place because people would feel more optimistic and act accordingly. But, at least there are a few of us who know that already…hopefully we can help others to come to the same understanding.

  2. Darcel says:

    When you put it like that, it does seem that things are getting better.

  3. Pingback: To Be, Or To Multitask « Laura Grace Weldon

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