Normally my role as Director of Development with the Avocado Jungle has me recruiting staff and booking guest writers and artists, along with a laundry list of technical and organizational things to help the end product align with David’s vision. But I hope to do a little occasional writing. And to drive that and to organize my sometimes very non-writerly thoughts, I’ll be introducing a few series or “columns,” if they can be called that. One of those, very much in line with a core purpose of the Avocado Jungle, will be this one: Searching For The Truth.
Each of us is on some sort of search for the truth, however passive or however deeply submerged beneath the layers of things like activity, pretense, prejudice and denial. Despite our inherent preference for patterns and habits and stasis, we ultimately encounter greater truth in those unanticipated, vulnerable moments scattered throughout life and it throws a wrench in the works of our world view. This column is meant to examine the reasons we fail or succeed at finding the truth when we need it.
The AVJ is on a fun three-week arc now, considering “the good old days” this past week, the bright side of now this coming week, and our best hope for the future a week from now. On the topic of the past, I think it’s important to begin with the notion that great work and great thought almost always rests on the work and thought of the past. History is always with us as the foundation of our present condition. Anyone who decries the importance of understanding our past has to face the fact that Einsteins, Regans, FDRs, Ghandis, Kings, and Armstrongs (Louis or Neil, take your pick) all stood on the shoulders of the giants before them—and more fairly, on soil tilled by countless people and events of all kinds. Great thinkers and doers don’t think or do in a vacuum. They work and create in the atmosphere of the past.
At the moment we are facing a whole bunch of problems that feel new. Global terrorism networks. Rogue states with nukes. A wide variety of rampant infections and diseases from swine flu to AIDS to cancer. The huge recession of the past few years. Of course, understanding and addressing these problems individually (and preventing their recurrence) is vastly more likely if we learn from the past. But instead of wondering why any of these specific issues is an issue or how to solve it, I want to consider the package as a whole. How can so many of our problems feel so new all at once? Has it always been this way?
I have one simple answer for this: No. Things are different. That’s not to say all of these problems are entirely unique to this moment. That’s far from true. But I believe that not only is the pace of change accelerating, but that it’s accelerating on a curve. A steep curve. I’m sure I’m not the only one who believes this. Consider the last century or so from the point of view of a young girl.
In her great-great-grandparents’ time, commercial and military flight came into existence. The automobile replaced the horse-and-buggy. The telephone replaced the telegraph. The interstate highway system was begun. The first radio broadcast took place. The first television broadcast took place. Women were given the right to vote, and later entered the workplace on a large scale. The first rockets were launched. The atomic bomb was dropped (twice). Audio recording became commonplace. Jazz and swing came to be.
In her grandparents’ time, computers shrank from the size of a room to the size of a television. Television went from black and white to color. Radio went from AM to FM. The hydrogen bomb was developed. The cold war raged. A president was assassinated. The civil rights movement was born and matured. Men first walked on the moon. The Vietnam War, Nixon, and the media combined to destroy Americans’ trust in authority. Credit cards went from nonexistent to commonplace. Rock’n’roll came about.
In her parents’ time, computers shrank from the size of a television to tiny handheld devices. Terrorism took hold and proliferated. The microwave was invented. The telephone went from rotary-dial to touchtone to cordless to cellphone to smart phone. Music moved from record to 8-track to cassette to CD to mp3. Movies evolved from theatrical experiences to VHS cassettes to DVDs to mpeg files. Video games went from brand new to ubiquitous. The internet went from a tiny network of enthusiasts and the military to being omnipresent. The space shuttle program began. A space station was built. The modern popular environmentalist movement was born. Rap and hip hop came about.
Looking at the list of things just from the last 30 years or so, it seems the scope and the potential for negative impact on the world exceeds those of the previous 70 years. The scariest things in terms of raw impact on society, to me, are the power of the internet and video games to remove face-to-face interpersonal interaction from our days; the nebulous and anonymous nature of the internet and of terrorism; and the ability of modern media and the internet to make available a truly mind-blowing quantity and variety of goods and information while making it less likely that the goods or information found will be of quality. The increase in speed and miniaturization and the ubiquitousness of media and advertising has precipitated a terrifying preoccupation with convenience, vanity and self-amusement. And to top it all off, parents are notably less likely to enforce limits, teach manners and respect, impart the significance of hard work, and live near extended family who lend support and grounding to the nuclear family.
How can all of this not affect that little girl? She’s hard-wired to prefer habits and patterns, as well as to worship her parents and learn from everything they say and do. Yet she’s growing up with parents who are providing less guidance in a world that’s changing faster than ever. She’ll grow up watching people sacrifice their lives in hateful attacks against others, having virtually limitless options for finding information (and misinformation), and crowded by an ever-growing population that will need more manners and respect to get along—not less. And she’ll have less of an opportunity to talk about it all with her family and friends because both of her parents work or are divorced, she doesn’t live anywhere near auntie or grandma, and the internet and video games and cell phones seem to suck up all her time (and everyone else’s) anyway. Just multiply this little girl times 20 or 30 million and you may have a sort of average of the next generation and the experience of their formative years.
This sets us up for some good old-fashioned learning from the past. In the past, change was happening at a slower pace but there was a broader and more consistent family structure, there were fewer distractions from social interaction and productive work and play, a greater emphasis was placed on respect and propriety, and media and advertising were less ubiquitous and invasive and unavoidable. These are things we have some power over. There are many other variables we cannot control, like the threat of terrorism. And this is not to say that everything was just rosy in the past. I’m not longing for the days of rampant workplace discrimination or racial segregation, or a time when it was your business and nobody else’s if you beat your wife. But I think we can restore some measure of the good without reverting to the bad. Perhaps we just have to think of it more as a remodel for tomorrow than a return to the ways of yesterday.
We are faced with choices every day that can bring about this change. Some of them sound, sadly, “old-fashioned,” but “new” isn’t synonymous with “better.” Who wouldn’t like a world with a little more ettiquette? Just say “please” and “thank you” more often! Who wouldn’t like a little less of the mindless drone of TV and video games? Turn it off and read or talk! Who wouldn’t benefit from a bigger, stronger circle of family and friends to rely on? Make a phone call to grandma! Talk things out patiently and candidly with your wife! Society-wide solutions are more complicated than this. But for us as human beings, it really is just that simple.
So I think that in this case of searching for the truth—trying to understand why things feel like they’re spiraling out of control around us—the very fact that things are actually changing at a frightening pace can be a distraction from the fact that we still have the power create some of that stability and comfort we long for. I suppose the rest will have to made up for by learning to accept change, deal with it gracefully and intelligently, and maybe even relish it. But it’s okay, even healthy, to want some patterns and predictability in our lives. I’m happy to say that I feel the responsibility for those things still rests with us.