Screw It. I Feel Like Being an Optimist Today.

A few years ago, I was having a conversation with a friend who was very unhappy with her life. She wasn’t satisfied with her job, friends, boyfriend, church, and living situation. She also wasn’t happy with her lunch, the temperature, and my tone of voice. The poor girl was trapped in a terrible, pessimistic cycle that was turning all the color in the world to a cold shade of grey. That conversation inspired me to start a blog/experiment in which I would take time out of every day to notice something amazing around me that I normally would overlook. I figured that if she could make everything terrible with her mind, I could do the opposite. I stopped updating the blog regularly when my computer broke and my father-in-law had a massive heart attack, but I’ve tried to keep the practice alive in my everyday life even if I don’t write about it. I challenge you to try it for yourself. Take one month and write down something amazing every day. It’s not as hard as you think. The world is bursting at the seams with goodness.

I’m going to say something now that may not be very popular, but please stay with me.

I think that the amount of good in the world right now FAR outweighs the amount of evil.

That’s not a very popular opinion, but I think that I can back it up!

My friends and I are are the kind of 20-30 year old city-dwellers who listen to NPR, protest corrupt gun shops, and work at non-profits. It’s easy for us to talk about the things that are wrong in the world. I know all about wars, oppression, famine, poverty, and corrupt world leaders. If you were to turn on the news right now, I guarantee that you will see or hear some bad news. I’m not blind to this. I live in Philadelphia. We have the highest murder rate of any city in the country, and it wasn’t a close finish either. I see the headlines. I will not deny the evil in the world or even think for one second about delegitimizing the suffering of the oppressed. All I want to say is that it is a matter of perception.

We are simply more sensitive to evil than we are to good.

Allow me to explain using this horrible illustration. Imagine for a moment that today is your wedding day. You have been with your partner for years, and you have been eagerly anticipating this day since you first met. Everything is going according to plan. You have never been happier in your life. That’s when you get word that your best friend has died. How do you feel for the rest of the evening? Are you able to have a good time?

What if you were at your father’s funeral and you got word that you had gotten the promotion that you had been trying so hard for? Would you be able to enjoy it?

Of course not! If you put a terrible situation and an amazing situation together, the terrible one will win out every time. We feel pain far more keenly than we do goodness. When I walk to work, I am regularly filled with sadness and depression at the state of the neighborhood and the ridiculous amount of garbage everywhere. It is much rarer for me to walk down the street and be utterly amazed at the engineering marvels around me or the fact that birds can fly.

So it’s easier for me to be miserable than to be happy? Thanks a LOT scumbag brain.

That being said, there is a perfectly good reason why we are like this. At some point millions of years ago, one of our distant ancestors developed the ability to feel pain, and did not like it at all. Its friends couldn’t feel pain yet, so they were more likely to die for stupid reasons. Meanwhile, our ancestor the “painasaurus” avoided things like forest fires, predators, and sharp sticks. More of them survived because of this unique skill, and they passed down their genetic sensitivity to pain all the way down to us. Sensitivity to pain, fear, paranoia, and pessimism are all fantastic tools for survival when there are sabertooth tigers that are trying to eat you in your sleep. What good would it have been to our ancestors to see the glass half-full? We really like pleasure, but its usefulness for survival is secondary to the more negative senses.

I wrote a few weeks ago (here) about how our brains quickly adapt to good things and quickly lose interest which is why Apple can sell out of new iPads every year. A person who is being tortured can eventually become numb to the pain, but it is FAR more difficult than for a person to stop feeling great about a new toy or a novel experience.

If our perception is unfairly titled towards the negative, how can I be so sure that there is more good in the world than evil?

It all depends on how you define good and evil. I think that generally speaking, when we talk about evil, we are talking about pain and death which are not inherently evil. When an earthquake kills thousands of people, it’s not evil. It is plate tectonics. When a mountain lion gets into someone’s house and kills them, it’s not evil. It is nature. Pain and death are just part of what it means to be alive. Evil is something different. Sure, it may use pain and death as tools, but evil implies human agency and free will. An earthquake that kills thousands of people is not evil, but an atomic bomb that does the same is definitely evil. When a mountain lion eats a family, it’s not evil, but when a person kills and eats a family, it is certainly evil. When a person understands the ramifications of their actions and still decides to act without regard for love, that is evil. Wealthy people who profit on the suffering of others are doing evil. Murderers and drug dealers are doing evil. Adulterous spouses are doing evil.

There is a lot of evil being done in the world!

However, while evil requires human agency to be evil, good does not. The world is full of things that work well and are amazing.

Electricity? Awesome.

Photosynthesis? Magical!

Cell Phones? Basically science fiction.

Running Water? How often do you think about how amazing it is?

Carbon? the Legos of the universe!

The Sun? Billions of nuclear reactions sending untold amounts of radiation into the cosmos so that you can be nice and warm.

How often do you stop and think about your lungs? Prick your finger and watch the blood itself clot the wound but flow freely through your veins. You’re reading this now, so I imagine that you have eyes and a brain that are pulling meaning from tiny shapes. You are infinitely amazing without ever doing a single thing. As I was writing this, “Folding Chair” by Regina Spektor came on in which she sings “I have a perfect body, but sometimes I forget. I have a perfect body because my eyelashes catch my sweat”.

We live in a beautiful world.

Maybe you’re thinking that I stacked the deck, and you would argue that human evil is more prevalent than human good, but I think you’re wrong again. How often do we overlook a friendly smile, a kind word, or an act of compassion while we remember the one bad driver that cut us off for the rest of the day? How many people are actively being loved right now? How many people are being taken care of when they are sick, hungry, or scared? There is no way to get hard data here, but my guess is that human goodness wins again. Of course, the difference is that of perception. One bad driver will ruin our commute while a thousand good drivers will go completely unnoticed.
So I urge you this Easter weekend to notice what is good and wonderful. After all, God thought so much of this world as to send Jesus to redeem it. He didn’t come to destroy the world and start over. No, Jesus became flesh and ushered in his kingdom right here on our lovely planet. What an honor! Let us continue to fight for the oppressed, but

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