By Hal Midgette
Hal Midgette, science instructor at Brookstone School, retired Lt. Col. in U.S. Army Military Intelligence, and friend of mine, delivered a thought provoking talk that I thought you might find interesting. He makes a very good case for the times in which we live not being “the worst of times.” Here is most of what he told members of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Columbus on Sunday, August 14.
Those of you who know me will be surprised to learn that the inspiration for my topic today came from a book titled “Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggemann. The book was loaned to me several months ago by a fellow Brookstone teacher who is a Presbyterian minister. We had had a discussion in the teachers’ lounge about whether King David was a good guy or a bad guy, so she offered the book as a good source of spiritual readings. But the sermons in the book did not hold my attention as much as did a quote by pastor, author and activist William Sloane Coffin. The quote, which appears on the book jacket, is as follows: “These sermons and poetic prayers are lucid and passionate, tough-minded and tender-hearted, full of the hope and biblical insights so critically needed in these nightmarish times.”
“Nightmarish times?” Really? Could a well-educated and spiritual leader such as Rev. Coffin honestly believe that we are living in nightmarish times? The words appearing on the book jacket were intended Presume to influence book sales, but I wondered how many ministers might share his opinion that these are nightmarish times. I hope there are more ministers who believe, as I do, that the sky is Not falling, so I thank Barry White for asking me to be a speaker in August and giving me this opportunity to calm Chicken Little with what I believe to be the truth: The sky is Not falling.
While not being an expert on fear, I am aware of its use in history, and today, by political and religious groups to influence or motivate the populace to achieve or at least attempt to achieve specific goals. Fear-mongering is a self-serving tactic of those who would deceive the masses as if they are sheep to be shepherded, rather than individuals with free will. I don’t doubt that many, to include Rev. Coffin, are true believers that these times are, to them, nightmarish. I strongly disagree. I also object to the prophecies of doomsayers, end of days proponents, and to those who believe the best of times were the so-called good-old-days of times gone by. Although disaster and what can only be described as nightmarish conditions do certainly exist in various pockets throughout the world at various times, it is not the general condition of the world. And these times, our 21st Century times, are most definitely not the worst of times.
Just a brief review of terrible times in the history of the world…..with a much smaller population…reveals that in fact, we are living in good times, maybe not individually, or in every country, or even in our own country every day, but for mankind in general.
About 70,000 years ago super volcano, Mount Toba, awoke in what is today Indonesia and visited death on a newly arisen species…us, Homo sapiens, and by some scientists’ account, knocked us down to about 5,000 individuals for the total world population. NOW, those were bad times, and the sky was literally falling. Well, our species survived that, even thought left us with very constricted genetic variation.
The “Black Death” during the 1300’s reduced the world’s population from 450 million to about 350 million. It was not just a European thing, but also ravaged Asia. Sadly, the victims didn’t have a clue that the disease was transmitted by fleas on rats. It took its toll for decades.
Next, beginning in the1400s with European explorers sent across the Atlantic to find gold, claim land, and spread Christianity in the name of their countries, the completely vulnerable indigenous populations were introduced to small pox and measles. This inadvertent, and totally unwanted, cultural exchange resulted in an estimated 30 million dying in the first 30years. Of course, the ironic revenge, also totally unintended, was the introduction of tobacco to the Europeans.
Between 1850 and 1864 in China, a Chinese Christian led theta ping Rebellion known as the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace….. The rebellion resulted in the death of between20 and 50 million people along the Yangtze River Valley, rendering what had been the most densely populated area on Earth nearly desolate. I suspect most of the world didn’t know this was taking place. China has certainly rebounded with its current population of 1.3 billion. With the current standard of living in China and its new found economic position in the world, most Chinese would not be longing for the past.
The Spanish Influenza of1918 killed between 20 and 60 million. Because it was a pandemic, and communications ensured the word spread….the whole world was frightened, and it came at the end of the world’s 6thdeadliest conflict, World War I, in which approximately 14 million military and civilians were killed.
Then in World War II, between 40 and 70 million died, depending on which source you use for statistics. At the time, that represented 1 – 3% of the world population. In comparison, the Black Death of the 1300’s killed about 30% of the world population.
How can someone with any knowledge of history look around and call today nightmarish? The sky is not falling! Why then do so many long for “the good old days”?
On this journey to understanding, I found some literature indicating studies have shown that badness either travels faster than or has a greater impact than good news. In one book, it justified this as part of a survival mechanism that our species has incorporated. Example: Your read in the Centurion Times that Flavius was run over by a chariot while crossing the Apian Way….mental note to self….look both ways when crossing highways. So bad news helps us to avoid the same mistake. Let’s face it, we all love to know what’s going on, and a lot of it is….how to phrase this….BAD NEWS. As one airline executive commented the other day: Of the 80,000 successful aircraft take offs and landings, the news only wants to focus on the one that did Not go so well. Unfortunately, because of our penchant for or even craving for bad news, many people forget that there is a lot of good going on here and around the world.
Though we maybe genetically inclined to focus on bad news as a survival mechanism, we are also hardwired for optimism. According to an article on the Science of Optimism in Time Magazine on June 6th of this year, studies show that people generally think they are better off than they really are and this is a good thing. We look for silver linings when actually confronted with catastrophe or misfortune. Optimism is a form of planning for the future. So if someone tells us these are nightmarish times or if we believe that a particular day or year is nightmarish, we need to rely on our instincts, wake up from the nightmare and let our optimism lead us to a course of action or at least an attitude adjustment that opens our minds to the possibility of a better day. And when you wake up you can realize how many good things are in our lives.
Since the 1960’s, we have doubled the Earth’s population, from 3.5 billion to almost 7 billion. If we look around the world, more people are…in general….living longer lives, having greater access to educational opportunities, and having the ability to seek happiness for themselves and their families. Yes, of course there are areas that continue to suffer from famine and tyrannical leaders. But, the percentage of the total is smaller than in the past.
Let’s consider some of the great things that continue to make life better. On average, worldwide, we live longer today. This in itself presents some challenges, but it is so much better than when my father was young, and out of twelve children, four died as infants. In 1900 the average life span in the United States was 47years. In 1950, which so many Americans view as a great time to be alive, the average person died at 69. Today the average American can expect to live78 years. And of course, many are living much longer. In fact, the 2010 U. S. Census reveals 5.5 million Americans are over 85 years old. That’s almost double the amount of people over 85 in 1990. Let’s consider longevity for the whole world. In 1950 the average life span in the entire world was 46 years. Today the average life span of people in the world is 67.
What else is good about these days we live in? Well, particularly in medicine, these are amazing times. I remember in the early 70’s playing racquet ball with a friend when his knee gave way and he collapsed. Then, it took extensive surgery and months of recuperation to get back to walking…and then, with a limp. Today, the same surgery is done arthroscopically….and is relatively pain free, and the patient can often walk without crutches within a few days.
Let’s not forget about the medical breakthroughs that brought us antibiotics, immunizations, organ transplants, and cell cloning. Smallpox, humanity’s scourge ever since we domesticated the cow, is not loose upon us anymore, but locked up in a few vials in liquid nitrogen held by the U.S. and Russia. Polio, tuberculosis, measles, chicken pox are some of the many diseases that have been brought under control. Even AIDS, a worldwide threat, has been harnessed, with greater prospect for bringing it under control. Cancer patients are living longer with better quality of life thanks to improved medicines and treatments. Every year there are better hearing aides, contact lenses, glasses, wheel chairs, artificial limbs and research underway with so much promise.
I think back on my father having a stroke and the lack of medications to treat high blood pressure and cholesterol. Today, we have a multitude of preventive procedures and medicines not just to keep people alive, but to enable them to feel better and lead productive lives. And for the terminally ill or the chronically afflicted, pain medications have alleviated much of their suffering.
Any mention of what’s good about our times would have to include the enormous impact of communications technology on our lives. Cell phones and the Internet have significantly changed the world, providing information, entertainment, business ,personal and group communication to even remote areas where people were once isolated and powerless. Despite the unfortunate criminal activity of some Internet users, the Internet has enriched our lives and literally revolutionized some countries, as evidenced by the recent and continuing Arab Spring.
In addition to improvements in our life spans, health care, and communications, there have been great strides in society, resulting in more people around the world having opportunities that once were limited to only the privileged classes or only to some races or ethnic groups. When I was in high school, the schools here and throughout the South were segregated so that Black students were deprived of the best opportunities for learning. Now the law and our society demand equal opportunity for education and for employment. Just think how many lives were wasted handmade miserable and at what cost to society in the so-called “good old days“. People who long for the past tend to overlook how bad the past was for so many people. But the good news is that equal opportunity and basic human rights are no longer enjoyed only by the developed countries in the world. Thanks to human rights organizations, diplomatic efforts of democratic countries, and the power of the Internet, the word has spread that all human beings are entitled to those same rights that our Unitarian principles promote, such as the inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice equity and compassion in human relations; and the use of the democratic process in society.
As the standard of living has increased for the newly industrialized countries, such as India and China, it is simply a fact that there is more competition for world resources, such as oil, and more competition too for marketing goods. Clearly, our piece of the pie may not be as big as it was when more people in other countries were living in poverty. Depending on your worldview, this may or may not be a bad thing. If we, as Unitarians, believe in the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all, then we should not be frightened by the rise of other economies because peace, liberty and justice are certainly more attainable in societies where there is a decent standard of living.
Finally, in order to reject the notion that we live in nightmarish times, it is essential to keep things in perspective. While the media are of great value to a democracy, our24-hour media sources tend to keep us wired and frantic about every negative situation at home and abroad. After all, hype sells ads and news is big business. Our country has weathered greater storms than the current economic quagmire. Have a little faith. Our government may be run by people of conflicting views, stubbornly devoted to their own parties and re-election campaigns, but do you really believe they don’t love this great country? Or that they will fail to do what is necessary to keep the ship of state afloat? Let’s not be misled by the tunnel vision of doomsayers and fanatics who frighten themselves with nightmarish scenarios. Let’s open both eyes, take stock of where we were, where we are, and where sacrifice, hard work or creativity may lead us. Then we can see that the sky is not falling. It’s only raining.