Glory in the Highest(excerpted from the revised and expanded edition of
Pronoia Is the Antidote for Paranoia)
GLORY IN THE HIGHEST
Thousands of things go right for you every day, beginning the moment you wake up. Through some magic you don't fully understand, you're still breathing and your heart is beating, even though you've been unconscious for many hours. The air is a mix of gases that's just right for your body's needs, as it was before you fell asleep.
You can see! Light of many colors floods into your eyes, registered by nerves that took God or evolution or some process millions of years to perfect. The interesting gift of these vivid hues is made possible by an unimaginably immense globe of fire, the sun, which continually detonates nuclear reactions in order to convert its own body into light and heat and energy for your personal use.
You can't live without the sun's inexhaustible flood of unconditional love. Every move you make depends on it. Luckily, it never fails you.
Did you know that your personal star is located at the precise distance from you to be of consummate service? If it were any closer, you'd fry, and if it were any farther away, you'd freeze. Is that just a happy accident? Or is it a sign of favor—a big, broad hint, from a cosmic intelligence that adores you?
Of the many things that have gone right for you during your time on Earth, the most crucial was your birth. As you crossed over the threshold, trading the warm dark sanctuary for the bright noisy enigma, you didn't die! It was a difficult act of high magic that involved many people who worked very hard in your behalf. The skills they provided in helping you navigate your rite of passage were in turn made possible by previous generations of threshold-tenders who bequeathed their expertise.
Months before that initiation, a more secret miracle bloomed: Your life began as a single cell, spawned by the explosive fusion of two highly specialized bundles of chromosomes. How could that tiny package of raw material have possibly grown a brain and liver and heart and stomach over a period of a few months? What inscrutable genius guided and oversaw the emergence of your fully formed infant body, that virtuoso creation, from the slimmest of clues?
"Something unknown is doing we don't know what," said astrophysicist Arthur Eddington about the universe. And we are the beneficiaries.
P.S. You have continued to grow since your birth, with millions of new cells continually blooming to replace the old ones that are always dying. At this moment, you're host to about 50 trillion cells, and each of them is really a sentient being in its own right. They all act together as a community, implementing the monumental collaboration you call your body.
You can drink a glass of water. You can spread butter on a slice of toast. You can wash your hair and prune your plants and draw infinity signs on a piece of paper. Your hands work wonderfully well! Their intricate force and sustained grace are amply supported by your heart, which circulates your blood all the way out to replenish the energy of the muscles and nerves in your fingers and palms and wrists. After your blood has delivered its blessings, it finds its way back to your heart to be refreshed. This masterful mystery repeats itself over and over again without you ever having to think about it.
Contemplate the unfathomable prowess of your digestive system. Countless chemical reactions have to unfold with alacrity in order for it to work as well as it does. The gastric juice has to be composed of just the right mix of pepsin, rennin, mucus, and hydrochloric acid. The bile and pancreatic juice must arrive at the right spot and at the right time. The enterocytes in your small intestine always have to remember anew how to carry out their uptake of ions, lipids, and peptides. How can they possibly be so good at knowing exactly what to do and when to do it?
The circulation of blood and the conversion of food into fuel are just two of many alchemical feats that the secret intelligence within you takes care of. Thousands of other exchanges and transformations and syntheses are ceaselessly working their wizardry inside your body without your conscious participation.
You may sometimes take for granted the luxuriant variety of unique and subtle aromas that come to you, but the truth is that you love your sense of smell. You're also thrilled about your power to hear sounds, and taste flavors, and touch textures. A few of these impressions repel or offend you—although even those are often interesting—but the vast majority ground you and gratify you.
Maybe you rarely celebrate the fact that you can think, but according to my inside sources, the flash of mercurial codes through your brain is among the universe's most dazzling accomplishments. Try to imagine the colossal divine plan or the implausible series of fabulous accidents that had to coalesce in order for you to be able to generate thoughts—soaring, luminescent, liberating thoughts or shriveled, rusty, burrowing thoughts ... thoughts that can invent or destroy, corrupt or redeem, bless or curse.
Your capacity to experience emotions and passions and longings is one of your most precious endowments. You may not exult in the waves of anger or jealousy that sometimes ripple through you, but you're glad you have the power to feel them. Your yearning for an impossible dream may feel shattering, but you relish being able to accommodate that much intensity. And as for the sensations that are more unambiguously positive, like a surge of courage in the face of an intriguing challenge or a surprising breakthrough with an intimate ally: They're treasures beyond measure. Can I hear you shout hallelujah?
Language is another spectacular marvel. Millions of souls have cooperated for untold centuries to cultivate a system of communication that you understand very well. Your ability to speak and read and write makes you feel strong and dynamic. It intricately connects you to the world, and allows you to engage in one of your greatest pleasures: hearing and telling stories.
Your imagination may be the best gift of all. It's the source of your creative power. If there's a particular experience or object you want to bring into your life, the first thing you've got to do is visualize it. The practical actions you take to manifest your dreams always refer back to the pictures in your mind's eye. And so every goal you fulfill, every quest you carry out, begins as an inner vision. Your imagination is the engine of your destiny. It's the catalyst with which you design your future. Do you know where it comes from? Do you have any idea how powerful it is?
Here's yet another amazement. You're in possession of the extraordinary power of self-awareness. Maybe you don't fully realize how far-fetched that stupendous ability is. Get this: You not only know that you are you; you also know that you know that you know you are you. With an ease that belies the complexity that had to be built into the structure of creation to make it possible, you are conscious that you're alive and awake and unique. You have a million different feelings and fantasies about what it means to be you. How is that even possible?
Have you ever been loved? I bet you have been loved so much and so deeply that you have become blasé about the enormity of the grace it confers. So let me remind you: To be loved is a privilege and prize equivalent to being born. If you're smart, you pause regularly to bask in the astonishing knowledge that there are many people out there who care for you and want you to thrive and hold you in their thoughts with fondness. Animals, too: You have been the recipient of their boundless affection. The spirits of allies who've left this world continue to send their tender regards, as well. Do you "believe" in angels and other divine beings? Whether or not you do, I can assure you that there are hordes of them beaming their uncanny consecrations your way. You are awash in torrents of love.
As tremendous a gift it is to get love, giving love is an equal boon. Many scientific studies demonstrate that whenever you bestow blessings on other people, you bless yourself. Expressing practical compassion not only strengthens your immune system and bolsters your health, but also promotes self-esteem, enhances longevity, and stimulates tranquility and even euphoria. As the scientists say, we humans are hardwired to benefit from altruism. (To read more about the subject, go here: tinyurl.com/lyyd46.)
What's your position on making love? Do you regard it as one of the nicer fringe benefits of being alive? Or are you more inclined to see it as a central proof of the primal magnanimity of the universe? I'm more aligned with the latter view.
Imagine yourself in the fluidic blaze of that intimate spectacle right now. Savor the fantasy of entwining bodies and hearts and minds with an appealing partner who has the power to enchant you. What better way do you know of to dwell in sacred space while immersed in your body's delight? To commune with the Divine Wow while having fun? To tap into your own deeper knowing while at the same time gazing into the mysterious light of a fellow creature?
Another one of life's bounties is its changeableness, which ensures that boredom will never last very long. You may underestimate the intensity of your longing for continual transformation, but the universe doesn't. That's why it provides you with the boundless entertainment of your ever-shifting story. That's why it is always revising the challenges it sends your way, providing your curious soul with a rich variety of unpredictable teachings.
Neuroscientists have turned up evidence that suggests you love this aspect of the universe's behavior. They say that you are literally addicted to learning. At the moment when you grasp a lesson you've been grappling with, your brain experiences a rush of a natural opium-like chemical, boosting your pleasure levels. You crave this experience. You thrive on it.
So the universe is built in such a way as to discourage boredom. It does this not just by generating an endless stream of interesting novelty, and not only by giving you an instinctive lust to keep learning, but also by making available an abundance of ways to break free of your habitual thoughts. You can go to school, travel, read, listen to experts, converse with people who think differently from you, and absorb the works of creative artists. You can replenish and stretch your mind through exercise, sex, psychotherapy, spiritual practices, and self-expression. You can take drugs and medicines that alter your perspectives.
And here's the best part of this excellent news: Every method that exists for expanding your consciousness is more lavishly available right now than it has been at any previous time in history.
Never before have there been so many schools, educational programs, workshops, and enrichment courses. Virtually any subject or skill you want to study, you can. You don't even have to leave your home to do it. The number of online classes is steadily mounting.
Travel is easier and faster than ever before. A few days from now, you could be white-water rafting along the Franklin River in Tasmania, or riding on "the train at the end of the world" in Tierra del Fuego, or observing Golden Bamboo lemurs in the rainforest of southeastern Madagascar. If you're on a budget, you can jet to exotic locales for free as an air courier, or you can travel cheaply as an eco-tourist, enjoying the natural pleasures of distant climes without demanding luxurious accommodations or expensive night life.
Let's talk about the Internet's role in helping the universe discourage boredom. Remember, it's still very early in the evolution of this budding global brain. But already it provides you with instant access to a substantial amount of all the information, images, and music ever created. And in another few years, the sheer entirety of the human mind's riches will be spread before you like a gargantuan feast. It's not yet true that every book ever written and every song ever recorded and every film ever made are accessible online, but it will be true sooner rather than later.
Today, without leaving your chair or spending any money, you can enjoy Kandinsky's painting "Improvisation No. 30" or archives of the Krazy Kat comic strips. You can listen to a Vivaldi concerto or a Black Sabbath heavy metal anthem, and you can read the history of the Peloponnesian War or the myths of the Tlingit Indians. You can hear Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech or watch a short film of the Three Stooges throwing pies in the faces of high society matrons or pore over every poem Emily Dickinson ever wrote.
For many of us, few freshly minted glories are more glorious than the Internet's prodigious gift of song. Thanks to the magic of electronic file transfer, there has never before been so much great music available, and from so many different cultures and genres, and so cheaply.
Enhancing this blessing has been the recent revolution in recording technology, which has made it possible for musicians all over the world to record their compositions at low cost. We not only have much better access to all kinds of music, but have far more new music to enjoy as well.
One further development has pushed our relationship with music into the realm of crazy goodness: portable MP3 players that allow us to listen to the burgeoning abundance of tunes anywhere and anytime we want.
Exposing yourself to the expressions of other people is an excellent way to play along with the game of life's perpetual invitations to change yourself. Those of us who are alive today are extremely lucky, since our moment in history provides more opportunities to learn from other people than ever before.
Another phenomenon that helps us respond to and keep up with the universe's restless creativity is self-expression. And it so happens that our era is also the champion of all eras in that regard. So claims Clay Shirky, an expert in the social and economic consequences of the Internet. In a talk he gave in May 2009 (tinyurl.com/nj96hw), he said that we are currently witnessing "the largest increase in expressive capability in human history."
The invention of the printing press in the 15th century provoked an earlier revolution. A second major upgrade in the capacity to communicate came with the telegraph and telephone. The third was ushered in with the arrival of recorded media other than print: photos, recorded sound, and movies. The fourth arrived when the electromagnetic spectrum was mobilized for use in broadcasting sounds and images through the air. But the fifth revolution, says Shirky, is the biggest of all. The Internet is not only becoming the vessel for all the other media, but has effectively ended the monopoly that professionals have had in getting their messages out. Now everyone can speak to everybody in a variety of modes.
Google says it has indexed over a trillion unique URLs on the World Wide Web. Technorati, a search engine for blogs, has catalogued well over 100 million blogs, and that figure does not include at least 70 million Chinese language blogs. Add to this plenitude the amateur creators who contribute videos to Youtube and similar websites. Count up the thousands of authors who are self-publishing their books, the independent filmmakers making low-budget movies, the aspiring photographers on flickr.com, the hordes of podcasters and Web-based radio stations, and the musicians who are not signed to contracts with record labels but are recording songs in their home ProTools studios. Factor in the millions of people discussing their intimate details on social networks like Facebook and Twitter.
While there are still masses of pure consumers who are content merely to absorb the creations of others, the Internet is bringing us closer to the ideal proclaimed by the Burning Man festival: "No spectators!" Will there come a time in the future when everyone on the planet will have his or her own node on the Internet, complete with blog, podcasting, and video feeds?
As we play along with the universe's conspiracy to liberate us from the suffering of boredom, we can call on a widening array of healing strategies, psychological insights, and spiritual practices. The Internet isn't solely responsible for the universal spread of formerly local or regional ideas. The dissolution of hidebound traditions has also helped expedite the increasing availability of inspiration from everywhere, along with the growth of international trade, the explosive expansion of the entertainment industry, the ease of long-distance jet travel, and the omnivorousness of the news media. Globalization has a lot of downsides, but this isn't one of them.
And so Chinese acupuncture and Ayurvedic medicine from India are making inroads into mainstream health care in North America. The influence of Buddhist thought on psychotherapy in recent years has been huge. A spiritual seeker who's curious about how other cultures have communed with the divine realms has easy access to the esoteric tantric secrets of the Hindus, alchemical texts that were previously only available to scholars, the Santo Daime sect in Brazil, and the songs and stories of the Yoruba tradition.
What's even more unprecedented is that any of us is free to mix and match modalities and techniques from a variety of systems. Here's transpersonal psychologist Roger Walsh, writing in the IONS Review: "This is the first time in history that publicly acknowledging that you follow two or more distinct spiritual traditions would not have you burned at the stake, stoned to death, or facing a firing squad. We tend to forget what an extraordinary time this is, that for the first time in history we have the entirety of the world's spiritual and religious traditions available to us, and we can practice them
... without fear."
And so I am very sure I will not be arrested, sentenced, and burned at the stake for engaging in an orgy of spiritual anarchy. Ready? I hereby invoke Brigid, Celtic goddess of the undying flame, and ask her to unleash thrilling clarity in your heart about a dilemma that has vexed you. I summon Bast, Egyptian goddess of play, to help you intensify your search for meaning by having more fun. I pray to the spirit of Carl Jung, Swiss psychiatrist, that he might inspire you and your lover to achieve hierosgamos, the sacred marriage, thereby creating a bond that inspires your community and galvanizes you both to express more of your own beauty than you would be capable of alone. I draw on the power of Tiphareth, the central sphere on the Qabalistic Tree of Life, to assist you in becoming the gorgeous messiah you were born to be. And I offer a bribe to Laverna, pagan trickster goddess, in the hope that she will steal one of your inhibitions and ignite your dormant genius.
There's another sense in which we have more power than ever before to expand and mutate and play with our consciousness: the availability of drugs, both legal and illegal. In earlier centuries, the Huichol Indians of northern Mexico had peyote, the Turks of the Ottoman Empire had coffee, the practitioners of Bwii in West Central Africa had ibogaine, and the English had tobacco. But our culture is the first in which all of history's psychoactive substances can be had at once.
Adding to that generous selection, researchers in recent decades have been busy designing and discovering a wide array of new drugs that affect the mind, from antidepressants to LSD, from analgesics to Ecstasy, from sleep aids to lucid dream enhancers. The evolution of anesthesia, which didn't get fully underway until the 19th century, has continued apace as well. On the near frontier are exotic treatments that could further expand the definition of consciousness and mutate what it means to be human. One drug shows great promise in enhancing visual memory. Another could permanently wipe away painful memories.
My personal policy is to avoid taking drugs of all kinds. (For more on that subject, read the story that starts on page 228.) But I think it's glorious that so many psychoactive substances are available for those discriminating experimenters who dare to expand the frontiers of the human psyche.
And a new era of inner exploration is in fact in motion. Progress in the use of psychedelics had been derailed for years by government repression and the excesses of irresponsible users. But the government has begun to relax some of its prohibitions, allowing legal experiments with psilocybin. In trials at Johns Hopkins' Departments of Neuroscience and Psychiatry and Behavioral Biology, test subjects' use of the hallucinogen has generated spiritual realizations that yield long-term practical benefits. Other experiments have shown that psilocybin can play an important therapeutic role in reducing the suffering of terminally ill patients.
Meanwhile, the pioneers who are experimenting with psychedelics outside of the government's purview have become more disciplined in their approach, as evidenced by a wealth of smart new books and journals that investigate the phenomena for what they really are: forays into unknown realms that hold fascinating secrets, worthy of scientific rigor and brave intelligence.
Later in this book, primarily on pages 184–186 and 203–205, I discuss a phenomenon that I call the genocide of the imagination. It's a poetic conceit invoked to call attention to forces at work in the world—especially fundamentalism, materialism, and nihilism—that diminish the power of the imagination. But that's just one side of a multifaceted story. Here's another side: In one sense we are now living in a golden age for the imagination. We have far more resources to call on to feed our heads than any previous generation of humans.
Here's a small anecdote that illustrates the bigger sweep. In an interview in the San Francisco Chronicle, Tamara Straus asked author and writing instructor Ethan Canin, "How is American fiction changing?" Canin said, "The young writers I teach have gone from writing small stories set in strip malls ... to huge novels that take place in Madagascar. They can just look up all kinds of information and photography on the Web." They can also easily view videos and films of distant places, and they can read a wealth of first-person accounts of people who've been there or live there. Their imaginations aren't confined to working with the environments they know firsthand.
Strauss also asked Canin, "What's a novel you would have liked to have written?" This is his reply: "Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger. The novel shared the Booker Prize with The English Patient. It's about a slave ship that goes from Liverpool down to the West Coast of Africa, trades stuff for slaves, and then goes to the West Indies, and trades slaves for rum and sugar. It's about what happens to that ship. I met Barry Unsworth, and I told him what a great novel I thought it was. I said, 'You must have been a sailor all your life.' He said, 'I've never even been on a sailboat.'"
Another great book that takes place at sea is Moby Dick, published in 1851. Its author, Herman Melville, traveled extensively on ships, crossing both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Much of the fuel for his imaginative work of fiction came from his actual waking life experiences. Where did Unger's come from? Less direct sources.
I offer the difference between the two men's masterpieces as a symbol for the growing powers of imagination.
The conventional wisdom seems to say that Americans are getting dumber. One study reported that more people can name the characters in The Simpsons TV show than know the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. Other surveys found that only 53 percent know how long it takes the Earth to revolve around the sun, and 24 percent aren't sure what country America gained its independence from.
Yet an article by Malcolm Gladwell in "The New Yorker" (tinyurl.com/ljqjj2) notes that Americans' IQ scores have been steadily rising for a long time—so much so that a person whose IQ placed her in the top ten percent of the population in 1920 would be in the bottom third today. One possible explanation: Our "growing stupidity" may better be described as a difficulty keeping up with the ever-growing mass of facts, whereas we are actually becoming better at solving problems.
Gladwell cites the book "Everything Bad Is Good for You." Its author, Steven Johnson, argues that pop culture is increasingly expanding our intelligence about social relationships and stretching our ability to sort out complex moral dilemmas. TV shows in the 1970s, like "Starsky and Hutch" and "Dallas," had linear, easy-to-follow story lines with simple characters who behaved in predictable ways. More recent shows, like "Lost," "The Sopranos," and "Battlestar Galactica" weave together a number of convoluted narrative threads that require rapt attention and even repeated viewings in order to understand. Characters often wrestle with contradictory motivations that complicate their behavior as they deal with ambiguous dilemmas for which there are no clearly right solutions. Viewers who take in shows like this are in effect attending brain gyms.
Referencing Johnson, Gladwell says modern video games have an equally salubrious effect on the thinking power of those who play them. Unlike the original models that first became available in the 1980s, the new games are way beyond being mere tests of pattern recognition and motor skills. "Players are required to manage a dizzying array of information and options," Gladwell writes. "The game presents the player with a series of puzzles, and you can't succeed at the game simply by solving the puzzles one at a time. You have to craft a longer-term strategy, in order to juggle and coordinate competing interests."
Gladwell acknowledges that knowing objective information about the way the world works is very important, and that we may be less adept at that than were previous generations. In our defense, the amount of information we have to keep track of verges on being infinite. "On an average weekday," wrote Saul Bellow, "The New York Times contains more information than any contemporary of Shakespeare's would have acquired in a lifetime." So maybe there's a 22-year-old computer programmer out there who thinks that France was the country America freed itself from in 1776, but on the other hand has achieved mastery over both the 53,000-word guide to the "Grand Auto Theft III" video game and the game itself.
In any case, problem-solving is an equally essential measure of intelligence as knowing objective information, and there is evidence that we're growing smarter at that.
Many people alive today are convinced that our civilization is in a dark age, cut off from divine favor, and on the verge of collapse. But it's healthy to note that similar beliefs have been common throughout history.
As far back as 2800 BC, an unknown prophet wrote on an Assyrian clay tablet, "Our earth is degenerate in these latter days. There are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end." In the seventh century BC, many Romans believed Rome would suffer a cataclysm in 634 BC.
Around 300 BC, Hindus were convinced they lived in an "unfortunate time" known as the Kali Yuga—the lowest point in the great cosmic cycle. In 426 AD, the Christian writer Augustine mourned that this evil world was in its last days. According to the Lotharingian panic-mongers who lived more than a 1,000 years ago, human life on earth would end on March 25, 970.
Astrologers in 16th-century London calculated that the city would be destroyed by a great flood on February 1, 1524. American minister William Miller proclaimed the planet's "purification by fire" would occur in 1844. Anglican minister Michael Baxter assured his followers that the Battle of Armageddon would take place in 1868. The Jehovah's Witnesses anticipated the End of Days in 1910, then 1914, then 1918, then 1925. John Ballou Newbrough ("America's Greatest Prophet") promised mass annihilation and global anarchy for 1947.
The website "A Brief History of the Apocalypse" at http://tinyurl.com/yqb83n lists over 200 visions of doom that have spilled from the hysterical imaginations of various prophets in the last two millennia.
Our age may have more of these doomsayers per capita than previous eras, although the proportion of religious extremists among them has declined as more scientists, journalists, and storytellers have taken up the singing of humanity's predicted swan song.
In her book "For the Time Being," Annie Dillard concludes, "It is a weakening and discoloring idea that rustic people knew God personally once upon a time but that it is too late for us. There never was a more holy age than ours, and never a less. There is no whit less enlightenment under the tree by your street than there was under the Buddha's bo tree."
Walt Whitman: “There was never any more inception than there is now, Nor any more youth or age than there is now;
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.”
I invite you to go sit under that tree by your street.
I'm arguing against the grain, compiling evidence that the cynics' hypothesis is a delusion. I'm insisting that we are most decidedly not pitiable actors in the most hellish chapter in history. I'm even inclined to entertain the possibility that the reverse is true: We may be living in the best of times.
Noble Prize-winning economic historian Robert Fogel is a meticulous scholar not given to hyperbole. But his work provides ample evidence that in some ways, we're the luckiest humans of all. His landmark book is "The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700–2100: Europe, America and the Third World." Its clout is rooted in his specialty, which is the painstaking quantitative analysis of the way people have lived. Some of his data is drawn, for example, from the medical records of soldiers who fought in the Civil War. Other information originates in historical documents gathered from Norway, France, Britain, the Netherlands, India, and Ghana.
According to Fogel, human biology has changed dramatically in the past three centuries, and especially in the last 100 years. People in the developed world live twice as long as they used to. They weigh more and grow taller. They're far hardier and healthier and smarter. When sickness comes, they're better at defeating it than their ancestors were, and they're not as likely to contract diseases in the first place.
"We're just not falling apart like we used to," Fogel says. "Even our internal organs are stronger and better formed." What has occurred is "not only unique to humankind, but unique among the 7,000 or so generations of human beings who have inhabited the earth." (Sources: "The Human Equation," Lydialyle Gibson, http://tinyurl.com/2x3u7o, and "So Big and Healthy Grandpa Wouldn't Even Know You," Gina Kolata, The New York Times, http://tinyurl.com/rban6.)
We're talking about a revolution. In the mid-19th century, Americans of all ages were much sicker than they are now. Child mortality was almost 25 percent, and of those kids lucky enough to survive into adolescence, 15 percent more expired before age 15. Chronic malnutrition was a horrendous curse, compromising immune systems from birth. During the Civil War, one-sixth of the teenagers who applied to serve in the Union army were rejected because of chronic ailments like malaria, tuberculosis, arthritis, cardiovascular problems, and hernias. As for the older folks, the average ex-soldier in his 60s had at least six health problems, four more than a sexagenarian is likely to have today.
What happened between then and now? First, we harnessed electricity, made it universally available, and used it in a myriad ways to improve our lot. All of the other boons I'm about to name—improvements in our diet, medicine, sanitation, and workload—were organized around this fantastic, unprophesied new resource.
Our relationship with food has changed dramatically in the last century and a half. We discovered more accurate information about our nutritional needs and gained access to a greater variety and abundance of food. The perfection of the science of refrigeration and the eventual universal availability of refrigerators made a big difference, too. Victory over widespread malnutrition meant that infants got a better start on building strong bodies, making them less susceptible to sickness throughout the course of their lives.
The drastic upgrade in the state of the human body was also made possible by steadily growing medical expertise, including the discovery of the germ theory of disease and radical new treatments like antibiotics and vaccination. Physicians got better training, large numbers of new hospitals opened, and more people made medicine their career. Among the diseases that were wiped out were diphtheria, typhoid, cholera, whooping cough, tetanus, tuberculosis, smallpox, and polio.
Innovations in sanitation have been key to the upgrades in the way our bodies work. Everything and everyone are far cleaner than they used to be. People bathe more frequently and devote more attention to their hygiene. Among the most important developments in this triumph were two practical miracles: indoor plumbing and the installation of municipal sewer systems. It took a while. As late as 1920, only one in 100 American homes had a toilet or even a bathroom—outhouses were standard—and toilet paper was a luxury.
For those few with bathtubs, a full-body cleanse was often a once-a-week ritual, and entire families might use the same bathwater. Fogel says that even into the early 1900s, "Chicago exported a lot of typhoid down to St. Louis," by disposing wastewater in the Illinois River.
Garbage disposal used to be a hit-and-miss proposition until the 20th century. Private citizens might bury their refuse in their backyards, take it to public incinerators, or offer it to pigs at local farms. But eventually, local governments took over the task. During my lifetime, every city where I've lived has done a stellar job of hauling my trash away.
In the middle of the 19th century, the average American worked 78 hours a week, often at exhausting manual labor and without the help of machines. As work became easier and of shorter duration, our health soared. Technological aids like washing machines and automatic heating systems also contributed to the rising tide of physical well-being.
All of the improvements I've mentioned have flourished because of the most important change of all: greater wealth and more available resources. Despite periodic economic downturns, per capita income in the developing nations has grown enormously in the last 150 years. Elsewhere, too: Wealth in India and China has doubled since 1989, according to The Economist magazine. As a result, more of us have been able to afford to take better care of ourselves. And more of us have been able to do the research and experimentation and development that advance the common good.
Even poor people are better off than they used to be. During the 17 years when my annual income was less than $10,000, well below the official poverty line, I had many amenities the average American didn't have in 1900: electricity, telephone, bathtub, toilet, hot running water, refrigerator, radio, electric hotplate, space heater, TV, cassette player, shampoo, public transportation, asthma medicine, access to a laundromat, garbage collection, and sewer system.
Today, like most days, you awoke inside a comfortable shelter. You have a home! Your bed and pillow are soft and you have the blankets you need. The electricity is turned on, as usual. Somehow, in ways you're barely aware of, a massive power plant at an unknown distance from your home is alchemically transforming the sun's stored energy into currents of electricity that reach you through mostly hidden conduits in the exact amounts you need, and all you have to do to control the flow is flick small switches with your fingers.
Your home is perhaps not a million-dollar palace, but it's sturdy and gigantic compared to the typical domicile in every culture that has preceded you. The floors aren't crumbling, and the walls and ceilings are holding up well, too. Doors open and close without trouble, and so do the windows. What skillful geniuses built this sanctuary for you? How and where did they learn their craft?
In your bathroom, the toilet is functioning well, as are several other convenient devices. You have at your disposal soaps, creams, razors, clippers, tooth-cleaning accessories: a host of products that enhance your hygiene and appearance. You trust that unidentified researchers somewhere tested them to be sure they're safe for you to use.
Amazingly, the water you need so much of comes out of your faucets in an even flow, with the volume you want, and either cold or hot as you desire. It's pure and clean; you're confident that no parasites are lurking in it. There is someone somewhere making sure these boons will continue to arrive for you without interruption for as long as you require them.
Do you have a headache this morning? Menstrual cramps? A toothache? You can quickly get relief for all of these ailments and more, either by taking medicine you've got on hand or by making a short trip to a nearby drug store. If your problem's more serious than that, chances are good that a trip to a doctor or alternative health practitioner will provide some help.
The truth is, at no other time in the history of the world has there been a vaster array of healing modalities available. You may have legitimate complaints about your doctor or the cost of health care or the bureaucratic maze you have to negotiate to be treated properly, but still: How would you compare the help you can access to that of a 16th-century French peasant or an 11th-century Mayan or even the first president of the United States, whose doctors bled him to death in the cracked belief that bloodletting would cure his pneumonia? Have you had any diphtheria, typhoid, cholera, whooping cough, tetanus, tuberculosis, smallpox, malaria, or polio recently?
In your closet are many clothes you like to wear. They keep you warm and give you the chance to exhibit your sense of style. Who gathered the materials to make the fabrics they're made of? Who imbued them with colors, and how did they do it? Who sewed them for you?
In your kitchen, appetizing food is waiting for you. Many people you've never met worked hard to grow it, process it, and get it to the store where you bought it. The bounty of tasty nourishment you have to choose from is unprecedented in the history of the world.
Your many appliances are working flawlessly. Despite the fact that they feed on electricity, which could kill you instantly if you touched it directly, you feel no fear that you're in danger. Why? Your faith in the people who invented, designed, and produced these machines is impressive.
It's as if there's a benevolent conspiracy of unknown people that is tirelessly creating hundreds of useful things you like and need.
Have you said a prayer of gratitude any time recently for the fact that your feet remain steadily on the earth? Gravity is giving you the same gift it always does, pulling on you with neither too much nor too little force. You should be glad for its versatility, too. It's working for the heavenly bodies with the same tender attentiveness it bestows upon you. As all the other planets do, the Earth relies on gravity's genius to keep orbiting the sun in its ancient hallowed groove, thereby providing you with all of the favorable environmental conditions you need to live. Magicians of the Western Hermetic tradition say that gravity is actually a form of love—the irresistible attraction that all things have for each other over even the vastest distances.
Meanwhile, a trillion other facets of nature's ingenious design are expressing themselves as a skilled artist might. At the heart of the masterpiece are the plants. With relentless grace, they perform the everyday miracle of photosynthesis, using sunlight as a trigger to convert water and carbon dioxide into the fuel they need. If you're like me, you feel regular surges of adoration for this complex alchemy, which pours oxygen into the air for us to breathe and ultimately provides us with all of our food.
If you're honest with yourself, you'll confess that there are few glories more sublime and more freely available than taking a walk in nature. Simply to imagine it can fill you with sacred joy. Close your eyes and visualize yourself sauntering along a wide dirt path in a meadow bordered by the woods. Feel the resilient strength of your leg muscles. Relish the freedom of swinging your arms in rhythm with your stride. The sun's rays are so sweet you can almost taste them. The ever-shifting qualities of light and temperature resemble caresses. What's that rustling in the bushes? Maybe a lizard or gopher informing you that you're not alone.
At a certain point, the breeze becomes stronger. Branches of nearby trees begin to wave, unleashing a tremulous whoosh. Instinctively, your heartbeat quickens. Your flesh prickles with a reflexive alertness. But of course there's no danger. What you're experiencing is spontaneous excitement at the rising energy; a heightened awareness of the teeming aliveness that surrounds you.
Gaze slightly upward. Welcome in the far horizon and the sweep of the ancient sky. Give names to the clouds. Shout out praises to the birds, saluting them for being so skilled at soaring through the air. If you can see a pale slice of moon, thank it for its artistry in managing the tides.
Up ahead on the trail is a tree that wants your affection. Be empathetic. Try to remember all that it remembers, and sing a song to it as you pass. The dust and dirt deserve your kind attention, as well. Pick up a rock that catches your eye, announce to the world that it is a magic talisman, and marvel at its unique shape and heft as you roll it around in your hand.
One more gift to bestow: Under your breath, just loud enough to be heard, tell the Earth that you can hear the sound of its turning, and it's making you giddy. Say, too, how much you love the fact that in all eternity, this moment will never be repeated. Though you may drink in the delicious atmosphere with a trillion trillion more breaths, this special dispensation of air molecules will never fill your lungs again.
To your surprise, the Earth replies to you in your native tongue, rising above the thrum of its whirling with a more familiar tone. It quotes the poem by Charles Baudelaire, as translated by Louis Simpson. "Ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking ... ask what time it is, and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: 'It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish.'"
Do you want to go someplace that's at a distance? You have a number of choices about what machines to use in order to get there. Whatever you decide—car, plane, bus, train, subway, ship, helicopter, or bike—you have confidence that it will work efficiently. Multitudes of people who are now dead devoted themselves to perfecting these modes of travel. Multitudes who are still alive devote themselves to ensuring that these benefits keep serving you.
Maybe you're one of the hundreds of millions of people in the world who has the extraordinary privilege of using a car. It's a brilliant invention made by highly competent workers. Other industrious laborers put in long hours to extract oil from the ground or sea and turn it into fuel so you can use your car conveniently. Who designed and paved the roads for you? The bridges you cross are potent feats of engineering. Do you realize how hard it was to fabricate them from scratch?
You're aware that in the future shrinking oil reserves and global warming may impose limitations on your ability to use cars and planes and other machines to travel. But you also know that many smart and idealistic people are diligently striving to develop alternative fuels and protect the environment from the by-products generated by vehicle engines.
And compared to how slow societies have been to understand their macrocosmic problems in the past, your culture is moving with unprecedented speed to recognize and respond to the crises spawned by its technologies. Think of the predicament the Mayan people faced more than a millennium ago. As their civilization collapsed, in part because of the environmental degradation they themselves caused, they had insufficient wisdom to adjust. They were locked inside their ignorance. In contrast, we know clearly what's happening to us, we have all the world's knowledge available at our fingertips, and some of our best and brightest are working hard to come up with solutions.
Let's say it's 9:30 a.m. and you've been awake for two hours. A hundred things have already gone right for you. If three of those hundred things had not gone right—your toaster was broken, the hot water wasn't hot enough, there was a stain on the jacket you wanted to wear—you might feel that today the universe is against you, that your luck is bad, that nothing's going right.
And yet the fact is that the vast majority of everything is working with breathtaking efficiency and consistency. You would clearly be deluded to imagine that life is primarily an ordeal.
I can understand if, during the course of reading this meditation, you've been visited by thoughts like, "But what about all the terrible things in the world?" or "Brezsny's totally imbalanced in his perspective!" Please know that in tallying up the profuse blessings that surround us, I'm not implying that utopia is at hand. My education and my predilection for empathy have made me acutely aware of the suffering of human beings, whether they live next door or 10,000 miles away.
But I also regard it as my fun duty to counterbalance the hordes of cynical storytellers in the media and entertainment industries who tirelessly assure us that life on Earth is a dismal hell. I think it's smart to aggressively identify all the ways the world works for us.
I also want to suggest that it doesn't help those who are suffering if we hate or feel guilty for our own blessings. To dwell for a few stolen minutes on the beauty and pleasures of our lives is not tantamount to ignoring all the sad and bad things.
© 1995-2013 -- Rob Brezsny. All rights reserved