Frequent readers of this blog know a big chunk of time here is spent discussing the world’s great problems, as well as the moral and spiritual changes we need to make to meet those problems head on. Oftentimes this exercise gets to be a downer, mostly because it serves as a reminder of just how daunting those problems truly are.
What’s particularly difficult is to get a sense of whether or not things are getting better or getting worse. I found some new perspective on this recently in an unexpected place, when, while sorting through a box of old books, I found the comic book V For Vendetta and opened it up to its preface:
My youngest daughter is seven and the tabloid press are circulating the idea of concentration camps for persons with AIDS. The new riot police wear wear black visors, as do their horses, and their vans have rotating video cameras mounted on top. The government has expressed a desire to eradicate homosexuality, even as an abstract concept, and one can only speculate as to which minority will be the next legislated against. I’m thinking of taking my family and getting out of this country soon, sometime over the next couple of years. It’s cold and it’s mean spirited and I don’t like it here anymore. Goodnight England.
That was the author, Alan Moore, writing in 1988. In retrospect the level of hyperbole is almost laughable. But that’s only because it’s hard to look back nearly 30 years and try and understand the things people back then were preoccupied with, even though they were legitimate. Back in the 80s people barely understood how HIV worked — Eddie Murphy’s standup routine famously joked about a lonely housewife contracting AIDS by kissing a gay friend on the cheek — and imagined a world epidemic of potentially bubonic plague-like proportions. The Berlin Wall was still a thing, and though the US and USSR were in a process of detente, people still contemplated the possibility of mass extinction from nuclear war. Here in the US, crack cocaine was exploding, as was violent crime in US cities; New York had more than five times as many murders in 1988 than it had last year.
I bring all this up only to make the point that every generation finds it far too easy to say that the world is hopeless and getting worse. In many ways, in fact, things are getting better. A great Slate article by Steve Pinker and Andrew Mack recently made exactly that point, focusing on statistics in a handful of areas including armed conflicts, violence against women and children, and the proliferation of democracy. They summarize:
The world is not falling apart. The kinds of violence to which most people are vulnerable—homicide, rape, battering, child abuse—have been in steady decline in most of the world. Autocracy is giving way to democracy. Wars between states—by far the most destructive of all conflicts—are all but obsolete. The increase in the number and deadliness of civil wars since 2010 is circumscribed, puny in comparison with the decline that preceded it, and unlikely to escalate.
We have been told of impending doom before: a Soviet invasion of Western Europe, a line of dominoes in Southeast Asia, revanchism in a reunified Germany, a rising sun in Japan, cities overrun by teenage superpredators, a coming anarchy that would fracture the major nation-states, and weekly 9/11-scale attacks that would pose an existential threat to civilization.
Why is the world always “more dangerous than it has ever been”—even as a greater and greater majority of humanity lives in peace and dies of old age?
If you’re wondering if the Baha’i teachings have any special wisdom on this topic (that is the whole point of this blog, after all), it’s this: the world is both getting better and getting worse at the same time. More specifically, Baha’is believe we are simultaneously witnessing the glorious emergence of a long-prophesied era of peace and justice on the one hand, along with the painful and arduous implosion of many of the world’s obsolete, decrepit institutions on the other.
Baha’u’llah Himself asserts that:
The whole earth is now in a state of pregnancy. The day is approaching when it will have yielded its noblest fruits, when from it will have sprung forth the loftiest trees, the most enchanting blossoms, the most heavenly blessings.
Many decades later Shoghi Effendi expanded upon this idea in many places. Here’s one passage:
We stand on the threshold of an age whose convulsions proclaim alike the death-pangs of the old order and the birth-pangs of the new…. We can, at the present moment, experience its stirrings in the womb of a travailing age—an age waiting for the appointed hour at which it can cast its burden and yield its fairest fruit.
And here’s another:
Such simultaneous processes of rise and of fall, of integration and of disintegration, of order and chaos, with their continuous and reciprocal reactions on each other, are but aspects of a greater Plan, one and indivisible, whose Source is God…
In other words: cheer up. Things really are as bad as they seem. But there’s reason to believe that all that suffering and tumult have a purpose, just as the physical pain of childbirth signifies something beautiful to come. Of course that’s easy for me to say; I’m not a Bangledeshi made homeless by climate change, or a Syrian refugee desperate to escape civil war. (Neither will I ever understand the pain of childbirth, for that matter.) Nonetheless, I think it’s important for people of faith — and, more broadly, people of conscience — to work to make the world better than it is, even while we acknowledge the meaning behind its madness.