Now is the weekend of our discontent. Cases are spiking, leaves are falling, the wind is up, the market’s down – and organizing coffee is like planning an assault on Everest. By Monday, our mornings will start darker and by Tuesday, America may grow darker still.
But take heart. In the midst of a pandemic, what we need is a more hopeful view of our lives and our future. It helps if that hope is based on facts. So here they are.
Last week, The Guardian published a series of maps that show life is slowly getting better. The key word here is “slowly”. Because “good news takes time, but bad news happens instantly.”
That fact comes from Morgan Housel, an investment banker whose blog is like finding Shakespeare in a balance sheet.
Let’s take just one part of our lives: heart disease. As Housel writes: “The age-adjusted death rate per capita from heart disease has declined more than 70% since the 1950s…Why are we not shouting in the streets about how incredible this is and building statues to cardiologists?”
“I’ll tell you why: because the improvement happened too slowly for anyone to notice…How would you react if you saw a news headline that says: “Heart disease deaths decline 1.5% last year. You’d yawn and move on. So that’s what we’ve done.”
But bad news?
“Bad news,” says Housel, “is not shy or subtle. It comes instantly, so fast that it overwhelms your attention and you can’t look away…It took less than 30 days for most people to go from never having heard of Covid-19 to it upending their life.”
His point is that growth and progress are far more powerful than setbacks. In fact, slow progress amid a drumbeat of bad news is the normal state of life. It’s just harder to see when we’re staring into the eye of a pandemic.
As with Morgan Housel, I’d never heard of Rutger Bregman until last week. He’s a Dutch historian whose last book Utopia for Realists was translated into 32 languages and whose new one, Humankind, A Hopeful History, claims that it isn’t our brains or our opposable thumbs that have put us at the top of the Darwinian heap, but our innate kindness and cooperation. The book, he says, is based on a simple but radical idea: “What if most people, deep down, are pretty decent?”
Lest you think that Bambi was his co-author, Bregman points out that in the past 20 years, scientists have moved from a cynical and negative view of humankind to a more positive and hopeful one. “In fact, we are hard-wired to be friendly and cooperate.”
This shift has huge implications for all 8 billion of us. Because “if you assume that most people deep down are just selfish, you’ll start designing your institutions around that idea: your schools, your workplace, your democracy.”
One look south and we’ll see how well that idea is working. But if we move to a more hopeful and realistic view of human nature, Bregman feels that can change everything.
Despite the evidence in favour of his idea, it remains deeply subversive.
But as he noted in a 2017 interview in Le Devoir, “…to move forward, a society needs dreams, not nightmares. Yet people are caught in the logic of fear…. Whether it is Trump, Brexit or the last elections in Germany, they vote against the future and instead for solutions to replace it, believing the past was better based on a thoroughly mistaken view of the world: the world was worse before.”
“Humanity is improving, conditions of life, work and health too. And it’s time to open the windows of our minds to see it.”
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One problem with despair, and I speak as a veteran here, is that you fall into it. But hope takes more effort. Hope is hard, especially if your horizon darkens when the sun sets today. But look a little farther, and the power of compounding interest for hope will always conquer despair – because it always has. It just takes longer to see.
So if you’re a little undone by what lies ahead next week, take heart.