Friday, July 04, 2008

Reasons for Optimism

George is agog at Pretty Lady's avowed optimism:
Is this an affliction or a blessing? Is it innate or have you developed and nurtured it? If the second to both questions, how can I get some?
George, darling, as Pretty Lady has stated before, without her innate and carefully nurtured optimism, Pretty Lady would still be a government employee. She will leave you to extrapolate the affliction/blessing ratio from this one statement.

But when she looks around her, it seems that there are almost nothing but reasons for optimism, on a large scale, and in a larger sense.

For example, George, did you know :

The amount of worldwide political violence has declined dramatically in recent years.
  • The number of armed conflicts has declined by more than 40% since 1992. The deadliest conflicts (those with 1000 or more battle-deaths) dropped even more dramatically––by 80%.
  • The number of international crises, often harbingers of war, fell by more than 70% between 1981 and 2001.
  • Wars between countries are more rare than in previous eras and now constitute less than 5% of all armed conflicts.
  • The number of military coups and attempted coups has declined by some 60% since 1963. In 1963, there were 25 coups or attempted coups; in 2004, there were 10. All failed.
  • Most armed conflicts now take place in the poorest countries in the world, but as incomes rise the risk of war declines.
  • The period since the end of World War II is the longest interval without wars between the major powers in hundreds of years.

The philosophical mastermind of global Islamist jihad is now, himself, starting to reconsider. There is a general sense within the most radical proponents of terrorist violence that perhaps terrorism isn't such a good idea, after all.

Global population appears to be self-regulating.

(Pretty Lady knows that it is fashionable to decry low birth rates in certain circles, but she is old enough to remember the knuckle-knawing about world overpopulation, in the 1970s. It appears, instead, that as countries grow wealthier and less patriarchal, birth rates decline naturally, to rise again to replacement rate once a society has adjusted itself to thinking of women as full-fledged citizens, rather than submissive baby machines.)

This method of population adjustment seems infinitely superior to the predicted mass die-offs that would occur, once resources such as water and arable land became grossly overstrained.

The Berlin Wall came down. In 1989. Don't you remember?

In fact, George, if one looks at how human life on earth has altered since, say, 1600, one cannot help noting an overwhelming shift away from conditions of violent squalor, and toward those of health, comfort, peace and compassion. In the 1600s, it was commonplace to execute hungry five-year-olds for stealing an apple. Disease, slavery, war, and child labor were ubiquitous and accepted facts of life. Public torture of both animals and humans was considered a socially acceptable form of entertainment. On a large scale, humanity would not recognize itself as humanity, today. That is an astonishing amount of evolution in just 400 years.

On a personal level, George, Pretty Lady's reasons for optimism are perhaps even more compelling. Being a lady who is consumingly interested in the stories of How Things Turn Out for people she cares about (which includes just about everyone she's ever met), she cannot help noticing the overwhelming resilience of the human spirit, everywhere she goes.

For example, one college friend of hers filed for divorce from her cheating, lying, thieving excuse for a husband, in New Orleans, the summer before Katrina hit. Now Pretty Lady gets regular photo updates of her college friend with her wonderful new husband and their adorable new daughter, in their lovely new home in Arkansas.

Her freshman year in college, a friend of a friend used to show up on the hall, drinking vodka from a water glass, in waterlike quantities. (Eight glasses a day.) He was already going into major liver failure; Pretty Lady was certain he'd be dead within five years. Five years later, he was sober, healthy, and employed, with a young family.

One friend went blind from diabetes. She was married, had a little girl, and sight in one eye, the last time Pretty Lady heard from her.

Everywhere around her, Pretty Lady sees people recovering from physical, mental, emotional and spiritual wounds that ought to have felled an ox, with increased compassion and wisdom. Former victims of childhood abuse go on to counsel other abused children. Cancer patients create cancer support communities. Miracles happen; forgiveness happens; healing happens. All the time. Every single day.

These things, Pretty Lady firmly believes, are not accidents. The patterns are so clear, from the micro level to the macro, that they must be hard-wired into our design. We must come here in order to learn through our mistakes, because that is what we do, over and over and over. We get knocked down, we lie there and reconsider, get back up and try again. Every time we try, we increase in compassion, in forgiveness, in generosity, in kindness, both personally and globally.

In fact, George, these things are so obvious and so consistent that Pretty Lady feels that it takes considerable force of will to deny them. Pessimism, cynicism and despair must be as carefully nurtured as optimism; indeed, they are our primary blocks to happiness, and the instruments of assured failure.


Barak said...

Thanks, Pretty Lady. That made my day!

Anonymous said...

Oh my! Pretty Lady you are manifestly not a tyro when it comes to optimism but a master practitioner. Your level of optimism seems to have an esoteric quality to it much like those myriad Eastern martial arts. Have you a name for your particular brand of optimism – are there degrees?

Now then – the macro. Pretty Lady crunches numbers (her practical side comes out).
PL said: “The amount of worldwide political violence has declined dramatically in recent years.”
The statistics coincide with the time and influence of the Soviet Union, Mao’s China, and numerous other lesser Red Brigades. You’ll remember they went about the world creating mischief and teaching the finer points of the AK-47. PL might answer: well what of it. They have fallen and/or transformed themselves, less political violence, good. A deranged Utopia has fallen on the ash heap of history, a reason for optimism. But George sees a phoenix (imaginative folk those Arabs) rising out of those ashes, and a reason for pessimism.

PL said: “The philosophical mastermind of global Islamist jihad is now, himself, starting to reconsider.”
Yes, and the Muslim Brotherhood, Wahhabism, and a growing worldwide network of madrasas have chucked the old ideologies and curriculum for something more modern and cultured – Game Theory and Game Design 101. (Well, wouldn’t it be nice)

There is much to be pessimistic about here (okay, for me not Pretty Lady).
For example: in the BEYOND OMINOUS category:

British Judge Says YES To Sharia Law In Britain (in fact)

Worldwide Concern Amongst Women Grows (my own extrapolating headline)

Yes, yes, it’s just one judge BUT interesting times cannot but start with uneventful events i.e. a German beer hall putsch.

Yes, yes, Sharia for disputes among Muslims – no big deal. Have you heard this one before? – A Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu, and an atheist go into a bar…
I wonder who’ll adjudicate that mess and by which set of laws or standards? I nominate SCOTUS – they can do anything.

PL said: “It is fashionable to decry low birth rates in certain circles.”
Yes, nature abhors a vacuum and Muslims have stepped up and in. The charismatic and evangelical among them are tingling all over. See:
That doesn’t seem like the Middle East in the background to me, does it to you?

Wrapping it up with – the micro (Pretty Lady wins me over. Well not really, since I’ve been here all along)

PL said: “On a personal level … reasons for optimism are perhaps even more compelling”
Yes, yes, yes! Exactly. Much of what Pretty Lady alludes to at the micro level - personal experiences, humans behaving with kindness and a generous spirit – just so. Over the course of time, it seems, humans manage to conquer an enemy i.e. Polio. An optimist is given one more reason to remain an optimist. Then AIDS. The pessimist, one more reason to remain a pessimist. We look at the same thing and you may see the glass half full and I half empty. This is of little consequence – basically the same DNA double helix with nothing more than a more or less acute spiral at our respective optimist/pessimist gene.

In this smaller world, you, I, and nearly everyone else have reasons for optimism. Those you’ve enumerated and more, much more. I think this optimism is of an organic nature, something that plays a vital role and tacitly leads to propagating the race – not out of an animal instinct but a sentient being’s ultimate sometimes grudging acknowledgement that “hey, even with all the problems, this is still fun”.

I should love to live exclusively in this small world and would highly recommend it to everyone. Here I can safely be an optimist. Unfortunately, there are too many for whom this personal world is too small. They are inspired to greatness, utopias, workers’ paradises, heaven on earth, and mean to pull it off by whatever means. In this macro world I remain a pessimist.

Pretty Lady said...

In this macro world I remain a pessimist.

That's silly. As goes the cell, so goes the organism. People go through stages of infancy, childhood, adolescence, and maturity, and so do societies. It's silly to assume that societies aren't as capable of learning from their mistakes as individuals are.

What you do not seem to understand is that my optimism is not of the brand that declares, "Everything is going to be hunky-dory!" despite the facts. It is of the brand that declares that mistakes, problems and pain are essential and integral to our reasons for being here. We are here to increase in wisdom and compassion. Sometimes we have to get sick to acquire it.

Anonymous said...

As goes the cell, so goes the organism.

I find the cell – organism analogy unconvincing. Cells operate under strict microbiological physical laws. The organism not so much. Let’s say societies may be capable of learning from their mistakes much like individuals. If so, we are left with the fact that sometimes individuals fail to learn from their mistakes and must therefore allow that sometimes societies do also. The individual’s failure, ranging from moral weakness to moral turpitude results in dire consequences – for a few. A society’s moral turpitude, results in wars and holocausts. Just a cursory look through the 20th Century makes me less sanguine about the 21st.

I do understand Pretty Lady’s brand of optimism and share it - until that moment when it goes supernova. When you say “we are here to increase in wisdom and compassion” - I agree. However, the attribution of such virtues to states makes me think your optimism is just too boundless. I can see wisdom and compassion in Pretty Lady. I cannot fathom them in a state. From a state I see only “realpolitik” of one sort or another.

Pretty Lady said...

From a state I see only “realpolitik” of one sort or another.

A state is made up of people.

Yes, there are venal, manipulative, stupid, selfish people out there, and a large number of them end up in politics. But there are decent people who go into politics as well, and the communications revolution has made the average person much more able to participate and influence political decisions. It has also made it much, much harder for scumbags to hide.

I, for one, believe that our society is beginning to mature. I am formidably impressed with many of the young people I am meeting. They seem to me to be responsible, pro-active, non-sexist, and not inclined to sit around whining, blaming The Man. They're volunteering for the Peace Corps, Americorps, Habitat for Humanity. They're going into medicine, psychology, ecology, teaching, social work. They're interested in helping other people and they don't wait around for someone to give them permission to follow their hearts.

And look at what happened in our Presidential primaries. Instead of getting a couple of lying, power-mad, controlling, top-down old-school pols (Clinton and Giuliani), we ended up with Obama and McCain, the system outsiders, and both with more integrity in their little fingers than Clinton or Giuliani ever imagined.

Anonymous said...

Obama and McCain, the system outsiders...

There's that optimism again - it must positively radiate from you.

I don't quite see it your way. I see another couple of national candidates that come from an increasingly inbred political gene pool. The former, yet another Harvard law clone and the latter has been around long enough to have bagged his very own scandal.

Alright, I'm a pessimist and a cynic to boot (in this very narrow political context). If it turns out you're right and I'm dead wrong, I shall come over to your side and I promise to positively radiate.

Anonymous said...

Pretty Lady, have just had a Twilight Zone experience. Just minutes after posting my last comment I wandered onto this page.

Haven’t read it myself yet ( perhaps I’m dreading have you AND a learned doctor in opposition). Thought it might be of interest to you.