Creating A Better World

“We become what we think about all day long.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

positive thinking, the shift, better world attitude,

Anastasiya Markovich

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.

right thought, optimism changes world, hope,

Fritz Fuhrken

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.

the shift, making the shift, the secret in action, the secret applies to peace,

Fluxx

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.

peace through non-violence, achieving world peace, optimism,

Solveigamundsen

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 downawkward 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.

signs of hope in the world, peace emerging,

Jules Henri Lengrand

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.

I see beings on this planet linked in ways that defy description and see my fellow humans as heroes in the making.

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.

Independence has a long way to go. But positive signs—protests, dissent, political upheaval show us that ordinary people are speaking up for freedom.

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.

global indicators of hope, better world emerging, the shift happening, the secret on a global scale,

Salvatore Di Giovanna

“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

Gentle Nurturance=Gentle World?

why we shouldn't spank

Image courtesy of courtnee.deviantart.com

A little girl about three years old trails behind her mother in the store. She seems tired and distracted, as if it’s difficult for her to keep up. Her mother is busily shopping while pushing a cart with a baby in a carrier at the front, oblivious as her daughter lags farther behind. Every minute or so the girl says, “Mommy,” but her mother doesn’t look back so the girl hurries to catch up. Not long after the mother turns to another aisle the little girl loses sight of her and wails loudly. Her mother, surely distracted and now embarrassed, hustles back to grab the child, shakes her, and through clenched teeth issues a threat. The child cries quietly and resumes following, more closely at first but again lags behind in the crowded store. A few aisles over she loses sight of her mother again. This time the mother picks the child up by the arm to smack her fiercely.

The problem continues to escalate. The entire time this family is in the store the mother repeatedly threatens and hits a child who may be ill, or needing a nap, or simply isn’t able to keep up. No one intervenes. In the checkout line they stand under an overhead TV screen blaring with news. Crime, war, and looting at the scene of a disaster are shown in vivid video clips. The little girl, tears still drying on her face, reaches up to the baby sleeping in the carrier and squeezes his toes until he too is crying.

Many of us probably see such scenes on a regular basis. Those of us who are parents know full well that gently nurturing a child’s growing body and mind isn’t always easy. Sometime days it feels as if good parenting requires sainthood. But gentle nurturance is the way that we adults constantly demonstrate, in hundreds of seemingly insignificant ways, that a child is a person worthy of love and consideration. We wipe a face softly rather than harshly, we take an extra moment to see what a child sees, we find ways to distract a grumpy toddler or a moody teenager, we share real work with our children so they know the satisfaction of a job well done, we turn away from our own amusements to take part in what delights our children, we teach our children to wait their turn, we cuddle and guide and care.

raise children tenderly for a more peaceful world

Image courtesy of faondejade.deviantart.com

This doesn’t mean we empower children to do whatever they want or raise them without limits. It simply means that it’s possible to touch a child with kindness and respect, to consider situations from the child’s point of view, and whenever possible, to listen to what a child has to say.

Gentle nurturance resounds through a child’s entire life, bringing forth a greater potential for happiness and success. Children treated with love and consideration become adults who treat others well too.

no spanking leads to better behavior

Image courtesy of clauclic.deviantart.com/a

There’s plenty of evidence that this is the case. Let’s take one example, that of corporal punishment. Ninety percent of American parents say they have spanked a toddler, 61 percent in the same week they were asked. If it “worked” parents who spank would have more compliant children. But that’s not the case. In fact, children tended to act out again within a few minutes after being spanked or hit by a parent.

Spanking leads to children who are more easily frustrated, have more frequent temper tantrums, demonstrate greater defiance, and who are more likely to physically harm others.

Spanking is also associated with lowered IQ scores. A U.S. study found children who were spanked had lower IQs four years later compared to those who were not spanked. The more frequently the children were spanked, the slower their intellectual development. Researchers speculate one factor may be that regular physical punishment is a chronic stressor for young children.

Negative consequences aren’t limited to childhood. Children who are punished by spanking, slapping, or grabbing even occasionally run a higher risk of growing up to have mental health problems, according to a study of nearly 35,000 people. Those issues include depression, anxiety, and drug or alcohol abuse as well as more complex illnesses such as narcissism and antisocial behavior.  

Even crime is associated with physical punishment. Take time to read this linked article, titled “The Influence of Corporal Punishment on Crime” by Adah Maurer, Ph.D. and James S. Wallerstein (courtesy of The Natural Child Project) which features data including the following chart:

Degree of physical punishment

Never

Rare

Moderate

Severe

Extreme

Violent inmates
at San Quentin

0%

0%

0%

0%

100%

Juvenile
Delinquents

0%

2%

3%

31%

64%

High School
drop-outs

0%

7%

23%

69%

0%

College
freshmen

2%

23%

40%

33%

0%

Professionals

5%

40%

36%

17%

0%

Corporal punishment is just one factor among many. There are plenty of other elements to consider as we raise children to respect themselves and others.

raising children peacefully

Image courtesy of melaniumom.deviantart.com

It has to do with consistent and fair discipline. (See Positive Discipline)

It has to do with understanding a child’s temperament and informed parenting as Kloppenmum so aptly explains.

It has to do with free play  and plenty of time in nature.

It has to do with our expectations and our ability to listen.

It has to do with responsible media exposure.

It has to do with an understanding that we as a species are innately kind and cooperative.

And so much more.

Image courtesy of cellists.deviantart.com

But corporal punishment is the example I’ve used because there are larger cultural factors to consider when force is used on children, whether physical or other forms of coercion. There’s a connection between harsh treatment of children and harsh societies. Researchers Carol and Melvin Ember, in a journal article titled “Explaining Corporal Punishment of Children: A Cross-Cultural Study” conclude that force is commonly used against children in highly stratified societies, societies with low levels of democracy, and those with a propensity toward violence.

And there’s more evidence. James W. Prescott, former administrator at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, analyzed cross cultural data using 20,000 statistically significant correlations from 400 studies. The information included presence of physical punishment, freedom or repression of sexual practices, social status of women, degree of affection toward children. He concluded that societies based on affection were highly unlikely to be violent.

These conclusions are of global significance to you, me, and everyone else in today’s world.

peaceful world starts with parenting

Image courtesy of gel2.deviantart.com

This isn’t easy to see on an individual basis. Plenty of anecdotal accounts contradict these assertions, but individual exceptions don’t prove the point. I was raised by loving parents who, yes, spanked a few times and yes, tended to lose me in stores. I don’t see many after effects . (Well, I detest shopping.) The point remains. A gentler world can emerge from gently raised children.

This starts in our homes, stores, everywhere. I know what it’s like to shop with kids (I have four) so I can understand the time pressure and distraction the mother of that three-year-old girl must have been under. But each moment of parenting provides us with an opportunity to help our kids find positive solutions. This builds inner strength and fosters skills they’ll need to deal with future difficulties. Trouble is, parenting skills take patience, conscious attention, and lots of opportunities to observe other parents we admire. The time required is exactly what’s missing in the lives of busy parents. What are some things that could have helped when the little girl couldn’t keep up with her mother?

Connect. “Mommy needs to see where you are. I miss you when you lag behind.”

Empathize. “Oh Sweetie, you’re having trouble keeping up with Mommy.”

Problem solve. “How can we stay together?”

Engage her help. “Can you help me find the cereal you like? Do you remember if it’s in a yellow package?”

Distract her. “Let’s count all the other _____ in the store today (little girls, women with hats, times the loudspeaker interrupts, etc).”

Celebrate and appreciate. “I’m so glad you’re staying with Mommy and helping me watch the baby. Let’s _____ after we get home.”

And it would have helped if this mother had the resources to avoid taking a child to the store who was tired, or sick, or needing closer attention.

Image courtesy of lilangelsg2.deviantart.com

It’s important to recognize that in our society, parents tend to be isolated. A whole tribe of extended friends and family aren’t there to watch, guide, nurture, and enjoy each other’s children. Cultural forces of work and time pressure and distance divide us. Parenting is too often a solitary venture, performed under the gaze of strangers who judge one’s parenting in every store and sidewalk.

As Urie Bronfenbrenner noted, we need to understand what forces affect family so we can to best enable them  “to perform the magic feat of which they alone are capable: making  and keeping  human beings  human.”

Image courtesy of shikigamis.deviantart.com

Making Heroism Happen

Notice similar statements when people who have committed heroic acts are interviewed? They tend to say, “I wasn’t trying to be a hero, I was just doing what anyone would have done.”  (This from a man who climbed into a burning car to save a woman.)

we can all be heroes

Hero: Wesley Autrey

Or  “I don’t feel like I did something spectacular” (this from a man who leaped in front of an oncoming subway train to pull an unconscious man from the tracks.)

Hero: Jencie Fagan

Or “I think anybody else would have done it.” (This from a teacher who stopped a school shooter by embracing him in a bear hug.)

The same rationale is heard from people who rise to heroic acts despite living with difficult circumstances of their own.

A homeless man who tried to tackle robbers during an attempted hold-up of a Brinks truck and memorized the license plate of their get-away car said, “You just gotta look out for what’s happening with people around you other than yourself.”

A teen with an extensive criminal record stole a bus to drive victims of Hurricane Katrina to safety. He explained, “The police was leaving people behind. I had to pick up people on the bus. The police didn’t want to do nothing. We stepped up and did what we had to  do.”

And a homeless man lost his few possessions after jumping into an icy river to rescue a drowning woman. He said “I just did what needed to be done because someone needed my help.”

what it takes to be a hero

Hero: Adan Abobaker

In their own words heroes continue to tell us that what they have done is not at all extraordinary. If we hold heroes apart from us as superhuman and describe their actions as unfathomably brave, we deny that all of us have the capacity to be heroes if the need arises.

We can develop that capacity. When I lead non-violence workshops we start by working on issues of empathy (identifying with the emotions, ideas, and attitudes of others) as well as empowerment to act on that empathy. Both are necessary to break through what’s been called the “bystander effect.” This was first identified by Ervin Staub, who survived under Nazi rule due to the kindness of others. Dr. Staub explains in  The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence that it takes the willingness of those who are uninvolved (bystanders) to step in, advocating for the victim or victims, in order to halt the escalation of violence and to uphold the common good. Without such bystanders, atrocities such as war and genocide are “permitted” to happen.

The bystander effect is active on a smaller scale as well. Studies show if an emergency unfolds before a group of people they’re less likely to take action, basing their decisions on the behavior of those around them. If that same emergency presents itself in front of one person they are more likely to take action. We’ve all heard of these situations precisely because they’re so heinous.

What’s the difference between those who ignore suffering and those who are moved to alleviate suffering? People who have imperiled their lives for months or years to help others can give us some insight. Svetlana Broz, author of Good People in an Evil Time: Portraits of Complicity and Resistance in the Bosnian War, says it requires at least three attributes.

1. The courage to think for oneself, resisting conformity even at the risk of one’s own safety.

2. A moral core that inspires action.

3. The capacity to empathize with those who are dissimilar.

Hero: Zofia Baniecka, rescued 50 Jews during Holocaust

Eva Fogelman, author of Conscience and Courage: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust, writes that heroic acts tend to come from a deep sense of common humanity. The roots of this behavior may stem from early upbringing. Fogelman notes that many Holocaust rescuers themselves suffered and were sensitized to the suffering of others. They also tended to have been raised in loving families where self-worth was fostered and reason rather than punishment was used as discipline.

Social scientists still know quite a bit more about aberrant behavior than why people choose to do good. That’s changing according to Philip Zimbardo, author of The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil.  Zimbardo conducted the now infamous 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment (check it out on this slide show) which demonstrated that psychologically normal people will instigate and take part in atrocities. Now Zimbardo is devoting himself to bringing forth the brighter side. He’s started an organization called  Heroic Imagination Project which aims to teach the rudiments of heroism.

Currently a pilot project, it consists of four main educational components taught over four weeks.

  1. Students initially learn about us versus them attitudes, unthinking obedience to authority, and other human tendencies which unwittingly allow cruelties to happen.
  2. Next they work on building empathic responses through listening, paying attention, and “walking a mile in the other guy’s shoes.”
  3. Then they study heroic stories, seeking role models and discovering that compassionate action does inspire.
  4. And finally they practice heroic behavior on a daily basis by translating their good intentions into action, no matter how small.

We don’t have to wait for a course. The steps taught by the Heroic Imagination Project are the building blocks of human decency, things we should teach our children every day and should continue to develop in ourselves.

We’re captivated by real heroes in the news and imaginary heroes in the movies because they call out the best in us. Such stories ask us to live up to our values, not only when we’re in extreme situations.

It’s also time to recognize unsung heroes around us everywhere. They don’t get publicity because their deeds don’t seem extraordinary. Unselfish acts performed a million times a minute weave us together as a caring species. We tend to the helpless, comfort the sorrowful, share knowledge, and create happiness. Such kindness is contagious, each act of compassion and cooperation spreading out in enlarging waves of goodwill. Such efforts may seem small, but they are the basis for making heroism happen.

9 Amazing Reasons To Be Optimistic

world betterment, global optimism, oneness, hope, peace, all will be well,

If you could scroll through history searching for an era where you’d like to spend a lifetime, what would attract you?

Probably peace and prosperity. Probably a time when the arts flourish and science is open to new wonders. Probably too, a time period when people behave morally, care for one another, and uphold higher ideals than selfishness.

Does it make a difference to your answer if you don’t get to choose where on Earth you’ll be born?  Into what class, gender, creed, and ability?

You’ll probably want to stay right here, right now.

Our 24 hour media attention on what’s terrifying and what’s superficial steers us away from the big picture.  That picture, looking at the wider view, is actually pretty heartening.

*

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.

Independence has a long way to go. And what we may not recognize as positive signs—protests, dissent, political upheaval—may very well be ordinary people speaking up for freedom.

*

3. Affluence is on the increase.

A shifting focus away from war, conflict, and chaos means that countries are better able to meet the needs of their citizens. Those 151 countries deemed free or partly free account for 95 % of the world’s gross domestic production (GDP).

The number of people living in poverty has dropped by 500 million people, although most of those successes are in a few key countries.  Since 1975 the world’s poor have seen their incomes grow faster than the world’s wealthy, meaning economic equality is increasing.

Of course, we make a mistake when we confuse affluence with well-being. After certain (surprisingly minimal) levels of health and safety are reached, money doesn’t buy happiness.

Current global conditions of institutional breakup, financial chaos, and environmental decline are exactly those which seem to be (slowly) leading to long-term beneficial change. Collectively we’re waking up to the limitations of short-term fixes and relentless economic expansion. 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. We see in our own lives that what’s important can’t be measured by dollars alone. Things like good health, supportive relationships and a vital ecosystem.

There are plenty of other ways to define affluence. A fascinating measure of wealth lies in a quick look at how many hours of labor it once took the average worker to pay for light.  In ancient Babylonia it took over 50 hours to pay for an hour of poor light from a sesame-oil lamp. At the start of the last century, it would have taken the average worker a thousand hours to earn the money to buy candles equaling the light of a single 100 watt bulb. Today’s high efficiency lighting costs us less than a second of work.

*

4. Fewer people are hungry.

Hunger continues to drop although we have a long way to go. It’s staggering to realize that 925 million people are chronically hungry. But according to The Improving State of the World: Why We’re Living Longer, Healthier, More Comfortable Lives on a Cleaner Planet by Indur Goklany, global food supplies increased 24 percent per capita in the last 40 years. In developing countries the food supply increased at an even greater rate, 38 percent more food per person. Since 1950, the real global price of food commodities has declined 75 percent.

No one should go hungry. The future of global food justice relies on efforts to restore and protect biodiversity, stop the spread of genetically modified crops, and assure water rights.

*

5. 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.

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.

*

6. Health continues to improve.

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 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.

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 inferior diets. To fully accept the gift of health and energy from our ancestors, we need to make the right choices to pass those benefits to our descendants.

*

7. 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, particularly East 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.

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8. 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 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. 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 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 an ever more challenging world.

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9. 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 for one another, is awakening to the vital importance of living more sustainably on Earth. Unless we pull another planet out of the galaxy’s pocket in the next decade or two, we have to stop using up our precious blue green Earth. It’s time to turn our ingenuity to living well within our means. Peacefully, wisely, and with optimism.

world peace, ending world hunger, ending war, ending illiteracy, global optimism, heartening optimism,

Hand Globe image courtesy of HapciuMadam

Hummingbird image courtesy of PhapPuppy

I Know You Are But What Am I?

Quick, describe your neighbor. The friend you just talked to on the phone. And one other person you know.

Tally up the negatives and positives. What do they indicate?

Actually, they say a lot more about you than the people you’re describing.

Sages, poets and mystics have told us all along that what we perceive is who we are. Research indicates they were right. Our perceptions of others actually say much more about us.

According to a study in the July 2010 issue of Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the tendency to assess people in our social networks positively is linked to our own

enthusiasm,

happiness,

kind-heartedness,

politeness,

emotional stability,

life satisfaction,

even how much others like us.

A lead researcher says, “Seeing others positively reveals our own positive traits.”

The opposite is also true. The study found that how negatively we view others is linked to our own unhappiness as well as a greater likelihood of problems such as depression, narcissism and antisocial behavior.

That explains a lot.

Sure, any three people we know are likely to have annoying traits. Who doesn’t? But as Carl Jung said, “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”

Often people whose behavior is most challenging turn out, in retrospect, to bring out new strengths in us. They illuminate what we don’t want to see, make us more aware and teach us to be better people ourselves.  Perhaps we’re drawn to the sandpaper that smoothes us our own imperfections.

It isn’t reasonable to cast a wholly positive light on every person. But knowing that what we see is what we enhance in ourselves, that can make all the difference.

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A human being is essentially

a spirit-eye.

Whatever you really see,

you are that.

Rumi

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Art courtesy of SkyHorizon

Spreads Like Butter But No Calories: Kindness

No matter how many times someone claims that humans are naturally selfish and aggressive, they’re wrong.

We’re constructed for compassion.

It’s easy to tell. Our bodies function best when we’re in a state of cooperation and caring. Research shows this in our skin, our brains, nervous systems, our hearts. Research also proves this whether looking for physical, emotional or social benefits.

Kindness, generosity and compassion not only keep us healthy as individuals, they bind us together in networks of family, friends, neighbors and co-workers. These networks spread across the globe for many of us, drawing us in close circles of caring despite distance.

As we grow up we learn to emphasize some behaviors over others, but it appears we speak an innate language of kindness before we speak in words. Hard to believe? Take a look at babies. As reported in, Why We Cooperate (Boston Review Books), studies of babies between one to two years of age show them remarkably eager to help, share and cooperate. Not true of our ape friends. Similar studies of chimpanzees show them to be selfish, particularly when they can get more food for themselves.

James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis, authors of Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives write that cooperative behavior is not only natural, it’s contagious. When people benefit from the kindness of others they go on to spread the compassion. The tendency to “pay it forward’ influences dozens more in an enlarging network of kindness. And even more heartening, the effect persists. Kindness begats more kindness, blotting out previously selfish behavior.

These findings amplify what anthropologists are now saying (see Beyond War: The Human Potential for Peace), that the long progress of humanity has been made possible through generosity and cooperation.

Christakis says, “Our work over the past few years, examining the function of human social networks and their genetic origins, has led us to conclude that there is a deep and fundamental connection between social networks and goodness. The flow of good and desirable properties like ideas, love and kindness is required for human social networks to endure, and, in turn, networks are required for such properties to spread. Humans form social networks because the benefits of a connected life outweigh the costs.”

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“If there is anything I have learned about men and women, it is that there is a deeper spirit of altruism than is ever evident.

Just as the rivers we see are minor compared to the underground streams, so, too, the idealism that is visible is minor compared to what people carry in their hearts unreleased or scarcely released.”

Dr. Albert Schweitzer

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Butter image Creative Commons.  Children holding hands image thanks to Bill Gracey’s Flickr photostream.

Singing From the Inside Out

I can’t sneeze in a roomful of my friends without hitting a number of talented singer-songwriters who’d love to make a living through music. (Yes, a metaphorical sneeze.) Yet nearly every gifted artist any of us know has to ignore his or her gifts in order to make a living.

What cultural transformation might we see if those drawn to poetry, sculpting, composing, painting or other mediums of expression had some hope of living by their art?

Well here’s some hope.

A homeschooled guy who chose to help out with a worthwhile project now appears with John Mayer, Sheryl Crow and the Dave Matthews Band. His songs are heard on House and Ugly Betty. And more importantly, he sings about what matters to him.

See if the questions posed by this deceptively beautiful piece, “Ain’t No Reason,” resound long after the music is over.

Brett Dennen grew up in rural California, homeschooled along with his brother and sister. In an interview with Frank Goodman for Puremusic.com Dennen describes his mother’s homeschooling approach as “experiential.”  He says, “…so she rarely had a lesson plan or anything like that. She would give us books, and we would read the books. And we did a lot of gardening, and we did a lot of science education through being outside. We took camping trips with other kids who were homeschooled. And when we were out camping, we learned about rivers and forests and mountains and geology. We’d take books out camping with us, and we’d read about it, and we’d look for what we’d read about. Experiential education basically means instead of being in a classroom and being taught or told something, to actually go out and see it, and see how it works and learn through experiencing it instead of learning through being taught or told it. And that was really valuable to me.”

Dennen took the same approach when learning music. As he says in the same interview, “Because of the way I was homeschooled, I got into the idea of trying to learn how to do things my own way. And so when I started playing guitar, I taught myself. I took lessons for a while, but I lost interest in them because I think I just didn’t like going to my lessons, I didn’t like my teacher, I didn’t like what I was learning. So then I quit. And after I quit, then I really started to learn.”

He went to college planning to become a teacher. While a student, Dennen met Lara Mendel at a wilderness-safety class and the two of them wrote a humorous song about backwoods diarrhea for a class assignment. Mendel happened to be developing a powerful hands-on program for children, one that tackles intolerance and violence head on. She named it The Mosaic Project. Dennen wrote songs to reinforce the activities. Now his music and her project teach hundreds of California children about acceptance, friendship and peace in each session of The Mosaic Project.

The creative and independent spirit of Dennen’s homeschooling background hasn’t left him. Goodman’s interview opens with these comments. “He’s like a new kind of human being to me, this Brett Dennen. After spending time with him this week, I feel that way even stronger than after the positively confounding impression that his new CD, There’s So Much More, left on me. If he’d said that he was an alien, I could have swallowed that; it would even have made sense to me. Because I’m simply not accustomed to meeting and spending time with people that appear to be so incorruptible, so odd and yet so self-assured; so, uh, enlightened and inner-directed, if I might venture all that.”

I don’t know if Dennen’s life up to this point says more about homeschooling or about doing the work of one’s heart. I do know there’s no separating the two.

Real Action Footage Hard to Find: World’s Most Powerful Force Rarely Filmed

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Few talk about it. Fewer know much about its principles or how to apply them. Yet it has a profound impact, a long history and a reach nearly as wide as heaven. I’m talking about non-violence.

Sure, we know a bit about the civil rights movement and a bit about Mahatma Gandhi, but not much. Mainstream media focuses on the changes wrought by violence.

Pacifism is confused with those who are passive. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Consider Liberia. This nation was birthed by colonization and racism. It existed in oppression for over 150 years. A few years ago Liberia was a land torn apart. Dictator Charles Taylor’s reign imposed hunger and brutal killings on Liberia’s people. The rise of rebel groups made the situation worse. Children were forced to become soldiers. They roamed the countryside stealing, raping and killing. Villages were burned. Brutalized refugees crowded the cities. No one was safe. No one knew where to turn. The only answer lay in the powerful force of love in action, non-violence.

By 2003 women began gathering at their own risk to demand peace. They wore white and sang in the marketplace. They called themselves Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace. Their numbers grew. Against tradition, Christian and Muslim women worked together—singing, praying, planning and insisting on love. They held signs as truckloads of soldiers drove past, the same men and boys who terrorized them. Their signs said, “We love you. Put down your guns.”

Ignored at first, their numbers grew. As peace marchers walked past, other women joined in from the streets. Children sang along. Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace tactics included passive resistance, withholding sex (in part to avoid birthing children who would later be raped, killed or forced to become soldiers) and insisting on reconciliation. Finally they forced a meeting with President Taylor, where they made him promise to attend peace talks in Ghana. Then they bravely met with representatives of the rebel faction, who also agreed to attend the peace talks.

A delegation of Liberian women went to the talks in Ghana at their own expense. They waited outside the hotel where negotiations were held, wearing white as reminding presence. The men stayed in luxury, stalling as they attempted to get more and more power for themselves without agreeing to more rights for the citizenry. After weeks of these fruitless talks the women learned that an embassy in Liberia had been bombed and war there had intensified. Afraid for the families they’d left behind, they took another risk. Entering the hotel, one hundred women linked arms outside the doors of the negotiating hall. They intended to force the men to stay without food and water, privations Liberian refugees knew well, until they had reached an agreement. Guards threatened them. One of the rebels kicked at them.

Leymah Gbowee, a leader of Women of Liberia Mass Action stood. She began to take off her clothing. This was a last resort. It is taboo to see one’s sister, mother or grandmother unclothed. The guards backed down. Two weeks later an agreement was signed.

When Liberia held landmark elections, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf became the African continent’s first elected female head of state. Yet look around. The extraordinarily brave, powerfully liberating work by Liberian women went largely unnoticed by major news organizations.  Heck, even the Liberia page on Wikipedia doesn’t cite their involvement. Stephen Colbert’s interview with Leymah Gbowee promos the sex strike angle.

An extraordinary documentary about Women of Liberia Mass Action, called Pray the Devil Back to Hell came out in 2008.  Producer Abigail E. Disney couldn’t rely on footage shot by news organizations. They barely cover non-violence. Instead she managed to find three years of material on the peace movement that shifted the course of history from “private individuals who just happened to be there with cameras.”

We can do more than thank goodness.

We can use non-violence so that goodness is a force for change.

The Beauty of Ordinary People

“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

Einstein

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The world is full of ordinary, wonderful people.

Ever since I learned about Randy Stang in Regina Brett’s Plain Dealer column his example of casual grace has helped me see greatness in a new way. Those who bring out the best in themselves have a way of doing that.

Most people who get media attention are nothing like us. They’re obnoxiously wealthy, phenomenally talented or otherwise good at accumulating fame.

A great deal of publicity is also devoted to those who bring out the worst in themselves. They commit crimes or wreak havoc more acceptably, perhaps as scornful political pundits.

Occasionally attention shines on people who devote themselves to a cause in ways we can’t imagine doing or who risk their lives to save a stranger. True heroes. We may marvel at their efforts but end up feeling worse about our own choices. Who can imagine sacrificing as these selfless people do?

But Randy Stang was not the sort of man who attracted attention. He lived with his family right by Bradley Park in Bay Village, Ohio. Tall lights lit up his yard till late at night. Enthusiastic yelling from nearby soccer, basketball and baseball games made for a noisy home. When Randy Stang heard about a proposed biking and skateboard park he decided to attend the public hearing. So did many of his neighbors.

He waited for his chance to talk holding three pages of notes. A middle school teacher spoke about the six years of resistance the skate park had already faced, saying Bradley Park was likely the last hope for local bikers and skateboarders. Residents also spoke, saying the noise and inconvenience of a skate park was unacceptable. They liked the idea of teens gathering somewhere but preferred that place be far from their backyards.

Finally it was Randy Stang’s turn to talk. He explained what it was like to live near the park. He mentioned the noise and lights. He noted that his garage had been broken into just two days before the public hearing.  Then he gave his opinion.

“I’m in favor of a skate and bike park in Bay Village in Bradley Park. I am wondering if the citizens against the park have no grandchildren, no children, or are not a child themselves.”

He finished, saying, “You want to put it just to the north of that baseball diamond there, probably about 50 feet from my yard.”

Then Randy Stang collapsed. A nurse and doctor performed CPR to no avail. But his efforts were not in vain. It looks like Bay Village will be building The Stang Memorial Skate and Bike Park.

People who are acclaimed every day in the media don’t exemplify us. It’s the uncelebrated lives of ordinary, wonderful people who form the bedrock of human existence. These people are next to you and across the world. Chances are they won’t gain notice unless they perish dramatically while simply being themselves.

Unselfish acts performed a million times a minute weave us together as a caring species. We tend to the helpless, comfort the sorrowful, share knowledge and create happiness. It happens most often in small, unnoticed ways. This is why I know humanity has every hope of skating ahead toward the very best possibilities.

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Creative Commons photo collage