I once undertook a study tour of seven Western nations, in the course of which I interviewed over two hundred people belonging to nearly a hundred organisations whose work relates to global issues. Almost every interview ended with the following questions: ‘It’s easy to see what’s wrong in the world today – anyone can make a long list of problems. But I would like to ask you to mention what you consider the three most positive trends in the world today – in any area.’
Do you know, nearly everyone replied that he had never thought about this? Some even replied, ‘Nothing’ or ‘I can’t think of anything positive.’
Yet, to those with eyes to see, there is an immense amount of good going on in the world today – from major social improvements in the third world, to the growing consciousness of living in one interdependent world and the increasingly efficient efforts to improve the environment, the whole new vision of the universe emerging from the so-called New Physics.
Why do we not know more about these trends?
‘Good is boring for the media,’ a high school student replied. But what is happening to a society where evil ‘sells’ and good is ‘boring’?
When Albert Einstein was once asked, ‘What is the most important question concerning the future of the human race?’, he replied simply, ‘Is the universe friendly?’
A law of harmony
I have reached the profoundly reassuring conviction – and especially feeling – that the universe we live in is an immensely friendly place. More – that it is governed by a basic law of harmony which encompasses absolutely everything from the smallest subatomic particle to the farthest galaxies at the end of space – yes, infinity itself. That nothing is outside the reach of this law, whatever appearances may clamour to the contrary.
This ‘ontological optimism’ was not the effortless gift of some metaphysical fairy godmother. For five years, in Dakar, West Africa, I lived a hundred yards from a shantytown, the children of which regularly rummaged in my garbage for food or anything else. Such scenes, repeated daily, are a most efficient safeguard against covert leanings toward any ‘rosypinkism’ I might indulge.
My work forces me to look daily at the more grisly aspects of the world scene. ‘So how can you be so fundamentally optimistic?’ There is almost a note of reproach when I am asked this question – and, paradoxically, also a deep yearning to share whatever vision I have.
One cannot justify one’s Weltanschaung – one’s world view. It just dawns upon one, usually very slowly, after years of learning, yearning and listening, that life can be an infinitely wise teacher. We may choose to procrastinate the moment of understanding, but I believe we can never avoid it.
Life is like a Persian rug
As I look back upon my own life, I see how many events – which at the time appeared horribly painful or unnecessary – contained remarkable lessons which I sometimes did not understand until many years later. Now life appears to me – more and more – as a gorgeous Persian rug. Seen from underneath (that is, from the ordinary human viewpoint), it may be a mess of loose strands, knots, pieces of wool hanging in a disorderly manner; but seen from above – from another level of perspective – what perfect order, harmony and beauty!
The ‘game of hope’
I was once called upon to address a meeting of United Nations professionals working in the field of public education on world issues in Geneva. I suggested we play what I call the ‘game of hope’, listing positive trends in the world. Something extraordinary – an experience I have rarely had in my life – happened to these ‘staid UN bureaucrats’. We discovered together the immense importance of hope. We felt hope. We saw it had very deep roots in powerful trends for the good unfolding in many fields of human endeavour, all round the world. And it gave us practical ideas for new approaches to our work.
Denis de Rougemont, the well-known Swiss writer, once wrote, ‘The decadence of a society starts when people ask What’s going to happen to me? instead of What can I do?’ After the meeting in Geneva, a middle-aged United Nations ‘bureaucrat’ (if seen from carpet level), whom I had never met before, drove me to the station. She was full of joy, and as we parted she threw her arms around me and said, ‘I love you’. To which I replied, ‘Well, I love you – it’s the most natural thing in the world.’
To those who ask Denis de Rougemont’s question, one might answer: Try a little more love – today. It has the amazing tendency of opening up ever-expanding horizons, and if one perseveres, one is sure to see the carpet’s pattern – from above.
PS I’d like to recommend a very beautiful and inspiring website: