Is the world really getting worse?
I participate in two study groups. One is comprised of five friends, and our weekly discussions on ethics and spiritual identity are punctuated by personal stories of life’s lessons. We are inspired by the writings from Reflections on the Life of the Spirit, and our togetherness is rich. This past week we were encouraged to reflect upon the statement:
The second study group I attend has progressed to the second book in the series entitled Arising to Serve. We are a group of about six who have been
together for some time. Our numbers and membership have varied over the years, but whoever is present at any given sessions shares his/her understandings after reading the material in English, Chinese, and Farsi, and our cultural diversity helps to ensure that we are learning from each other. Last night we talked about peace and saw how even our intimate little gatherings are personally transformative and how they are also instrumental to our community-building efforts.
We cannot segregate the human heart from the environment outside us and say that once one of these is reformed everything will be improved. Man is organic with the world. His inner life moulds the environment and is itself also deeply affected by it. The one acts upon the other and every abiding change in the life of man is the result of these mutual reactions. ~Shoghi Effendi
While I have been familiar with the statement about the “thought of war,” the practice and mastery of the exhortation has been another one of those disciplines that from time to time has its moment in the sunlight of my otherwise cloudy attention. But this post isn’t about the regularity of discipline. Rather, I’d like to share a few recent insights about the statement—insights that beg the application of other disciplines.
I’ve taken up Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Penguin Books, New York, 2011). It’s a surfeit of statistics and analyses, a compendium of reviews of modern research on the subject of war, and a personal narrative. Sounds dry doesn’t it? But Pinker is a talented, if at times irreverent, writer, and I find the book is a compelling read. For example, I appreciate how he begins the chapter on “The Civilizing Process” by relating how he, as a child, questioned his parents when they informed him that he should not push food onto his fork with a knife. “I lost the argument, as all children do, when faced with the rejoinder “Because I said so,” and for decades I silently grumbled about the unintelligibility of the rules of etiquette. Then one day, while doing research for this book, the scales fell from my eyes, the enigma evaporated, and I forever put aside my resentment of the no-knife rule.” What follows is a brief introduction to a book by Norbert Elias, graphs showing the decline in homicide rates in England from 1200-2000, an explanation of “cutting off your nose to spite your face”, a discussion of what was happening in Europe as thousands of feudal states gave way to a handful of monarchies and as “A culture of honor—the readiness to take revenge—gave way to a culture of dignity—the readiness to control one’s emotions,” and subsequently the reason why we do not push our peas onto our dinner knives. The next chapter, “The Long Peace” is where things really get interesting. I won’t give away the conclusion that is offered in the book’s title. That’s not my point. Pinker isn’t the only one who suggests that things are getting better. (More on that in a moment.) My concern is that “a thought of war comes” to me again and again and again on the hourly news, in coffee shop conversations, and whatever print media I set my eyes upon. It seems to pour in upon me, as I suspect it does upon you.
In his preface, Pinker writes:
This is a big book, but it has to be.[Indeed, 800 pages.] First I have to convince you that violence really has gone down over the course of history, knowing that the very idea invites skepticism, incredulity, and sometimes anger. Our cognitive faculties predispose us to believe that we live in violent times, especially when they are stoked by media that follow the watchword ‘If it bleeds, it leads.’ The human mind tends to estimate the probability of an event from the ease with which it can recall examples, and the scenes of carnage are more likely to be beamed into our homes and burned into our memories than footage of people dying of old age. No matter how small the percentage of violent deaths may be, in absolute numbers there will always be enough of them to fill the evening news, so people’s impressions of violence will be disconnected from the actual proportions.
Also distorting our sense of danger is our moral psychology. No one has ever recruited activists to a cause by announcing that things are getting better, and bearers of good news are often advised to keep their mouths shut lest they lull pe0ple into a complacency… (p. xxii)
So perhaps by reading Pinker’s book, I am opposing a thought of war with stronger thoughts of peace. Isn’t that what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is telling us to do? Ah, but am I turning a blind eye to the truth? I realize that Pinker has his detractors, and that there are fact-based counterarguments to idea that violence is on the decline. Whatever the case may be, building peace is work, and the hardest work of all may be in my own mind. I take responsibility for my own reactions knowing that I can’t make presumptions about yours. (Although I am interested. Write your comments in the box below.) At any rate, this is where I am encouraged to begin–where we are encouraged to begin. Our thoughts have consequences, as do the changes we make in our thinking.
It has been 102 years, almost to this day (October 21, 2014) since ‘Abdu’l-Bahá addressed an audience in Paris, telling his audience that “When a thought of war comes, oppose it by a stronger thought of peace.” He began by noting that, “I am not happy, but very sad. The news of the Battle of Benghazi grieves my heart.” This from a man famous for telling us to “be happy, be happy.” He went on to talk about war:
I wonder at the human savagery that still exists in the world! How is it possible for men to fight from morning until evening, killing each other, shedding the blood of their fellow-men: And for what object? To gain possession of a part of the earth! Even the animals, when they fight, have an immediate and more reasonable cause for their attacks! How terrible it is that men, who are of the higher kingdom, can descend to slaying and bringing misery to their fellow-beings, for the possession of a tract of land! The highest of created beings fighting to obtain the lowest form of matter, earth! Land belongs not to one people, but to all people. This earth is not man’s home, but his tomb. It is for their tombs these men are fighting. There is nothing so horrible in this world as the tomb, the abode of the decaying bodies of men. However great the conqueror, however many countries he may reduce to slavery, he is unable to retain any part of these devastated lands but one tiny portion — his tomb! If more land is required for the improvement of the condition of the people, for the spread of civilization (for the substitution of just laws for brutal customs) — surely it would be possible to 29 acquire peaceably the necessary extension of territory. But war is made for the satisfaction of men’s ambition; for the sake of worldly gain to the few, terrible misery is brought to numberless homes, breaking the hearts of hundreds of men and women! How many widows mourn their husbands, how many stories of savage cruelty do we hear! How many little orphaned children are crying for their dead fathers, how many women are weeping for their slain sons! There is nothing so heart-breaking and terrible as an outburst of human savagery!
Nothing is impossible to the Divine Benevolence of God.
In the talk that follows, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá offers several imperatives, especially as regards to our thinking. “Do not think the peace of the world is an ideal impossible to attain!” Less than two years later that imperative would be tested in the hearts of many as World War One became entrenched in the French soil.
I charge you all that each one of you concentrate all the thoughts of your heart on love and unity. When a thought of war comes, oppose it by a stronger thought of peace. A thought of hatred must be destroyed by a more powerful thought of love. Thoughts of war bring destruction to all harmony, well-being, restfulness and content. Thoughts of love are constructive of brotherhood, peace, friendship, and happiness. When soldiers of the world draw their swords to kill, soldiers of God clasp each other’s hands! So may all the savagery of man disappear by the Mercy of God, working through the pure in heart and the sincere of soul. Do not think the peace of the world an ideal impossible to attain! Nothing is impossible to the Divine Benevolence of God. If you desire with all your heart, friendship with every race on earth, your thought, spiritual and positive, will spread; it will become the desire of others, growing stronger and stronger, until it reaches the minds of all men. Do not despair! Work steadily. Sincerity and love will conquer hate. How many seemingly impossible events are coming to pass in these days! Set your faces steadily towards the Light of the World. Show love to all; ‘Love is the breath of the Holy Spirit in the heart of Man’. Take courage! God never forsakes His children who strive and work and pray! Let your hearts be filled with the strenuous desire that tranquility and harmony may encircle all this warring world. So will success crown your efforts, and with the universal brotherhood will come the Kingdom of God in peace and goodwill.
In this room today are members of many races, French, American, English, German, Italian, brothers and sisters meeting in friendship and harmony! Let this gathering be a foreshadowing of what will, in very truth, take place in this world, when every child of God realizes that they are leaves of one tree, flowers in one garden, drops in one ocean, and sons and daughters of one Father, whose name is love! (Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 28)
I have found something else that is useful in combating thoughts of war—a TED talk by Hans and Ola Rosling on “How Not to be Ignorant about the World”. (Click here http://www.ted.com/talks/hans_and_ola_rosling_how_not_to_be_ignorant_about_the_world?language=en) Hans Rosling is a Swedish doctor and professor of international health. He and his son Ola created the Gapminder Foundation, launched the Ignorance Project, and set about measuring our ignorance about global issues and the state of the world. (http://www.gapminder.org/ignorance/)
Their “Ignorance Survey” is made up of questions such as, “Which of the following curves illustrates the shift in world-wide income distribution?” “What
percentage of adults in the world today are literate – i.e. can read and write?” Those taking the survey generally score less than 33%—a score attainable by chimpanzees answering randomly. Perhaps this is why the Gapminder Foundation uses a stylized face of a chimpanzee as its logo. Interestingly, the survey was informally administered to a group of US media representatives and later to a group of European Union media people. Hans noted: “You see, the problem is not that people don’t read and listen to the media. The problem is that the media doesn’t know themselves.” Both groups scored less than the chimps, 20% and 6% respectively. (Click here to take the Ignorance Survey http://www.cnn.com/2013/12/10/world/gapminder-us-ignorance-survey/)
Having encountered such wide-spread ignorance, Rosling wanted to know why, in today’s web-connected world of easy access to information, such ignorance persists and abounds.
Think “Everything is Getting Better”
Towards the end of the TED talk mentioned above, Ola Rosling offers three answers and gives advice about thinking (or rethinking) about global issues and, more particularly, about passing the Ignorance Survey:
So now we come to the practical tricks. How are you going to succeed? There is, of course, one way,which is to sit down late nights and learn all the facts by heart by reading all these reports. That will never happen, actually. Not even Hans thinks that’s going to happen. People don’t have that time. People like shortcuts, and here are the shortcuts. We need to turn our intuition into strength again. We need to be able to generalize. So now I’m going to show you some tricks where the misconceptions are turned around into rules of thumb.
Let’s start with the first misconception. This is very widespread. “Everything is getting worse.” You heard it. You thought it yourself. The other way to think is, most things improve. So you’re sitting with a question in front of you and you’re unsure. You should guess “improve.” Okay? Don’t go for the worse. That will help you score better on our tests.
So reading Pinker to find stronger thoughts of peace may not be turning a blind eye to the truth. What I see in the address given by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Paris is that he does not turn away from recognizing the unfortunate violence of the Battle of Benghazi. Secondly he tells us how it saddens him and how human savagery is heart-breaking. Then he goes on to recognize his audience, and to comment on the diversity represented. “Let this gathering be a foreshadowing of what will, in very truth, take place in this world, when every child of God realizes that they are leaves of one tree, flowers in one garden, drops in one ocean, and sons and daughters of one Father, whose name is love!”
And so we come full circle to our groups of five or six friends who meet weekly in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island—groups that were foreshadowed 102 years ago—groups that may yet foreshadow an even greater recognition that we are sons and daughters of one Father, whose name is love. It’s all in our thinking.