I made aliyah last spring. My mother, a serial and accomplished worrier of Olympic proportions, is back home in California, completely confused and paralyzed with fear as to why on earth I would move to Israel.
You can’t really blame her – Israel is the source of bad and worse news as far as she can tell from the likes of CNN. But then, my mother was born in 1940 and raised during the era of Edward R. Murrow and later, Walter Cronkite. Journalists who reported the nightly news with 95% more integrity and objectivity that can be dreamt of these days. Today, the news is delivered in a never-ending, 24 hour feed of negativity. It overwhelms my mom, and she is unable to unplug from it and consider both the integrity of the source and the agenda of fear it propagates. That the news would have an agenda is something my mother understands intellectually but not emotionally. Fear based reporting has left my her with a deepening sense of doom.
My mom came of age in the rosy, sheltered, American world of sock hops, new appliances and doo wop music. She came from the generation that believed that Hitler was the last terrible evil we’d ever have to defeat and that his end would herald a true “never again” age. What terrible disillusionment, as dozens of other, smaller holocausts and despots wreaked havoc on our world. Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia – Syria.
My mother reads about the atrocities committed by Assad and it has led her, by way of coping, to conclude that humans are simply hard-wired to be evil.
To say that my mother and I are cut from different cloth would be a huge understatement. I was born during the tumultuous 60s, when JFK, RFK and Martin Luther King were gunned down in quick succession. I remember watching the nightly news showing American soldiers being brought home from Viet Nam in body bags. I remember watching President Nixon flash the peace sign just as he got into his helicopter and flew away from the White House and the presidency in shame. I was born when Camelot ended violently. I was born on the cusp of a rude awakening in America.
I come from the tail end of the baby boomer generation, weaned on disappointment and faith that has been shaken so often that it barely exists. I come from the generation that expects that the government is corrupt, that despotic leaders rule over illiterate, poor countries with carte blanche and that the “news” is dubious and agenda-driven more often than not. I believe that Bill Clinton did have sex with that woman.
Despite all that, despite an increasing propensity of my generation and those that followed it, toward irony and cynicism, I have chosen to hew to a world view shaped and informed by a potpourri of social anthropology and context, spirituality and pragmatism of an eastern, Zen stripe. The only thing to fear is fear itself and all that. We are what we choose to think about most.
I think about the fact that we kill each other far, far less often than we cooperate and be decent, if not kind. I think about the fact that billions of us at this very moment, ride the bus, go to work, queue up for subways and grocery store lines and go to movies in peaceful coexistence. Most of us are cooperative and peaceful a majority of the time.
Humans are motivated by very simple things, at the end of the day – even as sophisticated and modern as we think we are. We are motivated by fear and we are motivated by reward. We are still overcoming our animal urges to survive at any cost. Recognizing that means also recognizing that in order to survive as a species, we must also cooperate and act for the higher good. Which we do and have done for thousands of years.
Having moved across the world and thousands of miles from my life in California, I have been afforded the privilege of putting my life in perspective, and of re-examining my opinions on almost every topic imaginable. Something seemingly only possible when you hop into a completely different fishbowl and swim in new waters. Newsflash: that’s not the only time it is possible to change your perspective – but it sure as shootin’ helps.
I have been humbled by the fact that no matter how well read, liberal or cool you think you are, if you think your point of view has not been programmed into you by your faith, by patriotism, nationality, gender or your family of origin, you are mistaken. How naked one feels when one realizes that it is possible – just possible – that your opinions are not facts. How exciting to contemplate that by simply changing your mind about what you think you know, new possibilities flood in.
My mother’s worried, pessimistic emails about Israel, Syria and the general state of things are sometimes overwhelming. Stop it, I want to shout. Stop being so negative! Her opinion that the world is “going to hell in a hand basket” (how I love Americanisms like that) is evidenced, in her belief, by what she sees on the news. Humans, she says, are “intrinsically bad”. How can we believe otherwise, when we see what’s going on in Syria? What has gone on in Sudan and so many other places? How can we believe that humanity is good, the day after Tisha B’Av, a day when we remember the terrible things that have happened to the Jews?
The most radical truth I have ever encountered is that we can change our minds if we shift our focus. The last frontier is not space. No, it lies within. Our thoughts give life to universes of belief and to galaxies of experience.
Assad is not evidence that humanity is intrinsically bad. He is one person, spiraling into impotence, irrelevance and powerlessness. As his situation deteriorates, so do his actions. He is not a symbol of the negativity of humanity, he is an example of how absolute power corrupts absolutely.
There was a study that concluded that most world leaders and politicians are minimally narcissistic and sometimes sociopathic. Assad is not a typical human being. He is a despot. And he is going down. The outcome may not be pretty, or organized, or particularly positive for a while – but his reign is ending and I prefer to focus on that fact and what may come out of it – sooner or later.
When things are bad, humans get scared. They can be talked into almost anything – the holocaust comes to mind. When things are good, humans are more likely to be generous and kind – daily life comes to mind. Studies have shown that Americans, some of the most materially comfortable people in the world, are less happy than denizens of much less prosperous countries. What gives with that? What is happiness? What makes us believe that “things are bad”? What is bad? Lots of things are bad, but in the Information Age, where media competes to keep our eyes on a webpage and our gaze upon a television channel, bad is redefined and packaged as fear-inducing info-tainment, designed to make us give up hope or to contemplate action and rather, to get in the car and buy more stuff at Walmart. Because more stuff is what makes it bearable. Or so we have become conditioned to think. “It is what it is,” we shrug. There’s nothing we can do.
Nothing is more subversive than to choose to be happy in a world drowning in exaggerated, sensationalized bad news.
We are the writers, directors and producers of our own lives. In my movie, in my reality, good wins out and kindness and common sense show up eventually. I have no interest in being subversive. No, I am quite selfish. In my movie, life is good and I am as happy as I choose to be.
Believing that human nature is basically bad is a very easy argument to make. But it is lazy, unexamined thinking and the dividends are terrible: it gives us an excuse not to strive to be better. Negativity is a cop out.
I am a mother myself. My kids are of a totally new generation. I try to imagine what their point of view is and will be, after having been weaned on the World Wide Web, a war waged out of self-interests and lies in Iraq and the horrible images and realities of September 11th. I wonder how they will look at the world from where they are, in liberal arts colleges in the US, knowing damn well a good job is in no way guaranteed them after graduation. And for what? What are they do to with this Silent Spring world we’ve left for them to inherit?
What can I tell them? That in my experience and from what I see on TV, that the end is near? To think happy, Peace Train/Candy Land thoughts and everything will be okay? Neither of those options arm my children with the tools they need to make sense of this crazy blue marble.
But I would tell them this:
Subvert the dominant paradigm. Think critically about where your information and beliefs come from. Accept that you don’t know what you don’t know and you never will. Choose to live with beliefs that make you happy and inspire you to do good stuff. Don’t focus on the tsunamis, melting glaciers, evil despots and child solders and use that as an excuse to give up on humanity.
Being positive isn’t new and it isn’t easy. But negativity is the ultimate cop out. Nobody ever changed anything for the better by believing that goodness is a relic of an imagined Camelot or a statistical anomaly. Good things happen every single day. Look more closely. You will find the flowers growing in the cracks and when you do, breathe in that sweet fragrance and rejoice.
I have to walk the walk in order to be a credible positive thinker and more importantly, so that I can have an impact on my children. And no, it’s not always easy for me to do so. But striving for better, for more, for greater heights is one of the precious hallmarks of being human. We believe, we aspire, and in doing so, we elevate ourselves and we find grace. I choose to fix my gaze upon that, and when I do, I am overcome with the bittersweet, ragged beauty of this world. It is what it is – and through my eyes, as I write it all down from my rag and bone shop – it is beautiful.