“We become what we think about all day long.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Long before I became an adult I launched a quest. This was inspired by a something that weighed on my childish mind, an urgent calling to alleviate the suffering of others. Even when I was a misbehaving little girl who ignored her chores and fought with her sister (often), I still felt the weight of this obligation. My parents cancelled their subscriptions to news magazines to avoid my questions as well as my despair over every sorrowful photograph. And my entire family dreaded driving past a chained puppy or crying baby, knowing that I would agonize the rest of the day over this momentary glimpse out the car window.
For some reason my quest took the form of trying to understand why people acted cruelly. So in my spare time I read everything I could find on the history of suffering, evil, and misery. I learned about the Inquisition, U.S.betrayals of Native Americans, the Holocaust, the genocide ordered by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia—if it was awful I studied it. I worked my way through every book and resource possible.
This project of mine stretched well into my teen and early adult years. It was grim. It haunted my dreams and colored what should have been youthful optimism. I began to realize that every single human has the capacity for cruelty. We just pretend we don’t. A bad mood may be contagious but the shadow we hide can wreak havoc on a personal and even a global level.
One day as I sat in the sunshine while my firstborn played nearby in the grass, my dear friend Leslie came over for a visit. She found me reading yet another horrific book, a stack of similarly dire non-fiction at my side. And she’d had it. She told me I was ignoring the beauty all around me to immerse myself in misery. She told me to look at the light shining on my child’s face, the bright green grass, and all the love in my life.
She was right, of course.
Still I defended my quest. I told her it was an obligation to know what was wrong with the world in order to right it. I waved around books that described the evils of pesticides, the horrors of factory farms, and the title I was currently reading, something about political prisoners.
She disagreed. She said it was time to focus on what was good.
I told her I was I finding good. What I read exposed me to heart-expanding accounts of people who demonstrated the best of humanity no matter their circumstances. Those who were dying of hunger, yet gave their last bit of food to others. Those who had no reason for hope but who kept art and music alive. Those who faced the worst despair, but did not give in to it. The best lesson I learned from years of study? Every single person has a choice, even if it seems there are no choices. That choice is the attitude they take.
It was time to work on my own attitude.
Gradually I stopped trying to understand and fight against all the reasons for suffering. I also became a little less frantic about doing everything possible to counterbalance the wrong I saw everywhere. I noticed that people in activist groups I belonged to faced the world with the same despair I felt, battling evil so fiercely that they had no way to expand on all the good that also flourishes.
So I began volunteering less time to lost causes, marched in fewer protest rallies, and gave up stomping around with petitions. I did more that seemed to boost the positive—gardening, singing to my babies, and guerilla acts of encouragement.
I became certified to teach non-violence workshops which I taught to school systems, incarcerated teens, and senior citizens. As I taught, the lessons sunk in ever more deeply. The long and life-affirming history of non-violence can’t help but heal a heart heavy with the world’s troubles. The process of non-violence—reacting with love rather than hate—is more empowering than any other force we humans have ever used. It transforms greed, intolerance, and cruelty. It’s humanity’s way forward.
Growing more positive, I began to find value in mistakes, doubt, crisis. A lifelong insomniac, I started sleeping a little better. Always one who tried to laugh rather than cry, I found myself laughing more— about falling down, awkward encounters, and my near constant ability to embarrass myself.
It may seem difficult to sustain a positive outlook these days. My own family has been through grief, injustice, unemployment, and other sorrows. And our world struggles while formerly stable structures crumble. Just look at what’s happening to prescribe-and-placate medical models, inflexible financial institutions, condemning religious frameworks, and rigid corporations. But I believe these current conditions of breakup, economic chaos, and environmental decline are exactly those which are (slowly) leading to beneficial change. Collectively we’re waking up to the weakness of limited thinking and short-term fixes. Hopefully we’re also waking up to the reality that we’re in this together—rich and poor, developed and developing nations, young and old, left and right.
I’ve come to believe a better world is made by building on what works rather than focusing on what’s broken, as long as the truth is told about that brokenness and healing is sought.
And I see SO much good happening, good that’s too often overlooked. Consider:
1. War and global violence continue to decline.
Armed conflicts aren’t going up, they’re going down.
The world has seen a 70 percent decline in the number of high-intensity conflicts since the end of the Cold War era. Genocide is down 80 percent. Weapons sales between countries have diminished by 33 percent and the number of refugees has fallen by 45 percent. Even measuring from as little as 15 years ago, the number of armed conflicts has dropped from 44 to 28.
Why? Project Ploughshares credits peace building efforts.
Chances are, the reasons for peace are complex. Yet a stronger international resolve to focus on peace building and basic human rights is taking place. Imagine the far larger potential for enduring peace if we intentionally educate our children and ourselves in the proven methods of non-violence—-negotiation, mediation, reconciliation, even basic listening skills.
2. Freedom is stretching across the planet.
By evaluating variables including civil liberties, democratic institutions, and independent media it’s possible to assess how free each nation in the world really is. Back in 1973, 29 percent of nations were deemed free, 25 percent partially free, and 46 percent not free.
In a little over 35 years, the number of nations ruled by authoritarian regimes dropped from 90 to 30. Countries around the world considered to be free increased by 50 percent while those not free had dropped by more than half.
3. Longevity is improving yet total population faces a downturn
Fulfilling the cherished hopes of their parents, more children around the world are born healthy. Mortality rates for those under five years of age have fallen by 60 percent since 1960.
Meanwhile, life expectancy has risen 21 years since the mid 1950’s. Try to suppress your optimism while looking at this analysis of longer lived well-being around the world.
This doesn’t mean the planet will be too crowded. Overall population will continue to rise for several more decades but we’re facing a major downturn. Already birth rates are near or below replacement rate in countries all over the world. Increased education and affluence tend to inspire women, no matter what country they live in, to invest their time and resources in fewer children. As Fred Pearce clearly explains in The Coming Population Crash: and Our Planet’s Surprising Future, our little Earth will likely reach a (painful) peak of 8 billion people around the year 2040, then the total number of human will begin to decline so rapidly that nations will struggle to keep their populations levels from slipping too low. They may create perks for becoming parents and incentives to attract immigrants.
4. Literacy rates continue to improve.
Global adult literacy rates have shot up from 56 percent in 1950 to nearly 84 percent today, the highest ever.
Women’s rates haven’t risen as quickly due to inequality and poverty, but in some areas, particularlyEast Asia, 90 percent more girls are able to read than 10 years ago. As female literacy goes up, other overall positive indicators tend to follow including decreased domestic violence, improved public health and greater financial stability.
5. Intelligence is on an upswing.
From generation to generation, we’re getting smarter. 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 theU.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. Of late, developing countries seem to be experiencing the biggest surge.
Plenty of 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 inIndia 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 an ever more challenging world.
6. Compassion is huge.
Never before in history have so many people worked tirelessly and selflessly to benefit others. Paul Hawken writes in Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming 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.
Humanity, which is clever and kind enough to bring about so much improvement, is also awakening to the vital importance of living more sustainably on Earth.
I know we can live more peacefully and wisely.
Thank you Leslie.
“When I despair, I remember that all through history the ways of truth
and love have always won. There have been tyrants, and murderers, and
for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall.
Think of it … always.” Mahatma Gandhi