When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love. —Marcus Aurelius
I hesitate to write anything sounding too terribly positive. While I want to be encouraging and supportive, every time I do it seems to backfire on me and I have the worst day possible. There are times one might get the impression that the universe is saying, “How DARE you be positive and hopeful? You must be punished for your remarks.” I know I’m not alone. Many days we wake up and absolutely nothing we do goes as planned. Flat tires. Disappointing people. Failed expectations. A stain on your new shirt—before noon. I’m not really expecting today to be any different.
I finally got around to reading President Obama’s article in Wired this morning, though. He presents a rather challenging premise:
We are far better equipped to take on the challenges we face than ever before. I know that might sound at odds with what we see and hear these days in the cacophony of cable news and social media. But the next time you’re bombarded with over-the-top claims about how our country is doomed or the world is coming apart at the seams, brush off the cynics and fearmongers. Because the truth is, if you had to choose any time in the course of human history to be alive, you’d choose this one. Right here in America, right now.
Do I want to believe the President? Sure. Intellectually, the points he makes are valid. What we actually experience is often different, though.
A Matter Of Perspective
When discussing how things have improved over the years, the President makes some compelling points:
- Life expectancy is up.
- The share of Americans with a college education is up too.
- Tens of millions of Americans recently gained the security of health insurance.
- Blacks and Latinos have risen up the ranks to lead our businesses and communities.
- Women are a larger part of our workforce and are earning more money.
- Once-quiet factories are alive again
- More countries know democracy.
- More kids are going to school.
- A smaller share of humans know chronic hunger or live in extreme poverty.
- In nearly two dozen countries—including our own—people now have the freedom to marry whomever they love.
I can’t and wouldn’t want to argue any of those points. Some tremendous strides have taken place over the past several years and, combined, they have made life on this planet better than many of our parents and grandparents could have ever dreamed. Tremendous advantages and opportunities make this a great time to be alive.
At the same time, however, being alive right now, in 2016, holds some pretty significant challenges.
- Unjust and disproportionate incarceration of people of color
- Police violence against unarmed citizens has reached a breaking point
- Corporate takeover of the political system has turned us into an oligarchy
- The gap between the richest one percent and everyone else is wider than ever
- Family revenue has either stayed flat or declined while inflation has soared
- A record number of adults have been unemployed for over six months with increasingly fewer prospects.
- Native peoples are still the most disenfranchised group and their property rights are not respected.
We’ve made progress, but we’re a long way from being where we should, where we want, and where we need to be.
Looking To The Future
Taking an honest assessment of where we are right now, what it means to be alive in 2016, is both sobering and hopeful. We’ve gotten some things right, but there is still much to do. President Obama refers frequently to the late Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek science fiction franchise as an example of an ideal society:
What I loved about it was its optimism, the fundamental belief at its core that the people on this planet, for all our varied backgrounds and outward differences, could come together to build a better tomorrow.
While such optimism is laudable, it is difficult to anticipate we are anywhere near that ideal when one of the top headlines this morning reads: Russia may be getting ready ‘to level Aleppo to the ground’ While those of us in the United States might be in a cooperative mood, the same can hardly be said of the rest of the world. Uhm, Brexit, anyone? The current mood seems to be that everyone wants to do their own thing. Cooperation will just have to wait.
Looking to the future, though, we have to have some degree of optimism, don’t we? If we can’t find any points of hope, any signs of encouragement, any indication that things might improve, then what is it going to mean to be alive in 2020 and beyond?
I’m sitting here this morning wondering what the future of photography is going to look like. Will any of us manage to stay in business through another ten years of rapid change? We not only face technological advancements that are impossible to predict, but we are also experiencing a complete upheaval in how people view photography altogether. Is it possible for our profession to survive?
What Science May Yield
The President is sold on the concepts of Science in solving the greatest challenges facing the world. His take is that one of the reasons now is a great time to be alive is because science is poised to develop new solutions to problems that have plagued us for centuries. He writes in the article:
Just as in the past, to clear these hurdles we’re going to need everyone—policy makers and community leaders, teachers and workers and grassroots activists, presidents and soon-to-be-former presidents. And to accelerate that change, we need science. We need researchers and academics and engineers; programmers, surgeons, and botanists. And most important, we need not only the folks at MIT or Stanford or the NIH but also the mom in West Virginia tinkering with a 3-D printer, the girl on the South Side of Chicago learning to code, the dreamer in San Antonio seeking investors for his new app, the dad in North Dakota learning new skills so he can help lead the green revolution.
So, the answer to our challenges is that we need to re-conceptualize? I love the President’s optimism, but when I’m sitting here worried about keeping the lights on and having enough food for my family, it’s rather difficult for me to re-conceptualize anything much beyond how to find yet another way to make ground beef interesting. I’m not even sure what it would mean to reconceptualize photography. I try wrapping my head around that question and end up having to take a couple of pills and lie down for a moment.
Alive And Functioning
I am thankful for all the advantages that come with being alive right now. I’m thankful that we have this thing called the Internet that allows me to share with you both my words and my pictures. I’m thankful that life has improved for whole groups of people and that there are almost endless opportunities for my children.
Still, there is more to live than just being alive. For life to be fulfilling we must also be functioning toward some end.
My AARP card came in the mail yesterday. I am of an age where many of my peers are enjoying grandchildren and looking forward to the joys of retirement. Not all of us are there, though. Many of us look at the potential demise of our careers and wonder how we are going to continue to function in this science-oriented future. We can try to keep up, but doing so is a struggle. We don’t especially have a lot of money to spend on new equipment, or classes to teach us what Millennials inherently know.
Did you catch that line in the President’s statement about “soon-to-be-former presidents?” President Obama is breaking with tradition and remaining in Washington, D.C. after the new president takes office. Rather than running away and retreating in quiet and solitude, as Presidents before him have done, Mr. Obama plans to stay active and stay involved in helping shape the future development of the world.
Maybe we can do the same. Stay active. Stay involved. Don’t let ourselves be pushed aside, relegated to some memory of how things used to be. We are alive now. Therefore, we need to be an integral part of what is happening now.