This is Not the Worst Year Ever

Time magazine declared 2020 “the worst year ever.”  That’s obviously not true.  In the 1850’s, millions were held in slavery.  In the 1860’s, over 600,000 Americans died in the war that freed those slaves.  One hundred years ago, the Spanish flu killed 675,000 Americans, while women struggled to gain the right to vote.  Our current troubles are minor in comparison.   

Time magazine’s hyperbolic headline can be forgiven as a ploy to sell magazines.  But people succumb to hyperbole.  We tend to magnify present suffering.  And that can impede critical thinking.   

History is not one story, it is many.  When historians look back on 2020, they will see failure that caused unnecessary suffering.  But they will also witness ingenuity that mitigated harm.  We should learn from our successes—and from our failures. 

Some of what we suffered in 2020 was the result of human greed, ignorance, and pride.  The Covid-19 death toll was made worse by selfishness, ignorance, and lack of leadership.  The fires in California were the terrifying result of human-caused climate change.  The social divisions and racial tensions of 2020 are the result of systematic stupidity and political polarization. 

But human intelligence prevented things from being even worse.  Health care systems evolved.  A vaccine was developed.  There were government bailouts.  School teachers invented online learning.  Firefighters demonstrated heroism.  And Americans educated themselves about racism and the American Constitution. 

Life includes both tragedy and triumph.  We fail.  We suffer.  We learn.  And we grow.

Resilience is a process of growth and development.  Resilient people generally avoid absolutism and hyperbole, which cause despair.  Defeatism undermines the spirit of invention, discovery, and growth. 

Consider a recent essay by Chris Hedges on cultural despair.  Hedges warns that despair can fuel the wish for magical solutions that can turn into fascism.  I’m sympathetic to his critique.  But Hedges’ assessment is itself dispiriting.  Hedges gives voice to despair.  And this leads him to conclude that reform is impossible.  He concludes that we are faced with a choice between tyranny and revolution. 

Hedges’ dilemma is typical of despair.  We tend to dwell on the darkness without noticing the light.  But history is more complicated than a stark choice between tyranny and revolution.  And there is no such thing as “the worst year ever.” 

Evaluation is relative and evolving.  Some people fell in love in 2020.  Others died.  Some families had children.  Some experienced divorce.  Some people began new careers.  Others lost jobs.  Art was created and scientific discoveries were made.  But businesses failed and crimes were committee.  For some people, 2020 was a great year.  For others, it was miserable. 

And yes, there was Donald Trump.  But there were also movements of social protest.  The Constitution was tested.  But the system worked.  Polarization increased.  But decent people sought common ground.

We must resist oversimplifying when we judge.  These are not the best of times.  Nor are they the worst of times.

Some new age advocates of mindfulness celebrate “non-judgmental awareness.”  There is value in this.  But non-judgmental presence is only a tool and a mood.  We need to judge things.  Judging helps us learn, invent, and improve.  But we need to be judicious in judging—moderate and prudent. 

We can learn a lot from acceptance and gratitude.  The mind can be sharpened by quietness and presence.  Thinking and learning require judgment and discrimination.  If we practice pure acceptance, we will never learn anything. 

If we are overly judgmental and hyperbolic in our judgments, we will also fail to learn.  We have to see what works—and what doesn’t.  We must also remain open to the new and the different.  We must be creative and inventive in our response to the world.

To say that this was the worst year ever is a kind of cop out.  It is a shoulder shrug and a sigh.  Shrugs and sighs are OK—for a moment.  Then it’s time to roll up our sleeves and get back to work.  Instead of dwelling on what went wrong, let’s learn from our mistakes.  We can also learn from our successes.  And with some luck and a lot of labor, the next year may be better than the last.

Morality: worse or better?

Americans see nation’s morality as worse, but history shows otherwise

Fresno Bee, May 26, 2017

Americans believe that we are getting worse as a country. According to the Gallup Poll 81 percent of Americans rate our country’s values as “only fair” or “poor,” while 77 percent say morality is getting worse. Our view of ourselves has been “consistently negative” since Gallup started polling about this in 2002.

Gallup attributes this to ongoing culture wars. Conservatives don’t like gay marriage, abortion, and so on. Liberals don’t like Trump-era threats to abortion rights, transgender equality and other policies. Each side views the other as a sign of moral decline.

This negativity undermines norms of civility. In the middle of a moral disaster, extremism and incivility become normal. A Republican congressional candidate in Montana allegedly assaulted a reporter this week. And the California Democratic Party chanted “F— Donald Trump” with extended middle fingers.We seem to be in the middle of a rude race to the bottom.

THERE IS MUCH TO CELEBRATE IN 21ST CENTURY AMERICA:
SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY AND HUMAN RIGHTS.

But are things really worse today? For millennia, prophets and philosophers have condemned their contemporaries. It seems that we have always been going to hell in a hand basket. And yet, we have also made progress.

There is much to celebrate in 21st century America: science, technology and human rights, to name a few. Consider this: despite the problem of fake news, the average citizen has more access to information now than Thomas Jefferson ever had. Would anyone really want to change places with someone from the 19th or 20th centuries?

On May 22, 1856, Preston Brooks, a Democratic congressman from South Carolina, nearly beat Sen. Charles Sumner, an abolitionist Republican from Massachusetts, to death with a cane in the Senate chamber. The cause of the dispute was slavery. Soon enough the Civil War killed over 600,000 Americans.

Would you trade now for then? Would you want to go back even a generation or two, to a world of unapologetic racism and sexism?

The long view of history does not support the claim that we are getting worse. But we modern people are never satisfied. We always want things to be better. We are thoughtful and self-critical. But this makes us feel inadequate and dissatisfied.

Discontent drives us forward. This is a world of upgrades and enhancements. We are never good enough. And we fear that things are getting worse.

Our low estimation of ourselves may offer a glimmer of hope, however. We might even claim that self-criticism is a sign of moral enlightenment.

Progress depends on moral critique. Modern people don’t rest on our laurels. We engage in constant self-criticism and we aspire to make continual progress. It would be odd for a modern civilization to say of itself: “Hey, we’ve made it to the promised land—it’s all good.”

THE CRITICAL SPIRIT IS A SOURCE OF SELF-IMPROVEMENT.
THE DOWNSIDE IS THAT THIS CAN MAKE US CENSORIOUS AND GRUMPY.

The critical spirit is a source of self-improvement. The downside is that this can make us censorious and grumpy. We are quick to judge others. Self-criticism is difficult. It is easier to see your neighbor’s faults than your own. But moral maturity demands that we scrutinize ourselves more than we do others.

The critical spirit can also leave us indifferent to our own successes. Complacency is viewed as a vice in the modern world. Complacent people think they have all of the answers. They believe that there is nothing left to learn and no need for improvement. They are comfortable and content.

Complacency is related to self-righteousness and self-satisfaction. Smug moralizers think they have all the answers. They quickly condemn others. But sanctimonious prigs often fail to look in the mirror or question their own values.

At issue here is a question of having the right amount of pride and humility. We ought to be proud of our accomplishments. But we should remain humble and admit that there is work to be done.

An old motto suggests that we ought to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” This is a strenuous call to action, which should cause us to strive for improvement. Unfortunately it can also leave us feeling dissatisfied and guilty. We could always be better at doing better.

So once you are through rolling your eyes at the decline of civility and our moral failings, roll up your sleeves and get to work. This world is only as good as we make it.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article152751389.html