Thursday, February 12, 2009

The World is Becoming a Better Place

Whether a thing is bad for you does not depend upon another man's directing mind, nor upon any turn or change in your environment. 
Upon what then? Upon that part of you which judges what is bad. 
Let it make no such judgment and all is well.
Marcus Aurelius A.D. 121-180
The Meditations

The world is becoming a better place. I have been here in this world for a little over 60 years so I am using my own experience and observations as a basis for this assertion. I am also a student of history and am using my knowledge of what came before as further support for this thesis: The world is becoming a better place.
I hear it said, with what seems to be increasing frequency, that the world is becoming a more troubled, more chaotic, less safe place. Threats of terrorism, financial crisis, global warming, pollution, are but a very few of the headlines blaring from the pages and screens of the media today. If I landed here today as a visitor from Mars, I would be deeply concerned by what I would hear from many of earth's inhabitants and virtually all of their communications with each other. Then, as a Martian visitor, I would look around and see a pretty incredible planet. I would have to question what I was hearing with what I was actually experiencing. 
I did not just land here today from Mars. I landed here on May 14, 1948 (the same date Israel became a nation). I can use my half-century-plus existence to question whether things are getting better or worse. I can ask myself and use my powers of observation to determine what I think about the world. I can take into consideration what I have seen, what I have learned, what I have studied, what I hold to be self evident truths. I do not have to subscribe to what others are saying. I can listen to them, I can try to understand their point of view, and then I can ask myself if this measures up to what I think.
Before I start sharing my views on this world, I think it would be good to clarify one thing: When I say 'the world is becoming a better place' I need to be clear about 'for whom' is the world becoming a better place. My point of reference here is---mankind.
I was told that a few years before my arrival back in '48 there was something called a world war; that huge numbers of mankind were killed fighting one another and that many more were systematically murdered in something called a holocaust. Later I learned that there was another holocaust in my century of birth and they called that World War 1. I am sorry that they had to give it a number and so was my father. There have been many wars during man's temporary occupation of planet earth, there are wars now and there will be more to come. But are they getting worse? Have there been more genocides? Yes. But are they getting worse? Hasn't mankind been more actively opposed to these acts? Not universally, but generally?
Is there still suffering, poverty, plagues, genocide, fighting murder, and intolerance? Yes. But are these worse? I hear it said that the threat of terrorism is making this world a less safe place than it used to be. But is this really true? Is it safer now than it was during the cold war? Before I was born? During the American Civil War? During the Middle Ages? When the cave man ventured out? There are still some very, very unsafe places in the world, but taken as a whole is the world safer now for humans than it was before?
Racism still exists throughout the world, but is it better or worse? Plagues and the threat of plagues still exist, but are they bubonic and black? Health care is a very large issue. Mankind still dies, but is he living a longer and healthier life today compared to when I was born? At any century before the last one? I'm not talking about everyone. Some people of all times have experienced health, happiness, prosperity and longevity. I'm asking if mankind in general is better off today. To listen to the news can be a frightening experience. Global warming, armed conflict, financial ruin and suicide bombings. But is the planet a more hospitable place than before? I'm not asking if it is better than yesterday. I'm asking if it is better over the time I have been around; the time my fellow man has occupied the place? Aren't the ups and downs trending up? Haven't we found more tolerance for each other? Better, cheaper, cleaner more efficient forms of transportation? Ever faster means to communicate? Ways to extend life? Determined the necessities of mutual understanding?
One of the great joys of living is to interact with other human beings, to have honest communication with our fellow man, to know and be known by others. Every century of man's existence has brought us closer together. It is said that the world is becoming a smaller place and when that happens we interact more with each other. Not all these interactions are good, but neither are we. Good and bad exists in everyone. The vast, rapid improvements in transportation and communication have brought us all face to face with one another. We find this problematic and beneficial, but it is irreversible. We no longer stand alone, but together, inexorably linked in more ways than one. Is this good or bad? Is it making the world a better place or not? Isn't it better to know one another? To experience new ideas? New cultures? New languages? New ways of living? Thinking? Isn't our ability to connect with one another at unprecedented speed a gift? Can we argue that Gutenberg, and now the internet, did not make the world a better place? 
Today there is hard evidence that the world is becoming a worse place. We only have to listen to those who warn of global warming, terrorism, poverty, plagues, financial chaos, great depressions. But haven't we witnessed all this before? Haven't we witnessed the best of times and the worst of times before? I'm not talking about you and me. I'm talking about all our ancestors. All of them. Going back to the first ones to walk out and discover fire, to the ones that experienced pandemics, world wars, genocides, great depressions, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and recessions of every magnitude. Are there more of these coming? Yes. Are we experiencing some of them now? Yes. Are we dealing with them better than we used to?  Yes.     Is the world becoming a better place for humankind? Yes.
How do I know? Because I can connect better with anyone in it today than I could yesterday. I have learned that at one end of the spectrum is self-loathing and at the far opposite end is human interaction. My ability to interact with my fellow man is getting better every day. Do those in the world always want to interact with me? No. But as we do---the world becomes a better place.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Hard Earth Softens

On April 28, 2008 I stood staring at my feet, feeling the last of a gentle rain, at Prince and Mercer Streets in New York City. I had spent the morning with my wife and daughter in the Conservancy Garden in Central Park, enjoying the two of them, the beautiful gift of Spring; the three of us together each taking in the scene at our own pace. I look back now on that day and think of the gentle teachings of Pema Chodron, who I had the good fortune to meet and study with a few years ago at the Omega Center in Rhinebeck, New York. Several hundred people. Each at their own pace. 

We try so hard to hang on to the teachings and "get it," but actually the truth sinks in like rain into very hard earth. The rain is very gentle, and we soften up slowly at our own speed. But when that happens, something has fundamentally changed in us. That hard earth has softened. It doesn't seem to happen by trying to get it or capture it. It happens by letting go; it happens by relaxing your mind, and it happens by the aspiration and the longing to want to communicate with yourself and others. Each of us finds our own way.
              --from Start Where You Are by Pema Chodron