How would you rate the condition of the world today compared to its condition in past generations? Are things getting better for humanity, or are they getting worse? A number of fascinating research projects have been conducted over the years to shed light on these questions. Factors considered in assessing how well things are going include health statistics, human longevity, food supplies, distribution of wealth, environmental changes, wars, terrorism, access to education and healthcare, political stability and more. And what do these studies conclude? Perhaps not so surprisingly, neither the confirmed pessimist nor the wide-eyed optimist can claim to have a corner on the truth of the human condition. Some things are getting better. Some things are getting worse.
As some students of the state of the human race have rightly pointed out, we humans have already pulled ourselves out of some of the greatest threats to our existence imaginable. With mechanization, medical progress and agricultural advances to our credit, we have moved from a time when humans struggled mightily to eke out a subsistence standard of living while battling constant threats of war, plague and famine, to a time when over 7 billion people are alive on the planet.
Yet, ironically, some say we humans are becoming victims of our own success. Our large numbers strain resources. Our amazing mobility allows for both the healthy exchange of goods and ideas and for challenges to cultures’ stability. And most significantly of all, while communications advances keep us incredibly well-informed, it is the negative and outrageous news that seems to get most of our attention and perhaps skew our perception of the actual state of affairs.
Are things getting better or getting worse? It’s so hard to assess at any single point of time, from any single place. It’s a big question, and one which the American writer John Steinbeck seemed to struggle with on occasion. In 1941, as war raged in Europe and the Pacific, he wrote a letter (in “Steinbeck: A Life in Letters”) in which he mused that the human species seemed sadly slow to learn from its mistakes. The year would be filled with the desperate battle against regimes whose fundamental values were at odds with our own. Yet Steinbeck was not despondent about the future. He wrote: “All the goodness and the heroisms will rise up again, then be cut down again and rise up. It isn’t that the evil thing wins – it never will – but that it doesn’t die.”
Steinbeck was right. Time and again, we humans have tried to stamp out evil, only to find it rears its vicious and ugly head again. We may never succeed in eliminating evil, but evil isn’t the only enduring element. It isn’t the only force at play among us, and it isn’t the strongest. Two-thousand years ago a very thoughtful observer of human nature and an ardently faithful man wrote about another influence in the world that should not be discounted. The Apostle Paul wrote these words, meant to encourage and sustain: “And now faith, hope and love abide, these three: and the greatest of these is love.”
Is the world getting better or getting worse? Maybe we can only offer tentative answers to that question. But we can be certain about the abiding resources at hand to employ in working toward a better world.