The Human Condition:

Changing the World – October 4, 2015

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“Be the change that you wish to see in the world” is a quote usually attributed to Mahatma Gandhi.1 This is a meme that resonates strongly with my Baby Boomer generation. Many of us, probably most of us, have been trying to change the world, or at least dreaming about it, since our student days in the 1960s. The notion that the world could, as a whole and in an instant, be made into a better, kinder, gentler, more peaceful, more equitable place free of hunger, envy, anger, and all the other human discontents was woven into our folk songs, our protests, our plays and movies, our conversations—and eventually into our bumper stickers, when we were old enough and rich enough to own a car.

It’s a fantasy that has been hanging around at least since Thomas More penned Utopia in 1516. The title, of course, came from the Greek and means “No Place,” which sums up More’s view of such grand schemes for the betterment of human life on Earth. Most utopias since then have involved two popular notions: one is that people will have a fixed place in society which will bring them personal happiness; the other is that all property will be held in common and shared equally. These are the underlying thoughts in Karl Marx’s writings, and they have carried the ideological weight of every revolutionary effort since then.2

For my generation, revolution is deeply bound to the notion of changing the world. After all, current Western society, government, economic practice, and everything else that orders our worldview is supposedly without value. And so there’s no point in trying to improve society and its practices piecemeal. The cause of our present hungers, jealousies, wars, and all those other bad things is rooted in whatever exists now. So sweep it all away and bring on a new world order, a better reckoning, a new way of doing things that is kinder, gentler, etc. If you listen closely, that’s the message of John Lennon’s “Imagine”—beautiful music, but a gloss of negatives: no heaven, no hell, no religion, no countries, no causes, no possessions, no greed or hunger, and all the people just living as one, in the moment, all brothers, sharing the world.3

The people who believe in this kind of revolution and its resulting utopia are committed to the end of history. They believe that history has a prescribed direction—towards greater human unity in equality, peace, and prosperity—and that this end-stage, this perfect stasis, can be captured in a bottle and preserved for all time. Once we have remade the world in its perfect state, it will spin on serenely and never change again.

Of course, this presumes that people can be made happy, or somehow given happiness, and will manage to keep it for … well, for eternity. Visions of utopia remove the individual—with his or her differing wants and needs, likes and dislikes, affections and dreams—from the equation and assume that everyone will subscribe to one common thought, one common purpose, and one common goal in life. That all people will accept whatever place they and their children are born into in that perfect society—farmer, doctor, teacher, shoemaker, blacksmith, sewer cleaner—and that no new ideas and disruptive technologies will arise to unsettle things.4 That the world will spawn no new inventions that might demand new occupations like computer programmer, electrical engineer, or fusion mechanic. That the world and its environment will not change, not cycle through parching drought or encroaching ice, not rain down solar flares and asteroids, and so not require this perfect society to change in meeting new challenges. This is a steady-state society that will outwardly resemble heaven and inwardly incarnate hell.5

Personally, I never wanted to change the world.

Maybe I shy away from that ambition because my parents raised me to be a realist rather than a dreamer. They taught me to see things as they are, to study the way the world works, to live within the confines of what exists, and to make myself and my happiness conform to what is possible in this society. This is not surrender to a set of limitations but rather a grasping of potentials. I was supposed to learn the levers that make society function and prepare myself to take hold of them. My parents accepted that the world was a hard place, full of dangers and disappointments, and that was why humans had to be resourceful and also careful.6 But they also taught me—and encouraged me through the study of literature and science and all that our civilization has thought and built—that the world is vast and powerful, beautiful in its own way, and full of wonders. How could I hope to change all this?

In my novels, I try to capture this sense of vast danger and great opportunity, and I value characters who are resourceful, imaginative, practical, and realistic.7 If they are ready to give their lives, it will be for things that matter on a personal and immediate level: the life and health of their loved ones, the safety and survival of their community, the preservation of their honor or their closely held ideals. These are not people who tilt at windmills and try to remake the world on their own terms or to satisfy a distant dream.

Maybe I resist world changing because I know that human nature is deep seated, relatively unchanging, and only slowly advancing. Our natures are the product of a hundred thousand years, at least, of human evolution—and possibly reflect the four billion years of life as it has developed on this planet. People have evolved to look out for themselves, their families, their tribe, and their communities first, and only then for their nation, civilization, or all humankind as a distant second. The best of us build for our own and our children’s future. This does not mean we practice consuming greed, fearful hoarding, or winner-take-all competition. But we cooperate best with the people we know personally or can observe by their individual actions and reputations. We give strangers the courtesy of respect and fair dealing, but we let them prove themselves before we trust them. For the most part, we mow our own lawns, mend our fences, give blood, pay taxes, and vote in support of that patch of the planet we can see and feel.

When people have exhorted me to offer up my universal generosity, love for all mankind, or sacrifice for their lofty ideals, I always tend to bristle. I can understand moving cautiously through this world, leaving as few traceable marks as possible, and not making myself a target. But making myself a mere ghost, by relinquishing all possessions and personal ambitions, so that a nebulous set of others might sing and feast outside the circle of my campfire—no, that has never been my way. I can sense that those others want to use me as a doormat or a common conveyance because they do not know or value me as a person. Those who encourage this kind of personal abnegation would change everyone’s nature, desires, and intentions to conform with the dream that only they are fostering. And my response to this is always the same—using terminology inspired by the war everyone in my generation hated: “Get the hell out of my body bag!”

And finally, maybe I resist trying to change the world because I know that the process is already under way, and it should be allowed to take its course in its own slow and steady time. Our civilization, both locally, as the product of tribes and then nations and empires, and now globally, as the product of an electronically interconnected world, is changing and advancing, and that change is carrying human nature and modern ideals along with it. With the spread of inventions like the printing press, electronic media, and now the computer revolution, we are learning, retaining, and sharing more and more information about the world and its people. With discoveries in science and technology, we are learning about the distant past and the nature of our universe. Civilization is advancing and coming together on a global level, not as the product of a few revolutionaries inspired by utopian visions, but through the largely uncoordinated work of scholars, engineers, inventors, mathematicians, and economists. Societies are solving their problems through the efforts of politicians, lawyers, and diplomats who mediate between the needs and desires of different individuals and groups. Life is better today than it was a decade, a century, or a millennium ago.

Yes, many in the world still experience hunger—but that is more often politically motivated than the product of pestilence and crop failure. Yes, we still have wars—but they are the result of people driven by different ideals and desires working out the differences that really, deeply matter to them. Yes, we still have tyrannies—but they are more exposed now for all the world to see and judge. For the vast majority of the people living on Earth, the advance of science and technology, of conscience and justice, has produced—either in present actuality or in future potential—more food, more ease, more safety, better health, longer lives, more sophisticated and interesting work, and more personal opportunity than has existed for a hundred thousand years. If there is a direction to history, it points upward for people with the sense to understand and grasp it.

This is a process that has been going on since people first learned to settle in river valleys, grow more crops, preserve their surplus, and eat better than they could ever do by scavenging the countryside. And from those settlements has come writing and its ability to capture and transmit knowledge and inventions, law and concepts of order and justice, religion and ideas about morality and knowledge of the unseen, and all the rest of the wonders that human thought and experience have ignited on this planet. Humans on this planet are advancing slowly but surely—and that is the pace with which most people in all our different cultures feel comfortable.

I would not change the course of this civilizational process for any dream, however powerful, of an instant utopia—not even if I believed I could.

1. It turns out the source for this quote is pretty slender, although it bears some relation to something similar that Gandhi once wrote. See “Falser Words Were Never Spoken” by Brian Morton, The New York Times Opinion Pages, August 29, 2011.

2. Marx’s communism, when you strip away all the addled economic theory, reveals an ideal society where everyone lives by generous barter and sharing of their effort while the State and even the need for its compulsions have withered away. If you try to match this economic model with a template drawn from any actual society in human history, you are left with two possibilities: the hunter-gatherer bands of human prehistory, and the feudal estate of medieval Europe—minus, of course, the governing influence of the church and the military obligations of the feudal lord to the local baron and his king. Neither is a place or time in which I’d particularly want to live.

3. Which makes you wonder who, exactly, is going to risk his life and safety doing the hard things that other people can’t or won’t do, like fighting forest fires, patrolling on air-sea rescue service, and piecing together the high steel required for building bridges and skyscrapers? Or who will spend his time and effort on difficult pursuits like studying to be a doctor, learning physics and mathematics, and expanding human knowledge? Or won’t we still need these things in paradise?

4. Come to think of it, traditional Indian society was an attempt to achieve this kind of social stasis: in their caste system, some people were just born to be priests and scholars, some merchants and warriors, and some untouchables who would be the permanent cleaners of toilets and haulers of rubbish. It’s a simple, neat, secure, and everlasting system.

5. See My Idea of Heaven from July 22, 2012.

6. Whether it was scraping the bilges or changing a diaper, one of my mother’s favorite sayings was: “If that’s the worst thing you ever have to put your hands in, be thankful.” She knew the world was a hard place, but a strong and dependable person could grow up in no other.

7. If you doubt this, think of the hell I put my characters through in the Coming of Age volumes.