The Best of Times: Our Amazing Modern Lives

If there is one thing that you shouldn’t do as a teacher, it is belittle students. They are still learning to express themselves, to develop complex ideas and how to test them. Despite knowing that, I couldn’t help but laugh when Scott, a nice but lazy teen, complained about the essay I had assigned him.

“You have it easy,” Scott said to me, “all you have to do is grade the essays.”

When I blurted out a laugh loud enough to turn the heads of my entire class, I did it more in self-pity than in the vicious mockery Scott heard it as. The essay, which would be at most two leisurely hours in class for him and most of my students (unless they slack off, and they always do), would for me be at least a dozen hours of painstaking and often tedious grading in addition to my substantial workload. The fear of failing my students by delaying feedback would haunt my every resting minute until that stack of hastily written essays was thoroughly combed over.

Scott was being oblivious, his own struggles a fog obscuring the harrowing plight of his pitiable teacher. It’s hard to blame a 16-year-old for a lack of perspective when I lack it as well. Even as a rationally secular person, I feel as though we have been exiled from paradise and now live in inescapably miserable times. And this is just as obtuse as Scott’s perspective.

To a coal miner, the exertion of sitting down in an air-conditioned room reading essays in a career I chose and am passionate about would seem trite. And the same goes for a factory worker in the 1800’s, a field worker in the dark ages, or a plebeian in Rome. Any one of them would be overjoyed at the possibility of working the comparably relaxed hours I do, though I’ll defend myself by saying that a dark age field worker didn’t have the types of entertainment, food, and countless other luxuries seducing them away from productivity.

It’s so easy for me to wallow in self pity. Like Scott, my problems at times seem overwhelming, and it’s easy to feel like the world is hostile. At times, I worry life has never been this bad, aggravated by my delusional memories of my worry-free childhood and even more delusional visions of an idyllic past. There is an urge to elevate my daily struggles and ignore that I have access to medical care that would be impossible even for kings a century ago, books from around the world, depths of history, and electronic entertainment with a main downside of being too engrossing. These luxuries are forgotten as I stare at that stack of papers.

Any rational inquiry tells us we are living in the best of times. As writers like Matt Ridley and Stephen Pinker can attest, poverty, illiteracy, disease, sexism, racism, and warfare throughout the world are being devastated. Though a novice pessimist can easily point to many who are still suffering, today these destitutes are considered shameful exceptions. In the past, a short, diseased life of toil was the norm. Never have we been more obsessive about finding solutions for those less fortunate, and never have rich countries been more concerned with the poor on the other side of the world. A seasoned pessimist can’t deny that.

I wouldn’t blame the Roman plebeian for laughing at me for complaining about my grading (just as I laughed at Scott). The difference between me and the plebeian is much greater than between me and my student. If I wailed to the plebeian about the pain of writing feedback for the twentieth essay in one sitting while knowing a hundred more are waiting, he might scoff, tell me about mandatory military service or using a pot as a bathroom.

This perspective doesn’t eliminate my problems. However it does help me appreciate the centuries of slow, painful progress behind me. It helps me forego my worries for a moment and bask in the unending privileges of our current age.