That caption from a New Yorker cartoon several years ago seems to be perpetually relevant. If we read the newspaper, blogs or Facebook feeds, it often sounds like the world is going to hell in a handbasket…and fast. Wars, income inequality, environmental degradation, poverty, political polarization — these stories dominate the news, and can make us deeply depressed. We may even feel like there is nothing we can do about them.
But perhaps the way to focus on how we can overcome those challenges is to look at the bright spots: the small glimmers of hope we can hold onto in a seemingly dark world. And in fact, there are many more bright spots than we might even expect. After all, as President Barack Obama argued in a speech to the Gates Foundation:
If you had to choose any moment in history in which to be born, and you didn’t know in advance whether you were going to be male or female, what country you were going to be from, what your status was… you’d choose right now. Because the world has never been healthier or wealthier. Or better educated. Or, in many ways, more tolerant. Or less violent than it is today. Fewer people are dying young, more people are living not only longer, but better. More girls are in school; more adults can read; more children get the vaccines that they need. Despite the enormous conflicts that break our hearts around the world, it’s demonstrable that fewer people being killed in wars or conflicts than ever before. This would be the time you’d want to be, showing up on this planet.
Why do we think the world is so broken and is it really as bad as we think? Well, as author Steven Pinker remarks in his new book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, we focus on the headlines rather than the trendlines. As he notes, “We never see a journalist saying to the camera, ‘I’m reporting from a country where a war has not broken out’ — or a city that has not been bombed, or a school that has not been shot up.” (41) After all, that isn’t exactly an attention-grabbing headline.
More importantly, the enhancement of human life across the board and across the globe is a story that takes decades or even centuries to unfold. Our natural inclination is to focus on the negative since one bad event can have much more immediate and long-lasting consequences than one good moment. Indeed, the negative things in life are the natural course of the universe — we have to invest our own energy into overcoming them.
Indeed, Pinker reminds us that “life and happiness depend on an infinitesimal sliver of orderly arrangements of matter amid the astronomical number of possibilities…[p]overty [for example] needs no explanation. In a world governed by entropy and evolution, it is the default state of humankind. Matter does not rearrange itself into shelter or clothing.” (16, 25)
That means that to overcome disease, famine, war or poverty, we have to be pro-active in that endeavor. And that matches quite nicely with the Jewish idea of Tikkun Olam, the repairing of the world. As it’s come to mean today, we know that our world is broken. But note that “the world is broken” doesn’t mean that we broke it, or that it’s anyone’s fault, or that it’s irredeemable. It is simply a fact of the way our universe works — things break.
But if we invest time and energy, if we try to overcome the natural movement from order to chaos, we can begin to put the world back together. It’s slow. We will backslide. We may even argue about which policies will advance our country and our world’s well-being. But “progress” doesn’t mean “perfection” — it means that we strive to make tomorrow better than today.
In the words of Rabbi Tarfon, it’s not upon you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it. Yes, our world has problems. But if you look at the quality of life of where we are now vs. 50 years ago, 200 years ago, or 10,000 years ago, it’s clear that even though we may never complete the work, overall, we certainly have been doing our part to make the world better.
And that’s something we should not only be informed about but truly celebrate.
(This post first appeared on My Jewish Learning’s Rabbis Without Borders blog).