“There’s a lot of scary stuff going on right now.”
Yep. I’ve heard some version of that from friends, colleagues, and family members pretty much my whole adult life.
Hey, they’re not wrong. Fanatical terrorism, genocidal wars, every Western government in the world going bankrupt (seemingly at once), the banking system and stock market on the verge of collapse, the spread of super-diseases, the industrialization and poisoning of the food supply, loopy fascist maniacs on the verge of being elected…
Here’s what’s certain: the world will look very different in ten years. Maybe sooner.
Does that mean we should just curl into a ball and wait for the end?
But let’s consider a few things first, shall we?
1. Yes, there is scary stuff going on… There always has been.
Step into a time machine and go to virtually any decade there have been humans. You’ll find big, giant, scary threats to the order of things.
And people fretting over them.
Here’s a list of “end of the world” predictions going all the way back to the Assyrians in 2800 BC. Apparently, we’ve been in “end times” since… words.
But it’s not just paranoid delusions. There have been a few actual things to be worried about, too.
If I was living in Troy in 12th c. BC, I might have one or two small concerns. The one hundred thousand Achaeans massing outside the city gate, for example, who, if they manage to break through, will almost certainly burn my city to the ground, gang rape my wife, THEN capture her into slavery, then throw my infant child from the city walls, then gut me with a spear and throw my meat to their dogs.
Let’s just say my stress levels would be a little peaked, okay?
In fact, the fear of conquest and marauding has been with most people, ever.
Fast forward a thousand years to Jerusalem, and the situation looks much the same: Christians crusaders massing outside the city, then overrunning it, then murdering every man, woman and child in it, all told about 70,000 Muslims and Jews.
Fast forward another five hundred years to 14th c. Europe. A more civilized time, right? Except for the threat of the Hundred Year War between England and France, the death of my crops in the Little Ice Age, massive government debt resulting in crushing debt on the peasantry, being burned at the stake for opposing the Catholic Church, or dying horribly in the worst plague in human history, the Black Death…
But, other than that, you know, worry free.
What if you lived in Baghdad when an army of 150,000 Mongols showed up? Or South America when the conquistadores arrived, along with brutal torture methods, enslavement, and smallpox, flu, and typhus? Or Africa during the height of the slave trade? Or the Ukraine during Stalin’s starvation genocide? Or France when Germany rolled it’s tanks down the Champs-Elysees? Or China during the Rape of Nanking? Or during it’s “Great Leap Forward” and the resulting famine which killed 45 million people? Or Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge?
Look at the third paragraph of this article again. Is there anything there that couldn’t apply to Europe in the 1930s?
There’s always been plenty to worry about.
The idea of a Golden Age is pure BS.
Here’s the thing: people survive. They adapt. Heck, sometimes they even learn.
We have to remember: even though things might look pretty bleak, it’s not the “end of the world”.
As soon as you adopt the tiniest bit of historical perspective, the awful, bad, scary stuff of today pales in comparison.
If you think about it, it’s a little narcissistic and egomaniacal to think that we are the witnesses to the end of history. That’s what people of every age have believed. Just like them, we will be blown aside by history and forgotten, and then the next thing will be blown aside, and so on. That’s how it works and always has. The world continues to spin.
One thing that history does teach us: ordinary folk are rarely the problem. Left to their own devices, they will live peacefully, trade amongst one another, provide for their families, and try to improve their standard of living. It’s what people do.
It’s the powerful and the elite who muck everything up and generally make life miserable for the masses. Virtually every conflict and human-made disaster comes from the attempt to control, regulate, indoctrinate, conquer, and re-shape the world according to the wacky vision of someone hungry for a position of authority and power.
The antidote to “scary things” therefore, is not the next supposed benevolent ruler. It lies in ordinary folk living their lives as they see fit, standing up to authority, identifying BS when they see it, and refusing to swallow.
You’ve heard of the ancient Chinese curse: “may you live in interesting times”?
The joke is that these are all times, ever. Someone is always trying to fuck you over. Welcome to being human.
The challenge is in refusing to bend over.
2. You have to iris out an awful lot of good stuff to think the world is wholly bad.
You get whatever you focus on.
If you only ever focus on the wicked and the miserable (especially as depicted by “the news”), you’re ignoring the glaringly conspicuous: the happiness, peace, and ease that modern life has to offer relative to any other time in history.
Most people that have ever lived have done so under threat of violence, starvation, sickness, ignorance, and poverty.
And us? We not only have abundant food, but dine in fancy restaurants, with food and wine imported from halfway around the world. We drive in climate-controlled vehicles to climate-controlled homes. We plug into machines and access the world’s information and ideas and entertainment at a whim. We attend concerts and and festivals and symphonies and musicals and comedy clubs and lectures and author readings and TV show tapings. We live where we please and travel across vast distances to visit distant friends and loved ones. We have hobbies and enjoy diversions. Our great problems are diabetes, overeating, and boredom.
Will the news report this?
Of course not. It has become normal.
Unlike most people a hundred or even fifty years ago, billions of people now have access to clean water, food, electricity, refrigeration, transportation, communications, etc.
Did you know that a hundred years ago the share of the worlds population living in absolute poverty was close to eighty percent?
That figure today? Nine point six percent. (acc. to World Bank)
This is an extraordinary explosion of prosperity–the kind that has never happened in recorded history. And the fastest growth has come in what were the poorest parts of the world, e.g., China, India, Africa… the parts of the world that needed it the most.
Has this even been mentioned on the news or by political commentators? Not likely.
Did you know that worldwide violence is in decline, by almost every measurable statistic? Homicide rates are the lowest they’ve ever been. Same with sexual assault rates. Domestic abuse. Genocides and mass killings. Battle deaths in armed conflicts.
Did you know that more people die of old age now than ever before in recorded history?
You’d never know it from watching the news. It’s the guns and explosions and atrocity show starring your favorite intrepid reporter.
We’re to blame, of course: we consume news and viral videos like chocolate espresso beans. We’re addicted. There’s more images of death and misery out there, so we see and talk about them more, and those responsible go out and find even more images because it sells advertising. We buy the products, and the cycle continues.
What about simple quality of life? What kinds of opportunities exist today that didn’t exist a hundred years ago? In 1916, most people worked in agriculture (though manufacturing jobs were on the rise) or they didn’t work at all, meaning they were supported by the head of the household.
Imagine waking in the morning and looking forward to ten to twelve hours of back-breaking work on a farm, or slogging yourself off to a factory, breathing in harsh chemicals and filth, only to drag yourself out of bed and do it all again tomorrow.
That’s what most people did when your great grandpa was alive.
Today, I can wake up, do a little reading, take my pooch for a walk on a beautiful mountain trail, come back home and work on my laptop for a few hours, do a little exercise in the late afternoon, and hang out with the family in the evening, eat a fine meal with fantastic ingredients that we can afford to picky about, and sit down and be entertained by virtually any movie or series we want at the touch of a button.
That is a typical modern day.
It’s fucking absurd by comparison.
Today, people can make a living by blogging, by marketing, by consulting, by programming, by event coordinating. People make livings by posting videos online. And none of these livings are closed off to gender or race. A hard “back-breaking” “stressful” day of work might consist of having to send a bunch of emails. Today, our workplace “risks” are obesity and carpal tunnel syndrome.
Consider this: up to a hundred years ago an artist was akin to a beggar, a vagabond barely fending off the forces of poverty. The only rich artists were those with some sort of dispensation or commission from royalty or the ruling class. Today, the amount of people working just in the entertainment industry–just doing nothing but entertaining us, you understand–is in the millions. And some of them are society’s most fantastically wealthy.
A hundred years ago there were only a handful of professions, as dictated by the most basic human needs: farmers, manufacturers, bookkeepers, doctors, merchants, etc. Today, there is a ridiculous level of specialization. There are online stores that sells clothing for dolls – not even the dolls, just their clothing. There are sports shops that sell only recycled material surfboards.
Our lives are so blessed with ease and sheer opportunity that it almost makes one feel guilty by the standards of anyone living in any prior generation. Our lives would be dismissed as an impossible fantasy by people toiling away in misery and fear even fifty years ago.
But somehow we can ignore all this, can’t we?
Somehow, given all this abundance, and ease, and happiness, we can still focus on our fears and miseries, and all the awful people doing bad stuff on the news.
Look, modern life is not all pixie dust and unicorns. No one is saying there’s not bad, awful stuff going on, or that there isn’t any poverty or misery. There clearly is, and it needs to be identified and fought, whenever possible.
It’s just that we’d have to be myopic, self-centered idiots not to see how much better things are than virtually any other time in history.
Honestly, it should make you a little sick at your own ingratitude. What we think of as “normal life” is an utter science fiction/fantasy to the richest kings and emperors of any other age. As Louis CK put it: “We are the worst people, ever.” We have all this stuff that makes our lives incredibly easy and we still find a way to be miserable dicks about it.
If any time has been a Golden Age, it is ours.
Try acknowledging it every once in a while.
3. There’s really only one thing plaguing humanity: ideas
Specifically old, shitty ideas that should die but just… won’t.
For example, the idea that a benevolent ruler will be just the thing to fix all our problems.
This idea has been all the rage for, oh, thousands of years. The king/emperor/il principe/el presidente will be the one to save us and lead us to the kingdom of paradise.
Hmm, except for the thousands of years of bloodshed, broken promises, unintended consequences, collapsed economies, and fallen empires.
And the millions of suffering people who were the fodder for their delusions.
You’d think we’d learn.
But with every election cycle, coronation, or coup, the frenzy starts again. THIS time, things will be different! Right? Right!?
Why won’t this idea die? Simple: it holds out the irresistible promise that we’re not responsible for our own lives. If we were… well, we’d have to actually stand up and say “No” to things. Fight injustice on our own. Be more than we are.
How much easier for us to elect someone to do all that fighting for us? After all, there is an entire profession (the politician) eager and willing to take our money to do so. And they are very good at making up scapegoats for us to blame for everything, so we don’t have to take the blame ourselves. (And bonus, we can just blame them when it all goes to shit, as it almost inevitably will.)
The antidote to this idea is scary, but it must be adopted if humanity ever wishes to escape it’s childhood: we are, each of us, responsible for the state of our lives and the world.
We support it, financially and emotionally, every day, by our actions or inactions. You can’t possibly, in any logic, blame an evil politician or an evil corporation when you’re eagerly buying everything they’re selling—they’re just filling your demand.
Here’s another pernicious idea that plagues humanity, that also just won’t die: identity groups.
This idea says that there are fundamentally separate categories of humans that cannot, will not, and should not mix.
The idea is that you and I belong to different religions, different races, different language groups, different socio-economic classes, different nations, different tribes, different political parties, different genders, and different sexual orientations. The only question is which group you identify with. On that basis, you are permanently in conflict with other identity groups who are your supposed “enemies”.
It’s “Us and Them” thinking, or camp-thinking, and there is simply no more destructive idea out there.
The illusion of shared identities with strangers is responsible for virtually every conflict, every hatred, every war that exists today. It’s responsible for broken relationships, failed negotiations, for armies and invasions, suicide bombings, and for insipid battles over legal rights which should not even be a question in the first place.
The funny thing is, I’m pretty sure it all rests on a verb-confusion. “Am-ing”, and “Is-ing” instead of “Doing” or “Believing”. When our focus is on our actions, we are amenable to change and to agreements based on common interests. When our focus is on what we supposedly “are” there is no possibility of change—our identities are “fixed”, as presumably, are the identities of those who don’t share our identities.
Actions and thoughts are inherently individual. There is no tribe of people that can tell you what to believe, or what to do on that basis. You must (and actually do) decide that for yourself.
Most people, though, because they’re raised to believe that they belong to an identity group with the answers pre-ordained for them, simply shut their minds and adopt those ready-made answers.
It’s the opposite of thinking. It’s so much easier to accept and perpetuate than it is to question and oppose.
The antidote (the logical corollary of the idea of self-responsibility, and just as scary) is independent thought. In fact, it’s really just the application of self-responsibility to the problem of what to do with your brain: be responsible for your own thoughts.
When people start to think for themselves suddenly old tribal feuds and cults seem puerile and superficial. How much time do we waste? We each of us get about four thousand weeks on the planet. How many of those weeks do we devote to spreading the hatred, lies, and bloodshed of identity group stories foisted on us from prior generations, some of them hundreds or even thousands of years dead?
All just because we shut our brains off and accept the story as written, instead of questioning it for ourselves.
People can and often do ignore supposed identity groups. Unions are forged. Prejudices are overturned. Bridges are gapped. Borders are dissolved. Bigoted laws are scrapped. Old enmities are dismissed as childish and irrelevant. Sometimes the combatants simply die off and the new generation, well, just doesn’t give a shit.
Think of some identity group you identify with. Are you really incapable of seeing beyond it? Are you unable to see past the notion that you and I supposedly are two fundamentally different types of being? Is your mind so weak that you must simply accept a story that’s been foisted on you by prior generations or by charismatic leaders?
Questioning these stories amounts to a choice. A simple acknowledgement of a truth that’s increasingly difficult to deny: we’re one, all of us here in the same boat, together. What humanity needs is for our best minds to focus on actions rather than identities, to look for solutions, not for this group or that group, but for the entirety of humanity.
So, back to fear. Do we need to fear bad ideas?
Ideas, especially old ones, can seem difficult to overturn. They can be scary and lead to bad things. But the good news is they’re easy to get rid of. All you have to do is supplant them with newer, better ideas, and the old ones die out.
Fear of bad ideas accomplishes nothing.
Opposing them–loudly, if necessary–does.
It’s not even necessary for everyone to achieve enlightenment wake up and change the world. All that’s required is for a few people to do so.
The rest will follow, as they always do.
4. Okay, there is scary stuff going on. So what?
There’s a name for a time in your life when you no longer have problems: death.
So too, for society. There will always be problems. Welcome to life on planet Earth.
Sometimes we solve them and move forward. Sometimes we slide backwards.
It’s an eternal dance, and it’s what we’re here to do.
Look at it this way: every historical figure you’ve ever heard of made their mark on humanity by fighting the prevailing circumstances.
All the countless billions you’ve never heard of? They opted to live in fear.
If you think about it, here’s power in the question “so what?” It gets us focused on action rather than fretting. It really means: “Them’s the brakes, and wishing won’t change that. What are you gonna do about it?”
So what are you going to do about it?
As the quote goes: “The best way to predict the future is create it.”
When you think about it, all fear boils down to a simple choice: cower, or act.