The world is too big for us. Too much going on, too many crimes, too much violence and excitement. Try as you will, you get behind in the race in spite of yourself. It’s an incessant strain, to keep pace… and still, you lose ground. Science empties its discoveries on you so fast that you stagger beneath them, in hopeless bewilderment. The political world is news seen so rapidly you’re out of breath trying to keep pace with who’s in and who’s out. Everything is high pressure. Human nature can’t endure much more!!
The above is an editorial from The Atlantic Journal, from June 1822. Let me just repeat that year – 1822. I thought about it the other day when I heard a recording of David Bowie from 2004, discussing his views about the lives of young people. He said, ‘I think a lot of youth find it very hard to find where they’re supposed to fit into this new, rather terrifying world.’
This new, rather terrifying world? Why was Bowie indulging this myth of a terrifying world in decline?
Bowie, or David Jones, was born in 1947 in Brixton, London, after a winter that was unusually bitter and harsh, and into a house with no central heating. Children still suffered and died from Polio. England was short of everything, from power to coal, to basic food and, because one million homes had been destroyed or seriously damaged in the war, a severe shortage of housing. At least 21 high explosive bombs fell on Brixton during the war.
There were no washing machines, TVs or fridges and very few families owned a car. Home entertainment was home-made or consisted of listening to a Bakelite radio. Petrol in 1947, was only available for essential motoring. Holidays abroad were banned. It was a country short on prospects and Prime Minister Atlee said, ‘I have no easy words for the nation. I cannot say when we will emerge into easier times.’
And while Bowie was only a baby in that year, I find it hard to believe he grew up without registering the hardships of the make do and mend existence of England, where people could only hope for easier times. Why would Bowie consider that today’s youth were struggling in a particularly new and terrifying world?
Extreme poverty is down some 75% in the last 30 years, and many diseases are under control. Violent crime in most western countries is plummeting – though it would be hard to believe this from watching the evening news. The US murder rate has halved in the last 30 years. War is less common. There have been dramatic rises in longevity in most nations and child mortality is now a rarity. Walk through an old graveyard and note how many young mothers and infants are buried. My son, now 18, had pneumonia a few years ago and it was at an advanced stage before we even realised. He was on a drip full of antibiotics for days in hospital and survived. Had this happened only about fifty years ago, I’m sure we would have lost him.
Steven Pinker, an American academic, laments the fact that so many American insist on the view that the world is in decline, despite all evidence to the contrary. According to the Lowy Institute, 79% of Australians say that they are dissatisfied with the way the world is heading.
Why do we fail to draw take happiness from the fact that life is better, or worse, argue that any sign of rational optimism – is delusional?
According to Pinker there are various factors at play. It doesn’t help that we are irrationally pessimistic. We can also exaggerate how hard life is for everyone else in the world, even as we admit that we are doing fine. We are irrationally optimistic about the past and tend to gloss over hardships and hanker after times gone past, and while Pinker is not vilifying the media in Trumpian fashion, he points out that journalism, or the evening news, is interested in reporting events rather than trends. And there will always be some tragedy somewhere to wring our hands over, even if we find it on social media.
I turned 56 last week. When I was 5.6, I believed that the world was about to explode. The Russians had nuclear weapons, Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated and the Beatles had broken up. My mother reacted with so much angst to see John Lennon playing Get Back on the roof of Apple Records, with long hair. I concluded that this was the end of civilisation as we knew it. The Jehovah’s had also sold my mother a collection of children’s stories and since she took pity on any salesperson who made it to our farmhouse door, she didn’t realise the stories were all apocalyptic. The inside covers showed families standing on a hill watching their city burn to the ground. I devoured these books.
But my apocalyptic view of the planet largely emanated from the radio. Songs like Tar and Cement by Verdelle Smith were haunting. I just listened to it again, thanks to that modern wonders of You Tube, and something about it still frightens me. Where are the children? Tar and Cement. Add to this the songs such as Where Have All the Flowers Gone, Barry McGuire’s Eve of Destruction and the Zagar and Evans hit, In the Year 2525 and I was absolutely sure I would not see 21. I hadn’t yet made it to school to calculate that 2525 was some distance away and I needn’t be quite so alarmed. I also thought I would be required for the Vietnam War and somehow, I gathered I’d be Leavin, On a Jet plane and I Wouldn’t know when I’d be back again.
But I find that the world is still going, Ronald Reagan did not accidentally press the wrong button and I am now more inclined toward the Graham Parker and The Rumour song – Life Gets Better. Pandas are breeding and fish returned to the Thames. I know half a dozen women who survived breast cancer. That seemed to be a death sentence when I was a kid.
Life is better for almost everyone. It is not perfect, it is not without its challenges and problems, but our lives are better, and as Barack Obama, in his uplifting speech at the University of Chicago said, better is good.
Think about this; I was five when Martin Luther King was assassinated, and I am now able to quote a young, inspiring black man who was born into relative poverty and became the President of the most powerful nation on earth.
Better is good.