Thursday, July 23, 2009

What we lose with progress

To most, progress is seen as a good thing, as something we should embrace. When the word ‘progress’ is used, there is often the suggestion that the world is continually improving. And anyone who doesn’t like progress doesn’t want the world to get better.

Technology is seen as good, so long as it doesn’t harm anybody else. We invent items to meet needs we didn’t know we had. Yesterday’s inventions are today’s necessities. And anybody who doesn’t rush out and buy them is told they are missing out or continuing to do things the hard way.

Science is seen as good – usually. There is often the idea that just because we might be able to do something, we should go out and try it. This is particularly the case when it comes to advances in medical knowledge. If there’s a chance we can prevent or cure diseases, then progress means exploring the possibilities.

Ideas are also good – the new ones that is. Stick the tag ‘progressive’ onto any new and different idea and you’re immediately suggesting it’s something that people should embrace. Discussing new and different ideas is often coupled with a rejection of old or traditional ideas. Those that embrace the new are ‘progressive’. Those that continue to follow traditional ideas or beliefs are old-fashioned, irrational or immature. And if those old ideas disadvantage anybody, then you’re practically treated like a monster.

But what is it exactly that we’re progressing towards. Are we trying to improve the world? Are we continually getting closer to some kind of ideal?

I believe that what we are trying to progress towards is a world where nobody has to suffer, nobody has to face any difficulties, nobody is disadvantaged and nobody has to feel bad about anything at all.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? Almost Utopian, in fact. But I’m not convinced that it is good. Firstly, because usually it’s only the people with money that come anywhere close to this ideal. And so many people are under pressure to make more money, so that they too can live in this blissful world where everything is easy and painless. Meanwhile, the people without money continue to live in a world that’s not even meeting their basic needs.

Secondly, I believe the more we ‘progress’ towards this ideal, the more we lose other things that area actually quite important.

First of all, guilt and repentance. In a world that places a high value on not feeling bad, guilt and repentance are downplayed quite a bit. And I would agree that too much guilt is not healthy. But a little bit is actually a good thing. Guilt stops us from doing the wrong thing. It also leads us towards repentance, towards a desire to change. And it is when we change, that we become better people.

Secondly, gratitude. I believe that one of the greatest blessings a person can have is a grateful heart. But gratitude is formed through having to go without. Today’s world doesn’t know much about going without. If they want something, they’re told to go out and get it. Even borrow money if you have to. And we don’t focus much on appreciation, because as soon as we get what we want, there’s someone else to tell us that we need something else.

Thirdly, compassion. The more we suffer, the more we feel for others that go through their own pain. And let’s face it, there will always be suffering. Nobody has a painless life. But it seems that the aim of progress is to remove suffering completely. And look, I don’t like the idea of people suffering. I cry whenever I see someone hurting. But that’s kind of the point. I cry because I have been through my own pain, which enables me to empathise with others. If we removed suffering completely, will our hearts become hardened?

Fourthly, strength. And I’m not talking about the kind of strength that enables someone to lift weights here. I’m talking about strength of character. When we go through difficult and challenging times, we become stronger. And I would much rather make friends with a person who has faced a lot of hardships than someone who has lived a life of ease and comfort. That’s not to say that the painless, comfortable life can’t produce good people. I’m sure it can. But they haven’t been tested. They haven’t faced the necessary challenges that are needed to strengthen their resolve, strengthen their courage and strengthen their character.

Fifthly, acceptance. We don’t always get what we want in this life. None of us do. And at some point in time, we have to accept that. But in a world that places a huge focus on rights, I think it’s a little harder for people to come to that place of acceptance. If we don’t get what we want, we tend to want to sue somebody or change a law or claim we’re being disadvantaged in some way. Now there is a time to fight injustices. But perhaps there is also a time to realise that the world is not always a fair place. Sometimes we miss out on the things we think we deserve.

Maybe my desire for these things makes me one the old-fashioned, stuck in the dark ages kind of people that the progressives look down upon. Maybe the fact that I don’t like ‘progress’ puts me in some category of ‘people who are trying to hold back society’. Maybe.

Or maybe I actually do want mankind to progress. Not just in a fluffy, insubstantial ‘make me feel good’ way. But in a real way. A way that maybe doesn’t pander to our flesh quite so much, but takes very good care of our souls.

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