Are We Really Making Progress?

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Are We Really Making Progress?

Admittedly, the title of this blog sounds like a very loaded question. If you’ve asked it within the past two years, the responses have likely been varied and also filled with emotion. 

These days it may feel more like regression versus progression when it comes to our society and humanity. We live in a world where it’s become so easy to fall into the “rabbit holes” of how the world is falling apart at the seams, how the rich and powerful assert themselves freely without any regard for human lives, or the polarization of society is creating imminent civil war.

The media isn’t helping the situation either. News outlets are reporting all day long and it appears as though everything is “Breaking News” or something major has just happened. Whether it’s the news or social media, they feed into and play on our fears and anxieties. A handheld device we keep with us everywhere we go gives us access to this information whenever we want it. It’s easy, fast, and feels exhausting. Or is it?

When we look at the world around us, today, how often do we stop to ask if things truly are getting worse or possibly getting better?

It’s a valid question to ask ourselves. Questioning tends to lead to more questions and, eventually, personal insights and realizations if we allow ourselves to really become curious and objectively explore life. Some of us don’t want to do this, accepting what we hear as truth and reality, as long as it comes from someone or a source that supports our narrative.

We can align ourselves with a belief or system of beliefs because it’s what we’ve been raised to do or chosen to give our lives meaning. There is nothing wrong with doing this and it can often give us comfort and direction too. Our beliefs can help us make sense of the random and terrible things that can happen. They help us deal with emotions and what we experience throughout life. 

Our beliefs can also cause us to act in ways that benefit others and make a difference in the world too. The opposite is also true. Too many people have been mistreated, marginalized, outcasted, or even died because of what people believe. 

Believing a thing can also cause us to see the world differently, whether it’s an optimistic or pessimistic perspective. We all have biases and preferences based on our experiences.

We may think things are worse than they ever have been. The truth is: We’ve felt this way and had similar thoughts and experiences since humans inhabited the earth. This is evidenced as cognitive psychologist, Steven Pinker Ph.D., states in a 2018 TED talk: 

If you combine our cognitive biases with the nature of the news, you can see why the world has been coming to an end for a very long time indeed…

Pinker goes on to say: 

There are dangers to indiscriminate pessimism. One of them is fatalism. If all our efforts at improving the world have been in vain, why throw good money after bad? The poor will always be with you. And since the world will end soon – if climate change doesn’t kill us all, then runaway artificial intelligence will – a natural response is to enjoy life while we can, eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die. 

The other danger of thoughtless pessimism is radicalism. If our institutions are all failing and beyond hope for reform, a natural response is to seek to smash the machine, drain the swamp, burn the empire to the ground, on the hope that whatever rises from the ashes is bound to be better than what we have now.

The last sentence about hope is what really struck me from this quote. We hope that whatever we create from what we tear down, destroy, or do away with will be better. 

There is a belief that whatever comes, after destroying what exists, will somehow be better. It’s a hope. Hope, by itself, isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing. Although, if we are to create something better or improve things, we must use more than hope alone to accomplish it. Hope can drive our behavior, just like our beliefs and, like hope, our beliefs can lead us astray.

People, for the most part, don’t like to be wrong or feel like they made an error in judgment about things. Not many people can consistently make mistakes and feel good about themselves. We are constantly chasing a feeling in life, and being wrong or looking foolish isn’t among them. Whether we want to, or not, we will be wrong and look foolish at some point. If we’re really living life to the fullest and actively engaging with the world, it’s inevitable.

Given the fact that there are still horrible things that continue to happen around the world. Yes, Dr. Pinker’s TED talk mentioned earlier was from 2018 and there have definitely been some challenging events over the past four years. Namely, a worldwide pandemic, racial and social injustices, along with democracy being under attack. We still have people without access to education, healthcare, and even water in parts of the world. War in Ukraine. Human slavery and trafficking exist. Conspiracy theories are spreading like wildfire. Not to mention, the actual wildfires rampaging around the globe in any given season.

Our leaders still argue and fight over basic human rights. Many leaders focus more on re-election and retaining power than actual systemic change, improving the quality of life, or helping those in need or suffering. It definitely appears as though things are headed in the wrong direction.

That’s one way to look at today’s world. Let’s consider another…

We can also zoom out and look at what’s happening now as part of a larger, global cycle. Rather than focusing on a specific period of time in our country, we can look at the entire world over centuries. For example, entrepreneur and author, Ray Dalio illustrates how the World Order changes and moves through historical cycles in his book, Principles for Dealing with the Changing World Order: Why Nations Succeed and Fail. In it, he discusses how the major countries have shifted and changed positions based on “a confluence of political and economic conditions”, along with the cycle of evolution and regression they have experienced over the last 500 years. 

He created a video which further illustrates these concepts from this book. In the video, Dalio states that where a country ends up in the future will depend on two things. Both are the result of our choices and more within our control than we might believe.

Think about this: Each of us has the ability to wake up today and choose to stop our negative actions and develop more positive ones. We can choose another path at any time.

For society to do this, of course, it feels more unrealistic. It even sounds silly or highly unlikely it will ever happen, considering all the moving pieces like our history, beliefs, and emotions just to name a few.

Yet, we can look to all of the things we have already created and accomplished as evidence of our power to make substantial improvements. Everything we have made better is a result of people coming together to achieve a goal. We do it every day when constructing buildings, educating and raising children, or developing infrastructure and new technology. 

People have more freedoms, in general, than they have ever had in history. We live longer, we’re more accepting, and society is more advanced. Although it may appear slow and even stagnant at times, progress is constantly happening all around us.

What happens in the future to society depends on many factors. Some, like natural disasters, are out of our control. However, many more are within our control. They involve how we embrace our humanity and make conscious choices to improve this world, which is also the only home we have.

There are many examples where one person was able to rise above their circumstances or an idea that came out of pure inspiration or need, like farming or internet Wifi, became the basis for new ways to make a living. History has shown us progress can go many ways, whether for our collective good or demise. 

All we can really do is focus on our part and work to preserve peace, support freedom of choice, strive for equality and universal human rights, and be part of the solution in the process.  We must be able to focus on applying common sense, rational thought processes, and critical thinking skills. We need to refrain from imposing our personal views and beliefs on others, while respecting those of people we disagree with. We need to learn how to be more curious and open minded about the world around us, traveling and experiencing different cultures, while developing an appreciation of our differences in the process.

Progress will ultimately depend on the ability to stop being our own, worst obstacles. We waste so much time arguing and debating about who deserves what rights, how someone expresses themselves or lives their life, and marginalizing those we believe are somehow different from us.

We must let go of the need to control, restrict, and confine others from being who they are. It’s time to focus on how to move forward in a way that allows each person to be themselves, free of shame, guilt, or persecution. We need to focus on what’s most important. Let’s focus on peace, creativity, and supporting the freedom to live our best lives.

Let’s reconnect with the little spark we once had as children, when imagination was everything and we accepted the wonder of life so freely, without judging or withholding acceptance of others. When all we wanted to do was play, imagine, and have a friend to explore life’s possibilities. Progress is about exploring the possibilities of our imaginations, together, and turning them into a better reality for ALL of us.

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