As Christmas 2021 rapidly approaches, it seems far easier to wallow in the bad than in the good. So many things seem to be wrong with this world, with no end in sight, no easy solutions in front of us. Every direction you turn seems to hold another complex problem which every expert has a different solution for. And the problems are big.
For those of us who farm, things look a little worrying right now. Fertilizer and other crop input prices have exploded, with the price of nitrogen fertilizer, our most critical and costly input, having nearly tripled in just a few months, and availability is a real and growing concern. Will we be able to get the inputs we need when we need them? While crop prices are very high, they don’t do you a lot of good if you have no crop to sell. For many Western Canadian farmers, this is a bleak current reality. We were fortunate enough here to get a crop – not a big one, but a crop nonetheless – but with dry soils, little snow, and a sketchy forecast for 2022, we could very well be in that situation in just a few short months.
Beyond the farm, we seem to be living in a world chock full of problems. Let’s start with the most immediate one: a pandemic that just won’t end, with solutions that just don’t seem to be working. First, we were told we needed a short lockdown. Then we just needed to get vaccinated. Now… I don’t really think we know what we’re supposed to do, but we can’t seem to get back to some semblance of normal either. It would be so nice to just have a normal Christmas again, with a house full of relatives and little kids, not worried about someone bringing Covid with them and getting everyone else sick. Remember when colds and flu were our biggest worries?
And that’s just one of the problems we’re dealing with right now. The government spending during this pandemic has been enormous and will likely take generations to pay off. The cost of everything seems to be increasing by the day, assuming you can actually find what you need. Our political leaders have never seemed so argumentative and downright petty with each other, hurling insults, calling each other liars and cheats, leaving us with very few attractive options to vote for. They seem to use every societal issue as a means to gain political advantage, from the pandemic to racism to climate change.
Of course, mass media isn’t helping, regularly telling us the world is growing increasingly dangerous (it isn’t), people are getting poorer (they’re not), the world is going to end in just a few decades from runaway climate change (it’s not), we’re all going to die of cancer from pretty much everything we eat and drink and do (we aren’t), and none of it really matters anyway because we’re all just short sparks of life in an indifferent universe that will quickly forget us when we’re gone.
Does that about cover it?
Probably not. But I think we’re close enough.
In times like this, I think it’s worth thinking a little less about the things going wrong and a little more about the things going right. As I think about my life, there truly are quite a few positive things right now. I’m not spending Christmas in the hospital, caring for a sick loved one, or, even worse, one of my children. There’s enough money around to buy my kids food, shelter, clothing, and even Christmas presents. We won’t be going cold or hungry on Christmas day. I’m generally healthy, without any major diseases or health conditions, and get to have a hot cup of coffee in the morning. We had a crop this year, enough of one to be able to sell some grain at truly remarkable prices. I have heat, some nice clothes, a warm winter coat, a pantry full of food, a family who loves me, children to light up my world, and a good bottle of scotch in the cupboard. Come to think of it, I have a lot of things to be grateful for.
The world is improving too – it’s unequivocally a better place than it was 100, 50 and even 20 years ago. Far fewer children die in their first few years – 87% less today than in 1950. Child labour rates have declined precipitously. Wars are rarer than ever known in human history. Over 80% of the world lived in what we define as extreme poverty (less than $1.90 per day, inflation-adjusted) just over a century ago – today that number is under 10% and falling (not as fast as before the pandemic, but still falling). Food has become far more abundant, with 68% less land required to product a calorie of food in just the last 50 years. Since 2000, the area required for meat production has declined by an area the size of Brazil. Worldwide, between 1982 and 2016, we have reforested an area the size of Alaska and Montana combined. Cancer and other disease rates have declined. The good news is so abundant I could spend hours listing it all off (check out humanprogress.org to see more – lots more).
But those are bigger picture issues; I’m sure most of you are far more worried about the problems in your own lives, and I’m sure many of you don’t have quite as many things going well today as I do. And I’m sure there’s a few of you who don’t have a lot of positive things to think about at all. I’m not trying to tell you to ignore the bad in your life, or to be naively optimistic, and I don’t know enough about your life to know whether there’s any good at all. But, if you really think about it, I bet you can find at least one thing in your day to be grateful for. I hope so.
“Be grateful in spite of your suffering.” This quote, written by the great Dr. Jordan Peterson, is the closing chapter in his brilliant book, Beyond Order: 12 More Rules For Life. In it, he says something I thought was inspiring:
“We can ameliorate [suffering] practically, because that is what we do when we care for ourselves and other people. There seems to be almost no limit to that… It is for such reasons and because of such examples – watching people confront the existential catastrophe of life both forthrightly and effectively – that I am more optimistic than pessimistic, and I believe that optimism is, fundamentally, more reliable than pessimism.”
By caring for each other, by looking out for your friends and neighbours, you can not only ameliorate their suffering, but your own as well. Our capacity to care for each other, under the absolute worst of circumstances, is almost limitless.
During World War II, the people of London and surrounding cities and towns endured endless trauma, terror, and despair under German bombing raids for eight long months. While this went on, 43,000 Britains lost their lives, with one in every six Londoners becoming homeless at some point during the blitz. Despite the pain and fear, the British largely went about their lives, going to work, school, and church. In December of 1940, Christmas came as it always did, and you wouldn’t think there would be much to celebrate. And yet, in the air raid shelters in which a million Londoners spent every night, there were Christmas parties, skits, singing, and dancing. They still had family Christmas musical theatre productions and had Christmas dinner with their families. Was it normal? No. Was it stressful and hard? Of course. But they went on and did it anyway and made the best of their so-called “Blitzmas”.
Our modern-day problems are real and frightening. They are also largely outside of our control. What we can control is how we react to them; how we celebrate this holiday with our families and loved ones. We can create new and wonderful memories for ourselves, our children, our families and friends. And if we can all do that, if we can all push aside the suffering and fear for a little while, maybe the future will look a little more optimistic. Maybe we can make tomorrow just a little bit better.
Nihilism is easy. It takes courage to be an optimist. And that courage is well worth it.
“If you can observe someone rising above the catastrophe, loss, bitterness, and despair, then you see evidence that such a response to catastrophe is possible… Courage and nobility in the face of tragedy is the reverse of the destructive, nihilistic cynicism apparently justified under just such circumstances.” ~Dr. Jordan B. Peterson, Beyond Order.