Yet another mass shooting in Texas today. In recent months, I find myself more and more frequently worrying about the state of the world. The news these days isn't merely bad, it's terrible. And I'm often left to wonder if the world is, indeed, a friendly place.
Since August, there have been a host of natural disasters. Powerful, destructive hurricanes in Texas, Florida, the Caribbean Islands and Puerto Rico, wildfires in Northern California, an earthquake in Mexico that killed 370, monsoon floods in India and Nepal that took 1200 lives. Seeing these as “acts of God” doesn't mitigate the loss that thousands of people have experienced, but at least one doesn't have to accept these as self-inflicted wounds.
But beyond these tragedies, we have concurrently experienced an almost non-stop assault on our humanity that is of our own making and that is undermining the fabric of our civil society. Where do I begin? In August, we saw Neo-Nazis marching, chanting and rioting on the campus of the University of Virginia and the streets of Charlottesville emboldened by our growing racial divisions.
We see case after case of sexual harassment and assault that have come to the surface after years of stewing underground, known by many, but seemingly stopped by no one. We see powerful organizations provide protection to predators using "non-disclosure agreements" to silence the victims and cover up sexual misconduct and serious crimes, that (mainly) powerful men have committed. The end result of too many of these occurrences is that the reputation of the organization remains intact, the perpetrators remain in their positions and in some cases even subsequently sign enormous contracts despite their deplorable and often criminal behavior.
We see our government taken to new lows almost daily with impulsiveness, insults, lies and retributions. Civility in politics has become an anachronistic oxymoron. Being measured in one's words and actions is no longer considered an attribute. Dignity, character, decency and the honor of being an elected official have been pushed aside for winning at all costs. Our current President has set the standard for such behavior. And we now learn that the Democrats’ nomination process was indeed “rigged.” Meanwhile we see Congress accomplishing nothing seemingly being driven only by the goal of undoing whatever has been done over the past eight years, and in the process striving to eliminate protections for our most vulnerable citizens.
Worst of all, we see terrorism and mass murder on the steady rise in Paris, in London, in Barcelona, and in New York where foreign tourists and lifelong friends die while out for a bike ride on a beautiful Halloween afternoon. Today, 26 innocent worshippers are killed at church services in South Texas. And perhaps most perplexing, a middle-aged man shoots indiscriminately at thousands of innocent concertgoers in Las Vegas, killing 58 and wounding 200 with, it seems, no motive at all.
All of these and the accompanying drone of non-stop news and social media posts that not only report such terrible events but also obsess over salacious stories leave me feeling debilitated. I’m left to wonder if there is a reason to believe in the goodness of the world. Have we reached the point where kindness, decency and generosity of spirit have ceased to matter? Are our children growing up in a time when the world seems only dark and hostile?
Albert Einstein once said, “ "I think the most important question facing humanity is, ‘Is the universe a friendly place?’ This is the first and most basic question all people must answer for themselves.” He explained his question as follows:
"If we decide that the universe is an unfriendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries, and our natural resources to achieve safety and power by creating bigger walls to keep out the unfriendliness and bigger weapons to destroy all that which is unfriendly. I believe that we are getting to a place where technology is powerful enough that we may either completely isolate or destroy ourselves in this process.”
By contrast, Einstein stated that if we decide the universe is a friendly place we will use our technology, scientific advancements and resources to create better approaches for understanding the universe, because our power and safety will come through understanding its workings and its motives.
I can only speak for myself, but I have a strong sense that we have reached a juncture where asking this question is key: “Is the world a friendly place?” And we must not ask or answer it from the perspective of victims. We need to answer it as as active agents --- as friends, as neighbors, as co-workers, as citizens. What kind of world do we see, or more importantly, what kind of world are we committed to seeing and creating?
In reflecting on Einstein’s question, I know that the answer is not scientifically or objectively discernable. It can only be answered in our hearts and in our day-to-day choices. I try to look for the good that I find in my daily interactions with family, friends, colleagues and the strangers with whom I cross paths. These days, I admit it is extremely challenging to remain optimistic. But for me, doing so is the only option. It gives me hope and a belief in the possibility that collectively we can make our world “a friendly place.”
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