In such an era of social media, widespread news and efficient technology, it’s easy to find the world to be a violent place. It’s easy to find evidence of bad things happening every day to good people. It’s easy to hear that cancer and other diseases are killing more and more each day, and that even the wonderful era of scientific advancement has not yet led to a world without sickness and without terminal illnesses. It’s easy to walk through the streets of Philadelphia and find poverty and hopelessness. It is easy to hear word of attacks on humanity in underdeveloped countries, and easy to find the horrors constantly present. It is easy to become a pessimist in the world we are currently living in.
However, this world is not one that is steadily declining, nor is it one that is mostly in a bad place. I do not have the popular advantage in this fight, nor do I have a lot of collected research. But, what I do have is something that seems to be harder to find as I grow older.
Even in this world, I am an optimist. I believe that one of humanity’s greatest traits is that we must be able to find hope. This is not so easy.
It is simple to look at the news for just a few minutes and believe that the world is riddled with war and violence. Actually, however, looking at mathematical figures and representations of war and the number of deaths that have occurred in combat or combat-related scenarios, the numbers have been decreasing. This trend holds when examining the entirety of human history, as well as when looking at just one or a few hundred years. While the decline is not smooth, and there are obvious points of sharp increase, the general trend is still present. Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker explained in his research that we are likely to be living in what is considered the most peaceful times in human history.
Similarly, it is simple to watch the news or scroll through social media sites, and become convinced that social injustices and inequalities are higher now than they have ever been before. Between the long fight for gays’ rights and other forms of equality, the movement of Black Lives Matter, the ever-present push for female equality in the workplace and countless other social bandwagons, there is a constant push to show the mass public the general horrors which the minorities of our society face every day. This is real, and I am not denying the importance of these social movements. However, has there not always been repression? Have there not always been class distinctions? Can we not look at slavery, and the abolishment thereof, at least in the United States, and say that we have at least risen above the worst of times? Feminism used to mean the right for women to have a voice in something as basic as a vote; now, the focus is on further complexities of the movement that, while still being large issues in our world, are not as bad of conditions compared to what they once were.
And therein lies the trap of “progress.” Some will say that despite how much progress this country and this world have made, the fact that bad and difficult things are still happening makes all of my arguments to this point moot. What is progress if it is not complete? This is essentially the argument against my rationalizations of the progress we have seen so far. Who cares if there is less violence today per unit of population then there was 2,000 years ago? It is still violence. It is still bad. Who cares if slavery was in fact abolished? Does that even truly matter if the social structures and unfair circumstances into which black Americans are pushed, if not shoved, into still exist? There is no ceasing the progress until there is absolute resolve! This may be the exaggerated, yet present argument of the pessimists.
Here is where I will make my case. Here is where the bravery and the selectivity of the optimist come into play.
I will never deny that this country, this world and all of the people in it, are not perfect, or beyond correction. I will never say that progress has ceased, or that it should. I will always say, however, that this is the beautiful characteristic of humanity. Humans never stop fighting for improvement. I think this is what makes our world a better place each day, despite the difficult and evil things that continue to happen.
I see the world’s population as a bell curve, where there is a large “hump” of the average, and skinny “legs” of the extremes. There are some really, really, terrible people in this world, who want for people to die, to suffer, to be excluded, to be hated, or to be harmed. And, there are some really wonderful people in this world who dedicate their lives to making a difference for others, wherever they can. And then there is the large, looming average; some of these average people tend more one way, and some the other. But in general, the average are just that: average. They do not seek to harm or to help, they seek only to coexist. Sometimes, if there is an injustice or an evil that seems to concern them, they will fight in response. And this is natural. No real population will always follow the rules dictated by probability.
However, there is a phenomenon in probability where an increase in population results in a stricter adherence of the sample to the true average. I interpret this to mean that as our population has grown, so has the amount of average people. But, this fact does not overlook the extremes. If the population is growing, the spread of the data is also, inevitably, growing. More and more people are falling into both extremes. As cliche as it sounds, these extremes are, literally, the good and the bad. The villains and the superheroes.
The good guys, as they grow, make an inevitably larger push to be noticed by the mass of the average. Along with the progress in technology and media our world has experienced in tandem with a population increase, this push is easily seen in internet campaigns and petitions, news articles to expose the evil where it is found, and educational videos to show the people of this world what is happening that is really, totally, messed up. This is excellent. If you think about it in this light, it is really the people who are trying to stop the evil from taking over our world that are exposing the average to it the most.
Glass half empty? All of this increased media showing bad things happening means that more bad things are happening now than ever were before, and our world is a terrible place.
Glass half full? People care about all of the bad things happening in the world, and they are trying to reach out and make a difference by attempting to educate the world around them about what shouldn’t be happening, but is.
And the best part about all of this is that despite the increased flow of negative information, and the increased push to publicize and media-tize everything going wrong in this world, the population at large has not given up, lied down, and said “I quit.”
There are pessimists in this world who will see nothing but the products of increased media about the shit that happens every day, but once those pessimists give up and admit that the world is falling apart, is past hope, and is not and never will be improving, it is them who add to the weight of the extreme that we would call bad.
I am an optimist. I believe that one of humanity’s greatest traits is that we must be able to find hope. That is not easy. But it is possible.
I find hope in the fact that the bell curve has not seemed to shift. I find hope in the fact that deaths due to wars are decreasing, that strides in social justice have in fact been made and that social media and mass-media news exist. I find hope in the fact that people have always cared about the bad that happens in this world, and that people are still trying to correct it. It is humankind’s perseverance against the tide of evil that progress has made more accessible and more obvious that makes me believe that this world is not falling apart, and that perhaps it is even coming together.
And what if, in fact, this apparent stasis that progress will never be able to fix, remains? What if, despite all our best efforts, this is as good as it gets? What if you believe that no progress, or no complete progress has ever really been made on earth? What then? I will not stand here with ignorance resembling optimism and say that the current state of the world is “good enough.” I will not stand here and refute that claim by saying that if this is as good as it gets, that I’m ok with that.
I will say that whatever the truth may be, since the truth in this case is in fact the most impossible thing to grasp, I will accept that as long as humanity continues to try to improve, that is the best that we can do. And honestly, isn’t trying all we can ever do in reality?
Martin Luther King Jr. probably didn’t wake up every day steadfast in the knowledge that he could make a difference, but he tried. And, he succeeded to an extent. Did he achieve complete success? No. Will we ever achieve complete success? Who knows. The same tale could be woven for other figureheads in human history, the list countless. Should this unknowing prevent the attempt in the first place? I believe not.
Humanity’s most beautiful trait is that we must be able to find hope. This hope will always manifest itself in trying to do and be better. And that is all we can do.
We can try. And I think that that can be good enough.