Things Really Are Getting Better – August 5, 2018
Let us pray.
Take our lives and let them be
consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
take our moments and our days,
let them flow in ceaseless praise.
It all looks pretty grim, doesn’t it? The rudeness and indecency that has become common in our public life. The distractions of modern technology and the isolation that results from them. The evils of racism, sexism and other kinds of prejudice. The widening disparity between the rich and the poor. The degradation of our natural environment. The proliferation of firearms and the violence in our schools and other public places. Militarized conflict. Nuclear weapons. Sexual harassment and assault. We know that the world has never been perfect, that we have always wrestled with danger, trouble, and immorality. But it seems like in recent times we have deteriorated drastically from some earlier, more pleasant existence in which things were safer, better, and more good. It can feel as if the universe is tearing apart at the seams, as if everything is spinning out of control.
The data, though, tells us something different. In a recent New Yorker article, the writer Joshua Rothman drew on the work of Harvard professor Steven Pinker to argue that life has actually been getting better, however things may seem. “Around the globe,” he explained, “improved health care has dramatically reduced infant and maternal mortality, and children are now better fed, better educated, and less abused. Workers make more money, are injured less frequently, and retire earlier. In the United States, fewer people are poor, while elsewhere in the world, and especially in Asia, billions fewer live in extreme poverty…statistics show that the world is growing less polluted and has more parks and protected wilderness…globally, there are now fewer victims of murder, war, rape, and genocide…life expectancy has been rising, and—thanks to regulations and design improvements—accidental deaths (car crashes, lightening strikes) are also in steep decline. Despite what we’re often told, students today report being less lonely than in the past, and, although Americans feel overscheduled, studies show that men and women alike have substantially more leisure time than their parents did.” And the list went on.
So if life really is getting better, why do we have such trouble noticing or acknowledging the improvement that is happening? Why do we keep thinking and saying that things are getting worse? Well, perhaps because we typically only hear about what is bad. We focus on the school shootings and the acts of terrorism and the horrific comments because they are dramatic and extraordinary events that interrupt our sense of normalcy. We focus less on the decrease in crime or the increases in good healthcare and material prosperity, as these changes tend to occur more gradually, over time. Few of us, Pinker points out, have any idea who Karl Landsteiner is, even though Karl Landsteiner “saved a billion lives by his discovery of blood groups.” In overlooking the good news, in taking for granted the progress that occurs all around us, we’re “guilty,” Rothman claims, of what Pinker calls the “sin of ingratitude.” We aren’t thankful enough for what we have. And, as Rothman adds, “we like to complain.”
Ah, complaining—that quintessential human behavior that has persisted for millennia. Only one chapter after the Israelites rejoice in the marvelous deliverance God had accomplished for them in Egypt, they complain in the wilderness: “if only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread.” Astoundingly, the Israelites express a longing for captivity; they think slavery is preferable to the wilderness through which they will reach the Promised Land. As the progress in their lives takes shape, they are incapable of recognizing or appreciating it. They focus only on what is negative for them now, and they falsely idealize the comforts of the past—the “good old days.”
Despite their ingratitude, God hears their complaints and provides them with the food for which they yearn. Yet still—even as they are being saved—they are not able to recognize their good fortune. “What is it?” they say to one another, as they survey the bread of God in heaps around them. They are getting what they wanted, and they can’t acknowledge it. They have no idea.
How difficult it can be for us to know what we need and appreciate it when it comes! We spend the entirety of our earthly lives working for the food that perishes, when all along God is raining down on us the food that endures for eternal life. Jesus is the bread of life who satisfies our hungers and our thirsts, but do we even know what Jesus looks like when he shows up?
There is much to complain about in the world. Hate, prejudice, violence, exploitation—these are real evils that need to be noticed, denounced, and fought against. But there is also much to rejoice in. There is much to be happy about.
One of my favorite poems, by Gerald Manley Hopkins, articulates how the goodness of God can endure and shine through all the grime and drudgery of the world:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Whatever hungers you have this morning, may the Holy Ghost brood over you, hear your complaint, and send down bread from heaven, so that in time your grumbling and kvetching may fade away, your needs may be satisfied, and you may see—at long last—that things really are getting better.