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Saturday, January 09, 2010

Bright Future?

I remember it as clearly as if it happened just yesterday. I was a little boy in grade school. We lived in the farm country of northeastern Ohio. There were a family that lived a few miles down the road. One day we were driving by and saw them all out in the yard packing their car. We stopped to greet them.

The mother explained that the father had taken a new job out of state. He had gone ahead and was already there working. He'd secured a new home. Their home here was now sold and the mother was preparing to drive the five children and the family dog on a two-day road trip to join him in their new home. She was exuberant as she described the new life they were about to have. It was definitely a bright future for all of them. We wished them well, said our good-byes and thought that was the last we'd hear of them.

A day or so later, it was a ripple across our little farm community. There had been a tragic automobile accident on the interstate. The mother and all five children had died tragically. Even the family dog was killed in the accident. As a child, I remember being confused. How could such optimism and hope turn so bad so quickly? Could life really snatch a bright future from someone like that? I really didn't understand. Now more than 40 years later, maybe I still don't understand.

All of us want to think of the future as bright. We always want to look toward a tomorrow that is certainly better than today. In the U.S., it's probably fair to say that we've come to expect that. It's as if we see it as an inalienable right --- to be optimistic about the future. It might be reasonable to think that this optimism is well placed. After all, our country has made great strides for many generations. Surely that trend will continue. Right?

As we sit here in January 2010, I am realizing two disappointing truths. The first is that time is marching on. I don't know what I thought would happen with regard to time. But somehow I didn't expect it to pass so quickly. How is it that I have adult children ... and yet recall my own youth so vividly as if it were just yesterday?

The second truth I'm realizing is that optimism about the future of life in the U.S. (or anywhere else, for that matter) may not be so justified today. It's as if the landscape were changing and the way the future occurs is being transformed. Let me visit a few examples.

Religion is a good place to start. In the old days, it seemed we had the Puritans and the heretics. One was either religious or not. Most religions were Christ-centered, and the splits in the Protestant churches seemed to create equally acceptable and Biblically sound denominations. But no more. Today we are besieged by a plethora of deceptive religions that seem to be somewhat based on Jesus and the Bible. But they are heresy and mislead well intentioned people astray. Of course we also have the religions with no shred of truth in them. Islam, Hinduism and others are proliferating just as disburingly.

Economically, it might appear that aside from gasoline prices, we aren't facing much inflation. but you don't have to look far to see a whole lot of next-generation wages and salaries that don't measure up to the last-generation incomes (an in inflation-adjusted basis). And those smaller incomes must cover more expenses than ever. Where a household had to pay for one phone line, for example, it now pays for four phone lines. And we are being hit with fees from all sides. In my area of the country, toll roads are the only new roads being built. And it's expensive to drive on them! Then there's the interest expenses on trillions of dollars in national debt that has to be paid out of taxes that must surely go way up.

Vocationally, most people understand that a job is not just a pay check. So people typically consider their interests and what challenges them when they pick what they want to be when they grow up. But automation changed much of that. Manufacturing jobs went by the wayside and gave way to lesser-paying (and less stable) service jobs. Then white collar and professional jobs started leaving the country in the outsourcing epidemic. Today, we have millions of people who are trained and qualified ... but can't do work that challenges and satisfies them. Job status and satisfaction are declining rapidly. People think of job security as a foreign concept.

Education would like to paint itself as having improved radically in the last few decades. After all, billions of dollars in endowments should have provided the money to make for the best education in the history of mankind. But today, nobody would ever equate a diploma, degree or transcript as signifying achievement. Education used to teach people to become critical thinkers, who then drove innovation and challenged paradigms. Today it teaches survival-of-the-fittest. And because education has been largely outsourced to the state, it is an increasingly bad bargain in that it continues to cost more and produces less in terms of benefits to quality of life.

Now technology always seem to be an exciting new front. After all, it just gets better and better as it evolves. Who among us hasn't enjoyed the fruits of advances in technology? It is fair to say that our quality of life is considerably better today than even a few years ago --- simply because of advances in technology. But there are two challenges that we may be overlooking. The first is whether or not advances in technology are actually producing real value in our lives. After all, if you automate something stupid, it's still stupid! The second is perhaps even more sobering. It is the challenge of using these advances in technology to benefit and serve each other instead of just feed our own selfish desires. In other words, can we actually deploy new technologies for good ... or will they be squandered on such things as our own comfort?

Government is the frontier that leaves me most perplexed these days. I think it was back in the 70's when I was studying sociology in college. It dawned on me than that man is probably too stupid to rule himself. Yes, over the years I've been firm convinced of that. Mankind just doesn't possess sufficient intelligence ... devoid of unbiased thinking or selfishness, to be able to successfully rule himself. Of course that has sobering implications. It mans that no form of government will succeed, despite the virtues it may seem to have. They're all doomed to fail. I imagine if the forefathers who authored the U.S. Constitution were here today, they would have a cow about how that document has been implemented and interpreted over the generations. Our liberties and freedoms are eroding routinely. Political correctness seems to be the prevailing theme and threatens even the basics of good government. How can anyone find hope in this mess?

Finally, the media and its influence on our national thinking disturbs me greatly. For many years now, I've wondered about the significance of sports in the overall scheme of things that matter. The nightly news may dedicate 20% of the air time to sports. I often wonder if that means sports represented 20% of the things that mattered in the world that day. Lest you think this is about sports --- it's not. I'm just saying that we seem to be content to let the media lead us around on a daily basis. We trust what's on TV and the Internet. People read less now than ever, and seem content with snippets and sound bytes of information rather than real data that they might process and digest themselves. It used to be that we worried about too much influence or power being peddled by the politicians or preachers. But today there are many, many more sources of information spewing at us. Web sites, blogs, cable channels, and many other sources "sources of information" seem to look credible to a lot of people. The thing is they aren't any more trustworthy than their traditional predecessors. Simply put, there's no substitute for an informed opinion. Sadly, most of us have become happy to outsource our opinion and act based on what someone else has concluded.

Call me a pessimist - or call me a realist. But the view of the future doesn't look so bright to me. In fact, it's a sobering view that drives me to pray for our children and for future generations. They're going to have more and bigger problems than we've ever had. And they're going to need God even more than we have (if such a thing is possible). Perhaps the question is whether or not they know that ... and whether or not they'll turn to God in those times.

We can only pray. Right? Or can we, today's generation, take some tangible actions to produce a better future? And if so, what are those actions? Better yet, what specifically would make those actions tangible?

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