Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Rallying the Rational

I had dinner with three of the most important people in my life the other day and we had an interesting discussion about the fate of the world, our role in the culture, and other such trivialities. We were a strange mix: two men and two women; two Christians and two atheists; two parents and two who would never get to be parents. Nathan and I are, of course, the two atheists who won't get to see our son grow up. My sister and her husband are the two Christians who have a bright and beautiful son. In this odd mix of persons and personalities, the most fascinating and sometimes disturbing conversations arise.

My sister and I share a great deal of the same idealism and enthusiasm. We genuinely want to leave the world a better place than we found it. We want to do all we can to help educate people and promote science-based medicine. Where we part company is in our abilities. She is a vivacious, on-top-of-the-world professional who can get things done. I am a reclusive, sometimes misanthropic, person who has to ride the tides of rage of get anything done.

Nathan, of course, shares our idealism and enthusiasm but he is far more circumspect than I. Where I would barrel in with guns blazing, he would knock politely and ask to chat over a cup of coffee. He is the more social, more tolerant, antidote to my rock-hard skepticism. 

And then there is my brother-in-law. He is much more of a realist and a pragmatist than any of us although I do share a high degree of that realism too (it's one of the reasons why I have a hard time putting my idealism into action).  He has a keen ability to read people and assess situations quickly. He is not the kind of person to be underestimated and will probably outlive us all.

So as we are all talking about life in Northeast Mississippi and what we could do to improve it, I kept hearing my own thoughts coming out of everyone else's mouths. 

"I think we need more education."
"How can we get this information out there?"
"Would parents bring their kids to an afternoon class?"
"Would kids look it up on the internet?"

And then the realism: "The information's already out there. Nobody cares enough to look at it and do anything."

How can I argue with that truth? It's been my firm belief for quite a while now that there is really no excuse for remaining ignorant on any subject any more. You might not fully understand it and you might not get it all right but you can look up any subject on the internet and get informed. There is simply no excuse for ignorance. In my days and the days of my forebears, we only had books and the occasional TV program for information. The nearest bookstore was an hour away and we had little money to spend on useless information. If I didn't learn something in school, I had to save up and hope I could order a book on the subject from somewhere.  It's not like that now. Now there is no reason to be totally blind.

So that being said, I can't disagree with the realistic assessment that lack of information isn't always the issue. Sometimes the truth is that people just don't care enough about themselves or society to do any better.

"How do you change a culture?" I asked. We all looked at each other kind of blankly. 

Realism replied again, "You don't."

We're all going to hell in a handbasket, you see. Time flows on regardless of the machinations of individual humans. It ebbs and it flows, sure, but not because of anything that any one of us does. No one person can change the world.

Or can she? I look in my sister's eyes and I believe she could help a person change. I look at Nathan and I believe he can help a person change. But one can only help...not force. A person must want to change and that is where my brother-in-law's staunch realism must be acknowledged. We can lead the credulous to knowledge but we can't make them think.

I internalized all this dialog and I've been musing on it a few days now. Sometimes I feel like I'm wasting my time writing or creating anything. I feel like all my battles are useless. I feel like there is no hope for the world so I might as well just enjoy the time I have left and leave everyone else to rot. 

Then I realize that people have always kind of felt this way. Every generation has thought that the world couldn't get much worse, that the kids were out of control, that there was no hope for the future. When I think of the generations that survived WWI and WWII, I'm ashamed that I look at our problems and think them so grand. We do have some serious problems but, good grief, look at what those poor people faced!

And then I remember that people have changed the world. It wasn't always quick and it has never been painless. Change almost always comes with a price-tag of blood but there have always been courageous ones who have paid it for us. So I stay mindful that things will never change if we lose our vision and stop working to make things better.  It takes everyone pushing together against the status quo to make any kind of difference.

I don't know what the future holds for us rational folks. I'd like to believe that radical religion is losing its hold on America and the screams we hear are death rattles. I'd like to think that we are moving toward a more tolerant era so that we can work together on some of these issues that plague us. But I also realize that established power structures can be very difficult to topple and that we have some serious trust issues eating us from within.

Do we have the courage and the strength to stay in the fight? Should we even bother? It's hard for me to say but my feeling is that I must stick with it. I think I would rather die knowing that I tried to do good and failed rather than die knowing I didn't bother to try. But I also know that I need to keep these voices close to me and listen well to what they say. It is vital that I remain rooted in skepticism but I think it does me no harm to keep my face toward the sun.