FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE IRISH INDEPENDENT, SATURDAY, JUNE 6TH
Rutger Bregman is one of those people whose vaulting achievements, at such a young age, are enough to make you seethe with envy.
Still only 32, the Dutch historian and activist has three bestselling books under his belt. His TED talk on poverty has been watched millions of times. Last year he went viral after a cri de coeur about corporate responsibility at Davos.
But even an embittered old crank like me finds it hard to dredge up hostility towards Bregman, because he’s just so damn reasonable. What he says makes a lot of sense. He lays out his case calmly, backed with plenty of facts and figures. Much of it is inarguable.
Bregman’s shtick is a sort of heightened optimism, as can be gleaned from book titles: 2013’s Utopia for Realists and the just-published Humankind: A Hopeful History. People, he argues, are essentially good, or at least tend more towards good than bad. We always have been; this is why a group of intelligent apes managed to colonise the whole planet.
Bregman stresses that his position is not naïve, simply realistic. Co-operation, sympathy, common decency: these are not only moral imperatives, they work far better than the chaotic, violent alternative.
Crucially, though, most of us don’t see it like that. There’s a huge mental disjunction between how things are – on the whole, pretty good – and how we perceive them. Life, in short, is a lot better than we think, and we’d do well to stop focusing on the bad stuff and instead be more optimistic.
This seems so obvious, it’s nearly glib; yet it remains true, for all that. As the old song urged, accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.
While reading Humankind, for review in this paper, I inevitably got thinking about the notion of optimism in a time of lockdown. These are strange, unsettling days, particularly as it’s all so uncertain: we don’t know when, how or even if this will end.
The whole thing has been fairly stressful but, per Bregman, there are upsides too. Indeed, there are benefits to almost everything. Sometimes it’s just a matter of choosing to recognise them, and give them the proper weight in your mind. So, a personal list of some positives to lockdown:
- The environment got cleaner. We’ve seen wild boar roaming the streets of Paris, jellyfish in the limpid waters of Venice canals, satellite photos showing clear skies over China.
- People have reassessed their lives and priorities. Whether that be personal or professional, and whether the change prove transitory or permanent, periodic self-reflection is necessary and beneficial. The unexamined life is not worth living, as the man says.
- The population, here and abroad, was never as fit. For want of anything better to do, people are walking, jogging, cycling. Bike sales are at an all-time high. Organised sport may be off the menu and our TV screens, and that’s a pain – but ultimately, it’s probably better to get out and be active yourself.
- The chance to get reacquainted with some relatively obscure but exceptional radio programmes. For example, Vox Nostra on Lyric FM, a marvellous compendium of medieval, renaissance and baroque music, both secular and sacred. It’s like stepping into another time, another world. Would it be hyperbole to describe the experience as verging on transcendental on occasion? Probably, but what the hell – these are hyperbolic times.
- More time with our children. Yes, it’s often hard going (for me the main difficulty is managing schoolwork; I’ll be happy once summer holidays “officially” begin and parenting more-or-less consists of “run outside and play, mind the cars, don’t run off with the circus”). But it’s worth it, as are most difficult things. As Milton wrote, “Long is the way, and hard, that out of Hell leads up to the light…” Feel free to quote that in your English essay, kids.
- Watching my little girl’s camogie skills improve, markedly, week by week has been very satisfying. Five or ten minutes a day, every day: that’s all it takes to mastering the technique. The older lad, meanwhile, is now hitting cleanly in the air, on the run, both sides. Pick that one out, goalie.
- You smoke less when you’re around your kids all day, and still valiantly maintaining the fiction that “Dada used to smoke, the odd time, but hasn’t had a cigarette in years…”
- I finally managed to read The Scarlet Letter, which had been glaring balefully at me from the bookshelf for years. It was close to torture, I have to confess – God, why did they write in that needlessly convoluted and flowery way back then? – but I did it. Finnegans Wake can wait until the next lockdown, though. I’m only human, after all.