THE UU PATH: Fireflies in the dark
by Hallas Midgette
This is the second episode of the four-part series featuring the thought-provoking talk on optimism delivered by Hallas Midgette, a retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. and retired science instructor at Brookstone High School. The talk was presented to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Columbus, Georgia on April 23, 2017. You can read the first episode by scrolling down on this blog.
In the first episode, Hal explains why he believes the UU path is an optimistic way of navigating through life. Just as millions of fireflies he once saw lighting up a field in Kansas one Summer, “In a world of many religions’ UUs stand out as a light in the darkness. That light is optimism. Unitarians are optimistic.” Hal went on to say that four books perhaps shaped his optimistic worldview. This episode features his explanation of why.
There are four books that have influenced my optimistic views, besides all those science fiction novels. The first was Voltaire’s “Candide,” where, with all the terrible events in his life, Candide kept proclaiming that this “is the best of all possible worlds.” I read this in college and it stuck with me. Once, in the middle of the movie “The 25th Hour” …as close a parallel of the story of Candide as I have ever seen, but in a World War II setting…..I stood up to leave because it was Voltaire’s “Candide” all over again and I just couldn’t take watching a human being suffer so much, especially when he accepted the suffering without protest or fight. Michelle urged me to sit back down, possibly because we were on a double date and the other couple were the drivers. I reject that this is the best of all possible worlds because that is not realistic. We can’t resign ourselves to tolerating violence, cruelty and suffering. I have confidence that the world continues improving, not necessarily linearly, but in fits and starts. This feeling that the world is getting better all of the time is one of the reasons I joined this fellowship, because it is engaged in what I view as the battle of good and evil and is on the side of improving the human condition.
The second book that had a major impact on my optimistic view is David. M. Raup’s “Extinction: Bad luck or bad genes.” His book was my first forray into looking at extinctions on a geological timescale. I never before had realized how many localized and worldwide extinctions there have been in the Earth’s history. There are all types of mechanisms that can cause extinctions besides the one we are probably most familiar with…..fast moving, big rock from the sky. Or, for some, coming in contact with Europeans. There have been five major extinctions in Earth’s history, some causing as much as 95% of all life to go away. The amazing thing is that life just didn’t slowly creep back to its former level, but it virtually exploded back and became more extensive and varied. Raup was the first author to alert me to the fact that we humans not only might be in Earth’s sixth major extinction event, but most probably are causing it. But, being a glass half full person, I have faith that humans can and will discover ways to avoid an end to our species.
The third book that influenced my positive world view was Edward O. Wilson’s “On Human Nature.” Initially he studied social insects, then turned his brilliance to analyzing how humans interact and why we evolved to be so social. As a social species, our fate is interconnected with one another. In the past, as we evolved on the savannah of Africa, alone, we were food, but as a tribe, we were the dominant specie to be reckoned with. We, according to Dr. Wilson, have evolved to live in tribes, and are fairly predictable in what we do, how we behave, and what our limitations are. Human’s have done well, even in the face of severe adversity. The world, with its extremes, highs and lows, continues slowly getting better…..like a high tide slowly coming in. Waves come in and recede, but gradually get higher and higher. I contend that we haven’t seen, or perhaps can’t even grasp what the high water mark of human achievement might be. Former President Barack Obama said, “Progress isn’t always a straight line or a smooth path.”
Finally, the fourth book, and the most positive book I’ve ever read is “Nonzero: The logic for human destiny,” by Robert Wright. Looking through the lens of gaming theory, the author sets out to prove why humans are where we are today, and that we are now in the storm before the calm. Yes, I did say storm before the calm. Through meticulous logic the author detailed how our universe, at least the portion we live in, is primed to move from entropy to organized systems. While, according to his analysis, life, while not guaranteed, was certainly favored. He contends that the evolution of life was for more complex systems, that life can’t be a zero sum game, where the winner takes all, like tennis or football. Life has to be a nonzero sum game, and this is what propels us forward. A nonzero sum game is like trade, where both sides of the bargain gain….maybe not equally, but they gain from the interaction. His analysis of history and culture accomplish the same….showing that evolution of civilization was positive, that while there were setbacks, the general progression has been greater complexity and forward, with Mankind having greater control over his own fate.
Episode Three will explain how the Seven Principles affirmed by UUs “virtually scream optimism.”