It Is The Best of Times, It Is The Worst of Times

                      It Is the Best of Times, It Is the Worst of Times

     You are likely familiar with the title words of this column, which were ‘borrowed’ and modified (with apologies) from the author Charles Dickens,

     Dickens began his 1859 masterpiece “A Tale of Two Cities” with the memorable poetic words, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

    He continued, elegantly and insightfully, “…it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

     Dickens was referring to the psychological and social moods prevalent in those times long ago and far away. He was in essence describing the quintessentially existential dilemmas of sentient human beings: The simultaneous yet contradictorystates of being, when there is unease, fear and despair, on the one hand, yet optimism and idealism on the other.

    But if we fast forward to 2021, we find that we are experiencing these same existential dilemmas today, when we are still searching for meaning to our lives.

     “The Worst of Times”:     

     Many people feel exhausted by the pandemic we’ve been enduring, and while there has been significant progress due to vaccines, quarantines and masking are still imposed whenever the disease surges and deaths occur. 

     Many citizens have shunned inoculation, especially “anti-vaxxers” who refuse, based on fear, conspiracy theories or mistrust of government infringement on civil liberties.

      Global Warming is a ‘clear and present danger’ to humanity. Icebergs and shelves are melting, sea levels rising and coastal communities around the world may be flooded.

      Wildfires are taking their toll of human lives, animal habitats, lush rain forests and fertile acreage. High temperatures, droughts and famine are making living impossible in arid areas.

      Hurricanes, tornados, typhoons and cyclones vent their destructive furies on all continents.

      The pandemic imposed economic hardships on citizens everywhere and financial inequities have worsened, as oligarchs thrive while many more impoverished people struggle.

     There is increased social and political unrest, politics have become more rancorous and polarized. Authoritarian political movements and hatred of “the other” (xenophobia) abound. Just about every race, creed, ethnicity, religion, culture and nation has been looked upon with hate by those who consider themselves ‘superior,’ justifying intolerance and violence.

      Anti-Semitism often rears its ugly head, as are hate crimes against Black, Asians and many other races and religions occur everywhere. Extremist members of families, tribes and nations bear grievances and hatreds against others, and wars are waged in the name of God, an evil paradox. 

    The sad fact is that few of us are immune to harboring our own ingrained prejudices. 

     “The Best of Times”:

     As I was writing the above pessimistic discourse about our species, my own mood was dour, and I took a break to watch the 2021 Kennedy Center Honors on television.

     I watched moving tributes to the talented Dick Van Dyke, the inspiring singer-activist Joan Baez, the supreme dancer, choreographer, actor, director Debbie Allen, the Country and Western megastar Garth Brookes, and the exquisite violinist and humanitarian Midori. 

     In spite of my previous state of mind, my mood brightened, as did my outlook about our future.

     This transformation of perspective happens when we are moved or inspired by the creative talents of other human beings. We have in our midst some of the greatest minds, bodies and souls of individuals who have walked the face of this earth. 

     The terrible pandemic would have been much worse if not for the brilliant scientists who created the vaccines, the dedicated clinicians who cared for the sick and administered the “jabs,” and the courageous leadership of those who facilitated the vaccine roll-outs.

     We humans are fortunate to be awed by beautiful vistas, sights and sounds abounding in nature, astonishing photographs from space, human designed architectural wonders and feats of engineering, uplifting works of art and music, and profound and evocative poetry and literature.   

    We have all been moved by – and we ourselves have performed – wondrous acts of decency, kindness, caring, generosity, respect, tolerance and other expressions of benevolence and love. 

      We humans are in fact an incarnate celebration of Decency, Creativity and Diversity:

     The evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, author of “The Better Angels of Our Nature,”      and other scientists have shown that human beings have made remarkable progress in many social spheres over the millennia. These include the reduction or eradication of some major diseases, the education of many more children, the diminution of profound poverty, more equitable opportunities for women, and yes, even less violence. We clearly have a long way to go, but there is hope for our species if one takes a long-range view.

      There are also encouraging studies which show that we can overcome our destructive impulses: Aggressive children can be taught to be peaceable, selfish youngsters can learn to share and cooperate, bitter enemies can learn to feel empathy for each other, racist attitudes and acts can be significantly lessened through psychological and educational interventions, and previous vengeful and hateful tribalism can be supplanted by harmonious living.

       If some of you are saying that these are “pie-in-the-sky” fantasies, I remind you that these are actual examples of positive human endeavors in research studies and in life itself.

       Our choices are few: If we humans continue on the destructive paths we have often trod, pursuing “The Worst of Times,” with continued hates and global warming, we are putting ourselves in immense danger.

      But we intelligent and creative humans can indeed aspire to and existentially achieve “The Four B’s,” senses of Being, Belonging, Believing and Benevolence. We can pursue our own Positive Emotional Footprints, and we can realize a fulfilling and peaceful future. We can indeed strive towards the permanence of “The Best of Times.”

     We have the intellect and the abilities but, “Do we have the Will?”

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