Often when we are absorbed in meeting the exigencies of everyday life we lose our broader perspective. We “can’t see the wood for the trees”! Consequently we fall into the trap of feeling insecure and convincing ourselves that our lives are somehow threatened by modernity.
I suppose reading the newspaper doesn’t help. Bad news dominates the headlines day after day. There is always another fatal traffic accident, traumatic house fire, devastating flood or terrorist attack to report.
But on many fronts the world has made considerable progress. Yes, there are still people starving and suffering from outbreaks of infectious diseases. But on a per capita basis these human tragedies are gradually dwindling in scale.
On some fronts modern capitalism has much to answer for, but as a mechanism for improving material well-being it has been hugely successful. To the chagrin of my grandchildren I can point to my youth when there were no refrigerators or TV’s which is a scenario beyond their imagination. And think how recently mobile phones, the internet and social media entered our lives.
On something of a whim just recently I replaced our little car with a new one. I bought a similar vehicle for my wife in 1991. Our new vehicle cost almost exactly the same but has so many more features. Adjusting for inflation, our new car would be less than half the real cost of its predecessor and is much enhanced.
Of course we could be prey to something insidious here. Matthieu Ricard, the marvellous Buddhist monk I have quoted in previous blogs has written, “The excessive importance accorded to consumption and a taste for the superfluous, as well as the reign of money, made me think that many of our contemporaries had forgotten the ends of existence – to achieve a sense of fulfilment – and gotten lost in the means.”
And again, as Ricard points out, this trend has caused us to elevate the famous, the rich and the powerful and that those who are merely “wise” are no longer the main objects of admiration.
But putting this aside for the time being, we have seen real progress on many fronts. Improvements in health have seen us largely outlive our parents and with the prospect that our children will probably substantially outlive us. Even though the aging population might force us to take some unpopular economic steps to sustain it, most would concede that it is a good problem to have!
And as we watch the evening news to be told of the latest atrocity committed by Boko Haram in Africa, advances by ISIS in Iraq or Syria, fresh outbreaks of violence in Ukraine and terrorist activities all around the globe, it is easy to believe that the world is being overwhelmed by violence. And yet research by Harvard professor, Steven Pinker, as outlined in his book Better Angels of our Nature, shows that violence in all its forms has been on the wane for centuries. No doubt, there is much more to do, but overall the world is becoming more peaceful and safer.
And again, after watching the news we could easily come away with a very pessimistic view of human nature. But this too is changing. Whereas in the past there was a tendency to highlight the selfish tendencies of Humankind, in recent years, research has begun to unearth considerable evidence to suggest that altruism is a widespread trait amongst us. Indeed evolutionary psychologists have demonstrated that altruism, counterintuitively, has, in Darwinian terms, “survival value”. The writings of the psychologist Daniel Batson (The Altruism Question and Altruism in Humans) in particular, throw light on the question and promote a more positive picture of human nature.
Now, I am sure you will know from my other writings that I don’t succumb to the Panglossian notion that this is the best of all possible worlds. There are many ways this world could be improved. But it seems to me that there is considerable evidence to suggest that overall our lots are improving.
However it seems to be the nature of Humankind if not to exaggerate, certainly to highlight existing insecurities. During the Cold War we were inordinately afraid of nuclear annihilation. Alan Watts, the populariser of Eastern wisdom traditions captured the angst in his writings at that time.
(There is) the feeling that we live in a time of unusual insecurity. In the past hundred years or so, many long established traditions have broken down – traditions of family and social life, of government, of the economic order and of religious belief. As the years go by, there seem to be fewer and fewer rocks to which we can hold, fewer things we can regard as absolutely right and true, and fixed for all time.
But it doesn’t take much research to find that such expressions of insecurity have been made frequently over the millennia. Watts continues:
As a matter of fact our age is no more insecure than any other. Poverty, disease, war, change and death are nothing new.
But in reality, as we saw above, even these threats seem to be generally on the decline.
The betes noir of the current generation seems to be climate change and the threat of militant Islam.
A staggering proportion of human activity is motivated by the desire to feel safe and secure. And yet this quest to feel secure doesn’t always lead to security, still less to happiness.
What’s more the advance of technology has inflated our fears about things that are unlikely to happen to us. In ancient times a person would create their defences in response to the threats they perceived in their own locality. Most times this would provide an adequate platform for managing their risk. But if you are in the habit of watching a daily news bulletin, the very purpose of which is to scour the globe for the most lurid scenes of mayhem, you will be misled into focussing your worry on threats you don’t actually face.
As Alan Watts pointed out in The Wisdom of Insecurity a lot of our insecurity comes from our reaction to change. But the world is always in a state of flux and there is little we can do to stop it. Indeed our ongoing progress is dependent on it.
A sober look at the world suggests that most of us are doing better and the threats to our security, whilst real, are no greater than they have ever been.