I get angry. Often. Mostly, I believe that is healthy.
Nine people are shot down at a prayer meeting. A student is killed by a drunk driver. A gay kid is bullied at school. An antiquities scholar is beheaded. The Navy installs underwater sonar equipment that kills whales. Children die of malaria for lack of a mosquito net.
I don’t wake up angry, at least not usually. But by the time I finish the first few pages of the morning paper, I am pretty fired up.
My anger is not always so grand. I cursed when a student would fail to work in my classroom. (Note to young teachers – this is a really bad idea). I lay into my horn when a cell phone user drifts into my lane. I snap at telephone solicitors. I kick my tennis racket when I muff an easy volley.
I am not proud of my petty anger. But violence and cruelty – I want these things to make me angry. I don’t want to shrug at the morning paper. I want, instead, to be part of making our world less violent and less cruel. Anger pushes me out the door to do the work, to speak up instead of silently sitting back.
The danger, however, is that I sometimes slide into despair rather than step into action. I am one person, the problems are huge and they are getting worse.
At least, it sure feels that way. It is only when I step back, away from the daily news and the Twitter feeds, that I recognize that many problems are not getting worse. It is hard to believe, submerged in our crisis-saturated media world, but truly in many ways, for many, many people, life is better.
A few examples:
▪ Fewer people are killed in wars world-wide compared to a century ago (there are plenty of wars, but they are smaller)
▪ Drunk driving deaths in the U.S. are half what they were in 1980.
▪ The malaria death rate has been cut in half. Guinea worm disease has been reduced from 3.5 million cases to 126.
▪ Gun homicide rates have dropped by almost half since 1993.
▪ Hunger, world-wide, has declined by 200 million people since 1990.
▪ Our air is cleaner – air pollutants have been cut in half since 1970.
Even our oft-maligned schools are much stronger than they were 50 years ago. The percentage of Americans who graduate high school has almost doubled; test scores have stayed constant even while keeping many more children in school; disabled children now receive an education and are part of school life.
These are spectacular statistics. They are even more spectacular personal stories – the mother now able to feed her child, the village not destroyed by war, the lives no longer cut short by murder, the job made possible by a diploma. Good news might not make the newspaper, but it sure does open the door into a better life.
Now, all this matters little to the person who who can’t find a job or pay the rent, the mother whose child is sick and has no medicine, the young man shot on a street corner for no real reason, the lesbian teenager kicked out of her home.
But it should matter a lot to all of us working to make a difference. It can be what keeps us from throwing our hands up in despair, and instead digging in for the long haul.
It is not magic that makes a better world. It is not one dramatic speech, nor one new piece of technology. It is people like you and me, just doing the work.
It is peace negotiators sitting through endless talks. It is the scientist researching malaria, and villagers distributing mosquito nets. It is the rural farm adviser distributing better seeds. It is mothers forming Mothers Against Drunk Driving. It is teachers in their classrooms and police officers walking the streets, knowing their communities.
Day after day, year after year. Each doing our part, building on others doing their part.
Despair can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Politicians want to defund the United Nations because there is still war, not recognizing wars that have been prevented, and want to roll back environmental protections that have saved thousands of lives and millions of dollars in health care.
After two decades of steady educational progress in the ’80s and ’90s, we changed the rules, declared our schools “failing,” and then (to prove the point, I guess), began defunding them.
I still get angry at senseless violence and preventable poverty. Yet I remain hopeful because I see people pitching in - mentoring the young, building houses, distributing meals. And, yes, marching and organizing and voting.
Action leads me to hope, and hope leads me back to action. We can make a better world. Indeed, we are making a better world.
A note to readers: This is my last regular column for The Durham News, as I will be running for the Durham Board of Education in the spring.
Steven Unruhe retired in July after a 29-year teaching career. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @steven_unruhe.