Gongol.com Archives: September 2021

Brian Gongol

September 3, 2021

News It's not that bad things aren't happening, it's that they've always happened

The modern world has many menaces: The disinformation addict, the gullible dupe, and the terminally online are all among them. But alongside their "Wanted" posters ought to be hung a portrait of the perpetual catastrophizer. That's the person who cannot see the good or the bad in the world with any sort of context, but who believes that Dickens should have written, "It was the worst of times; it was [still] the worst of times". ■ It doesn't take much work to find the catastrophizers. Legions of people are out and about talking about how "the world [is] burning" and "everything is awful". Even if individuals are using it as a literary device or as a signal to others that they're part of the in-group, it's patently unhealthy, both psychologically and sociologically. ■ Doom and existential dread are not suitable substitutes for a worldview. The relatively recent past was littered with issues like polio, the Cold War, devastating earthquakes, fascism, smallpox, famine, et cetera, et cetera, ad infinitum. The distant past was in many ways even worse. ■ We haven't overcome all of those problems, but significant progress has been made on many fronts: The Green Revolution feeds the world, vaccines have halted dreadful diseases, and most of the world has electricity at home. ■ Human progress has never taken place for any length of time along a straight line. It is marked always by things changing -- some for the better, some for the worse. To the extent that people of goodwill are out to pull in the right direction, the great arc of history bends in that way. We eradicate old evils only to uncover new ones, while triumphs of technology and other progress open new paths for trouble to take root. There was no cyberbullying before there was cyberspace, but the Internet is yet still a glorious tool for human advancement. ■ If you make the mistake of hanging out in the wrong corners of culture, you'll get the impression that this is truly the nadir of civilization. That perspective isn't fair to the current generation, it isn't fair to preceding generations, and it surely isn't fair to our successors. The Church of Perpetual Catastrophe worships at an altar of shortcomings and failure, but it is devoid of any prayers of hope or saints to emulate. ■ Everyone has a moral obligation to stay in mental contact with people who went through tough times long before oneself, so we can see that our own troubles are rarely as novel as we may imagine. A casual glimpse through historical 20th Century newspaper photos brings the viewer face-to-face with terrible (but commonplace) airliner catastrophes and beauty queens who died after routine surgeries. Just a couple of generations ago, an American born just a few years before Winston Churchill and living into their 80s might well have been born into the Civil War and died after witnessing their second World War. ■ Certainly, times can be tough; we're living through some that seem lot tougher than, say, those of the 1990s -- when the world seemed to be turning perpetually peaceful and prosperous all at once (even if Van Halen sang of their reservations at the time). The greater our perspective -- both by looking at the wide world around us and at the long scope of history -- the easier it becomes to see that we rarely encounter entirely novel problems. ■ Everything isn't awful or on fire or falling apart -- at least, not in ways humans haven't muddled through before. We just need the perspective to know that humans have the duty to endure -- and it doesn't happen by default or by despair.