How do you measure progress, whether its personal growth or progress for society?
I like the theory of Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker that we are FAR less violent as a society now than we were 100 hundred years ago. He also notes that there were fewer than 20 democracies in the world in 1946 but now there are close to 100. In many ways, life seems to be moving in a more civilized, less violent, more equal direction. There is greater gender and race equality and much greater awareness of global problems. If only we could get a grip on energy consumption and the connection to catastrophic climate change, we could feel even more optimistic about the future.
If there is reason to feel optimistic, how far out do we need to look to see real and sustainable progress?
Martin Luther King Jnr once said,
The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
But still the question remains- how long do we have to wait? When I dug a little deeper I found that MLK was quoting 19th century progressive Theodore Parker, who said,
I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one. My eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.
We don’t know the timing of progress, and its path is far from certain. That’s why the burden is on ordinary people, all of US, to make it happen. A different world cannot be created by indifferent people. It’s not ALL up to us. But it IS up to all of us to do what we can do. There is plenty we can’t control. But we can do much more than we are often willing to take responsibility for.
It requires digging in and persevering even when there are setbacks, even when the arc is not visible, even when it seems like you will die and still not see any great fruit for your efforts. You have to trust that others will pick up your best efforts and carry them forward.
Last week I saw the film Les Mis. It reminded me of this powerful lesson about progress. A few decades after the French Revolution, a small band of young revolutionaries stage a rebellion. They expect many to get behind their cause for a Republic in France. But the people of Paris sleep through their feeble rebellion. And yet there is such a strong sense of purpose, even as they die. They feel they’re on the right side of history and others will pick up their cause. That’s exactly what happened.
One of their leaders, Enjolras, says
Citizens, whatever happens today, through our defeat as well as through our victory, it is a revolution that we are about to create.
They didn’t know the timing or the path of the revolution but trusted that they had helped to spark something important. This is part of what it means to work for something bigger than yourself. You do what you can, let go of the timing and outcomes and trust that others will pick up where you leave off.
Social progress is measured in many ways; by a decrease in violence, higher levels of literacy and education, more efficient uses of technology, and the eradication of disease to name a few. This is not to minimize the incredible inhumanity and awful violence we still see regularly, but get beyond individual acts to take a larger perspective on progress in order to give us hope and courage to persevere.
Gandhi, who knew a thing or two about leading revolutions and perseverance, said,
When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it–always.