Thursday, May 16, 2013

From Anxiety to Empathy

The last 15 years have been chaotic. In the late 90’s America was on top in every way. We had no major enemies that we knew of. We were progressing technologically. We were at the peak of economic growth. Things were good, and we had it really good.
            Since then we’ve endured terror attacks from foreigners and our own citizens. We’ve been heavily involved militarily in a good number of countries. The economy crashed in one of the biggest dips in the last 80 years. As one author put it, since the turn of the century we’ve been living in an age of anxiety, and we’re only now beginning to come down from our state of panic as a people.
            In the aftermath I look around at the rest of the world. I see a middle east that is in major transition in every way, and I wonder if we won’t be seeing them as our economic equals very soon. The spread of technology is bringing far-off parts of the globe into the modern age and improving their quality of living. And other nations are beginning to rival the United States economically, militarily, and intellectually.
            For example, look up the city of Dubai. Just look it up. You know what, I’ll post the pictures here, because they’re so freaking amazing. Dubai is a city in the United Arab Emirates, a small country located on the south-eastern tip of the Saudi Arabian peninsula. This first pic is Dubai in 1990. Keep in mind, this is 23 years ago. Most of the readers of this blog are older than this picture.

Now here it is in 2003, ten years later.

And again in 2005.

            Holy. Friggin’. Crap. Amazing, isn’t it? This city has come out of nowhere and exploded with growth and prosperity.
            There’s another city, I believe this one is in Saudi Arabia, which is being built and intended to be 100% run on renewable energy and will be 100% environmentally friendly. That’s intense. This portion of the world is going places. I couldn’t believe the changes going on over there when I first read that.
            My second thought was, “the United States is supposed to be doing this stuff first, not countries barely emerging from third world living conditions.”
            But the scientists aren’t in the US anymore. Not like they were before. I thought about that and I wondered why our generation here in the US isn’t as driven to the STEM careers as the generation thirty, forty, or fifty years before. I think there are a lot of things that have led our generation to where we are today, but I think a few things have definitely affected the way we view the world, and I think they’re harming us.
            We grew up in the most prosperous economic times since the 1950s. We had everything, and our parents wanted us to have everything possible. We had pretty good childhoods, for the most part. The country as a whole was focused on a new approach to life—consumerism—and we were growing up in the thick of it. And this drive led us to our life goals and career choices.
            What I think is fascinating is that instead of kids wanting to be scientists or astronauts, kids want to do whatever will make the most money. It’s not about passion or discovery anymore. At least not in the popular culture. It’s about wealth and an exciting life. I mean, when Jersey Shore and Meet the Kardashians are the top-grossing shows on cable television, that says something.
            I think that the America we grew up in told us that gaining more of anything, whether money, possessions, prestige, or leisure, was the point of it all. So now we have an America where there are so many lawyers that they can’t get jobs, but we have to hire our computer technicians from India and Japan. Sure, a job in computers will pay well, but no one wants to just be paid well. We want to be paid a lot.
            To credit our generation, though, I think we’re quickly gaining a pretty good bullshit meter. We can smell “fake” a mile away, and we’re beginning to realize that there is more to life than the things our parent-generation gave us.
            And I think there’s proof. Look at the major issues today. Yes, the economy is an issue, but social justice is getting attention like never before. This week Minnesota became the 12th state to legalize marriage equality, the third state in 11 days. Because of the internet and our passion (addiction?) to it, we can learn about things we never would have known before. We can hear the voices of people who never would have been heard before. And we can find compassion for people that we never would have before.
And when it comes down to it, it’s this compassion that is driving our social and political efforts. Because deep down we know that the message from our elders that more is better and most is best is bullshit. There is more to life than wealth and superiority.
Because of this, I take hope. And I don’t worry so much about other countries rivaling our economy, our prosperity, or our standard of living. For a moment, I glimpse a world where we regard other nations as equals, not as inferiors who need domesticating. We have different cultures and different values, but we will be able to explore those and share those as peers.
I recently heard in an interview that in the next 5 years the number of people connected to the internet around the world is going to dramatically increase. Voices still silent will be connected, and we will truly be interacting in an international internet. The dynamics of the world are changing, and the luxury of the safety of “control” won’t exist for the US anymore. I’m not sure what our role is going to be, but I think it’s important that we accept these new changes. We should allow the empathy that has led to the spread of movements like marriage equality guide us in our new relationships with our rising world cousins. Then it won’t matter whether we are gay or straight, American or Saudi, or whatever else. We will have built a world with enough room for everyone.

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