Bowing Down to Progress
We are taught, often by the tone of voice of the media and the politicians rather than by explicit argument, to bow down before…progress. It is unstoppable. Who wants to be left behind, to be behind the times, to be yesterday’s people? The colloquial phrase “That’s so last-year” has become the ultimate putdown: “progress” (by which we often simply mean a variation in fashion) has become the single most important measuring rod in society and culture.
Finding the Plots of our Own Lives
The same impulse that makes us want our books to have a plot makes us want our lives to have a plot. We need to feel that we are getting somewhere, making progress. There is something in us that is not satisfied with a merely psychological explanation of our lives. It doesn’t do justice to our conviction that we are on some kind of journey or quest, that there must be some deeper meaning to our lives than whether we feel good about ourselves.
Only people who have lost the sense of adventure, mystery, and romance worry about their self-esteem. And at that point what they need is not a good therapist, but a good story. Or more precisely, the central question for us should not be, ‘What personality dynamics explain my behavior?’ but rather, ‘What sort of story am I in?’ –
The Progress Paradox
Yet despite all of these advancements, we are more discontent than ever. Gregg Easterbrook wrote a book on this very topic entitled The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse. In First World countries, he argues, even as the advances I have just cataloged have materially improved the physical comfort level of everyone in those societies, the rates of depression and psychosis continue to rise.
People feel their lives lack meaning, and they can’t seem to find any remedy to the plague of their own consistent discontentment. A clear example is transportation across long distances. It has never been easier, and yet still we complain!
I remember sitting recently in a brand-new airport terminal reading a historical account of the Pilgrims on the Mayflower crossing the North Atlantic in perilous conditions in November of 1620. These intrepid people lived for many weeks in the dark and crowded below-deck area, eating cold biscuits and putting up with the stench of the vomit caused by the incessantly heaving little ship.
Progress, the Secret of Success
, James Watson’s 1968 memoir about discovering the structure of DNA, describes the roller coaster of emotions he and Francis Crick experienced through the progress and setbacks of the work that eventually earned them the Nobel Prize. After the excitement of their first attempt to build a DNA model, Watson and Crick noticed some serious flaws. According to Watson, “Our first minutes with the models…were not joyous.”
Later that evening, “a shape began to emerge which brought back our spirits.” But when they showed their “breakthrough” to colleagues, they found that their model would not work. Dark days of doubt and ebbing motivation followed. When the duo finally had their bona fide breakthrough, and their colleagues found no fault with it, Watson wrote, “My morale skyrocketed, for I suspected that we now had the answer to the riddle.” Watson and Crick were so driven by this success that they practically lived in the lab, trying to complete the work.
Throughout these episodes, Watson and Crick’s progress—or lack thereof—ruled their reactions. In our recent research on creative work inside businesses, we stumbled upon a remarkably similar phenomenon. Through exhaustive analysis of diaries kept by knowledge workers, we discovered the : Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.
Teresa Amabile & Steven J. Kramer, The Power of Small Wins, Harvard Business Review.
The Utopian Dream
The myth of progress has deep roots in contemporary Western culture, and some of those roots are Christian…This utopian dream is in fact a parody of the Christian vision. The kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world come together to produce a vision of history moving forward toward its goal, a goal that will emerge from within rather than being a new gift from elsewhere. Humans can be made perfect and are indeed evolving inexorably toward that point.
The world is ours to discover, exploit, and enjoy. Instead of dependence on God’s grace, we will become what we have the potential to be by education and hard work. Instead of creation and new creation, science and technology will turn the raw material of this world into the stuff of utopia. Like the mythical Prometheus, defying the gods and trying to run the world his own way, liberal modernism supposes that the world can become everything we want it to be by working a bit harder and helping forward the great march into the glorious future.
A Celestial 360
You may feel as if you are sitting still right now, but it’s an illusion of miraculous proportions. Planet Earth is spinning around its axis at a speed of 1,000 miles per hour. Every 24 hours, planet Earth pulls off a celestial 360. We’re also hurtling through space at an average velocity of 67,108 miles per hour. That’s not just faster than a speeding bullet. It’s 87 times faster than the speed of sound. So even on a day when you fee like you didn’t get much done, don’t forget that you did travel 1,599,793 miles through space! To top things off, the Milky Way is spinning like a galactic pinwheel at the dizzying rate of 483,000 mph.
Still Looking for inspiration?
Consider checking out our quotes page on progress. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!