Newspapers are by and large about five things: war, weather, disaster, money and crime. The periodical rally cry for ‘positive news’ falls on deaf ears. It is a noble aspiration, but ultimately, as we all know, good news doesn’t sell. In this landscape of perpetual ‘bad news’ bombardment, we become shell-shocked and numb, for who can feel the loss of an innocent somebody in some distant far-off theatre of war like they feel the loss of their neighbour? Such empathy would surely incapacitate us all.
Our religious sensibilities inspire a widening of our circle of compassion; we bully this callous self to look, and to gaze upon that pain. Take the story of the historical Buddha. He grew up in a palace, sheltered from the brutal reality beyond; he was protected from seeing anything dead, sick or decaying. Until, one day, he entered the city and saw just that. Before the Buddha entered that city, before he saw the dead, the sick, and the decaying, his reality was warped. His perspective on this world was distorted, just as our perspective of this world is distorted also.
To quote Bill Gates, “Headlines, in a way, are what mislead you because bad news is a headline, and gradual improvement is not.” Spirituality and religion rightfully challenge us to expand the boundaries of our circle of compassion, beyond the self, beyond the family, beyond the tribe, and beyond humanity. The problem is, this discipline is set against a warped backdrop, a cultural narrative moulded by what sells. Which is to say, moulded by bad news.
At this time of the year the light begins to overcome the darkness, metaphorically and literally. We gather around narratives of hope and remind ourselves of the ‘good news’ we are to go out and share. We are called to challenge the pervasive narrative of fear, and to optimistically strive for the coming of that kingdom, beyond the odds, and beyond even what our reason tells us is possible. We are called to be dancing fools, dreamers, enacting out a new way of being in this world. In defiance then of ‘bad news culture’ or a pessimistic fear-orientated existence, I wish to use the rest of the address to speak of what we can be thankful and optimistic about.
Firstly then, let’s start with the graph. This is the amount of people living in poverty (which the World Bank defines as living on $1.90 a day). The Y axis is the percentage of the earth’s population, and the X axis is the year. So according to this graph, just in our lifetimes things have got a lot better. Now this graph does not take into consideration the disparity of wealth between the rich and the poor, nor does it take into consideration the price of goods as they vary from country to country. But despite all this, the reduction of global poverty looks like something we can be optimistic about.
Secondly, contrary to what most people think, as Steven Pinker outlines in his book ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’, violence is in decline as a percentage of the population. Now, is that not pretty surprising? Despite the advances (if that’s what we want to call them) in military technology, armoured tanks, automated weaponry, nuclear bombs, etc… these are the most peaceful times in our species’ existence.
Even if you take the most violent countries of the 20th century, like 20th century Germany, or 20th century Russia, they are considerably safer places than the kind of non-state societies of our pre-historic ancestors (forensic archaeological evidence does not support a pre-society utopian epoch).
Now, this persistent decline of violence from century to century is of course not guaranteed to continue, but I don’t think we are being unreasonably optimistic to believe that it will.
And thirdly: Moral Progress. Since the enlightenment there has been moral progress, even in our own lifetimes. Take the status of women, civil rights, gay rights, etc… all issues on which we Unitarians have been trail blazers. To quote Martin Luther King, “The ark of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice”. A quote inspired by, or plagiarized from, Theodore Parker, the American Unitarian.
I think all of this shows that there are positive trends in this world. Being optimistic about the future is not wishful thinking, it’s a reasonable projection. There are still challenges now and ahead, isolated pockets of extremism, global warming and other environmental concerns, and the existential dangers around the inevitable rise of the machines.
But none the less, thumbs up for optimism. In a way I think optimism is a kind of infectious force to be spread out into society. It is kind of our role, it’s part of that spreading of the good news, of dreaming of a better tomorrow, to challenge that cultural norm of fear and pessimism. And also to challenge the stereotype of the religious naysayer.
Most people are naturally quite optimistic when it comes to their own selves, their longevity, their career prospects, their children, and the future of their families. Where we struggle is in being optimistic about other people’s families, other people’s children, and society at large.
But what you may find quite surprising is that when it comes to our longevity, our career prospects, our children, and the future of our families, it seems like optimism actually translates into reality. Because optimistic people are more engaged, more interesting, more sociable and so on… People with high expectations always feel better, because they interpret events in a positive light. The optimist who succeeds pats themselves on the back, the optimist who fails does not blame themselves, rather they point to circumstances beyond their control. Next time they will succeed.
Not only that, but just having positive expectations makes us happier too. The thrill of what we know is coming. If all this is true for the individual, that optimism can and often does translate into a better tomorrow, then how much more so must this be the case for a community of people.
So this is my concluding point.
I have tried to show that the ‘gradual improvement’ that Bill Gates refers to is in fact a reality. It is reasonable to be optimistic. If we as a community hold and express this optimism for the world of tomorrow, for society at large, not only is that of benefit to society, it is of benefit to us also. An optimistic community, a community of hope, cannot help being more engaged, more interesting, and more outward looking.