Living with Change: Surviving in the 21st Century


Dave Weber
August 6, 2006
Palo Alto, CA

Imagine a world without any cars, or buses, or overnight flights to Europe — when you need to go somewhere, you walk, take a leisurely boat or train, or a horse-drawn carriage. There are no radios or TV’s, movies, computers, or video games either. What a strange place that would be. Yet, only about a hundred years ago, in the lifetimes of some still alive today, that was our world. If you had means, life was slow with time for reflection. If you didn’t, you labored from dawn till dusk to eek out a living. I’d like to think that the world is a better place today, but one thing is certain: it is very different. Now the pace of life for anyone of reasonable means is blindingly fast. Wherever we go, we are connected to each other through e-mail, instant messaging, and cell phones. The changes encountered in a single lifetime have been incredible and often overwhelming. I knew a woman who remembered when the Wright brothers first flew. She reflected upon it as she watched astronauts walk upon the moon. Change is truly the only constant. This morning, I’d like to sample life in the 21st century, reflect upon some of the changes that have taken place, and consider how we might cope with them. I couldn’t touch on them all or we’d be here for days. After that, I’d like to peer into my crystal ball to predict the future and suggest how we might prepare to face it. My goal is not to provide answers, (UU’s are better at questions anyway), but to get you to think.

Change can be wonderful. Years ago I knew a sweet and beautiful woman who would never walk again, a victim of polio. Now, it’s gone. I was inoculated as a child against smallpox, another horrible disease. Today’s children don’t need to be; it too is gone. We have climate control to overcome the sultry humidity of southeastern summers, radial tires that have made blowouts a thing of the past, silent dishwashers that handle baked-on stains, and full cycle automatic clothes washers and dryers. Believe it or not, my mother had one of those wringer types when I was a kid, where you had to squeeze out the water from your clothes before hanging them on … a clothes line. During the twentieth century, life expectancy in America increased by 30 years. Workweeks decreased and the middle class discovered leisure. Unfortunately, we’ve been losing ground in that area lately, but it was sure great while it lasted, wasn’t it. Still, these miracles have come with a high price tag. Technology has given us a throw-away culture. Cameras and cell phones get smaller and cheaper and have new added features, so we buy new ones every two years. With new software that enables us to do more, computers rapidly become unusable and need replacement long before they wear out. There’s a Dilbert cartoon that says it all: he’s beaming as he leaves the electronics store having just bought the latest whiz bang computer, when the store announces a new and better model, his purchase is outmoded, and he is devastated. The human population which took millions of years to reach a billion has now increased six-fold beyond that in a single century and threatens the ability of the biosphere to feed its desires and absorb its wastes. Technology has changed our world, making it smaller and more homogeneous, busier, dirtier, and more complex, and has given us access to more choices and more gadgets. Are we happier? What do you think?

But technological change is child’s play; the big changes going on today are social. Let’s talk diversity. I grew up in post WWII midwestern America. Most of my playmates were native-born Americans of European descent, like me. I think we had maybe one black kid and a second generation Asian out of about 25 kids in my fourth grade class. That homogeneous world is gone. When I take my dog on his evening walk through the park these days, I hear a selection of languages from a list including most recently Japanese, Chinese, Italian, German, French, Spanish, Hindi, Farsi, Hebrew, and Russian, lots of Russian. Remember the movie, “The Russians Are Coming”? Well they’ve come. At my workplace, most of the staff are recent immigrants. Only one in six or seven could claim to be natives of European extraction. Knowing that people like me are a bit overwhelmed by this diverse new world, imagine what it’s like to be a recent arrival, a stranger in a strange new land. That person is experiencing real social change.

In my work, I talk to Europe in the morning, to Asia in the afternoon, and to China 24/7. The Chinese don’t seem to need sleep. That brings me to globalization. I remember when I went to grad school there were just a handful of Asian students in the class. The rest of us would come in and compare notes on our adventures of the previous night. The Asians would sit quietly staring at the floor. When the class started, they’d snap to attention and take notes feverishly. Their scores on the tests were always near the top. Now there are many more of them in our universities and millions more attending their own much improved schools. It’s competing with their drive for success that’s causing our work weeks to get longer again. A recent Newsweek article suggested that Asians may take over the world economy by the middle of the century. I’ve just completed Thomas Friedman’s book, “The World is Flat”. The earth may look something like it did twenty years ago, but it’s not the same place at all. Much of what we buy now comes from Asia. Our support help for electronics, reservations, and banking is in Bangalore. They’re writing our software and preparing our tax returns there. There’s a global competition for jobs. If you’re creative, smart, educated, and your job can’t be exported, you’ll survive. Of course, sooner or later, you’ll have to learn Chinese. As for the rest of us, who knows. But remember that the future really is uncertain. I kind of suspect China and India will stumble along the way to world dominance. Newsweek could be wrong. Let’s hope so.

Next, let’s consider the liberation movements. Bigotry toward African Americans was the norm in my parents’ generation, and women could only be housewives, teachers, or nurses. In the decades since, overt racial discrimination has been abolished. Women, gays and lesbians, the physically challenged, and now even illegal immigrants have all in turn demanded their rights, each with considerable success, and the world has changed. Who will be next?

And then there’s politics. Fifty years ago, most Americans passionately believed in and almost worshipped their leaders. Then came Vietnam, Watergate, the Iran-Contra deal, the thirty-second sound bite, and George W. Bush. These days, finding someone or something to believe in is difficult.

Remember when food was just food. Now there’s low fat, organic, and genetically altered, along with thousands of supplements that you may or may not need.

A generation or two ago, jobs could last a lifetime. I’ve had 5 jobs in the last eight years and that’s not unusual for Silicon Valley. People in their forties and fifties are going back to school to learn new trades.

What about love, marriage, and families? This topic is a particular favorite of mine. Just a few generations ago, marriage was a means of sharing the tasks of farm life and passing on property to children. The sexes had well-defined roles. Our ancestors lived in clans with the same beliefs, ethnicity and culture, so nobody married outside their religion, social class, or race, and divorce was unthinkable. Now we’ve been exposed to cultural and religious diversity, and have expanded choices concerning pairing, careers, and parenting. We’ve been liberated from gender roles. We’re freer, but all that choice has raised expectations and led to confusion. Divorce is now commonplace. The number of middle-aged singles is growing rapidly. Extended families that once supported us are spread around the country or around the world. Only a generation or two ago we had years to get to know potential partners in close-knit communities. Now in a world of strangers, we have five-minute dating where you have a few heartbeats to consider whether love is possible. Or you could go on-line and see whose pixels turn you on. Even if you find true love, it may not last — people change. And whatever you do, don’t get married; that could spoil the whole thing. We are the successful products of 4 billion years of evolution, yet now many of us are finding difficulty pairing off and staying paired long enough to raise families, not because of some global disaster, but because of social change.

Consider national alliances. If you lived during the Hundred Years War, you never doubted that you knew who your friends were. In the 21st century however you need an electronic scorecard to tell the good guys from the bad. Let’s see; we fought the Germans and Italians alongside the Russians. Then we paired with the Italians and Germans against the Russians. The Iranians were our friends until they became our enemies. Then we supported Sadam Hussein against them. Now we have deposed Sadam. We supported Osama Bin Laden and his terrorists against the Russians in Afganistan, but now are fighting with the Russians against Osama and his terrorists. The Germans and Japanese were once villains, but now we drive their cars. The “Red” Chinese were evil, but now we are outsourcing and offshoring to them and buying their products at Wal-Mart. Who will we battle next when the Axis of Evil goes the way of the Evil Empire? It’s so confusing. I wish we could make up our minds once and for all. I just don’t know who to hate any more.

There is one more change I want to mention before I call it quits for today. I’m afraid we are all getting older. All right, people have always aged, but it’s different in the 21st century. Not that long ago, cultures held a respect for elders that tempered the cruel effects of aging. Today’s culture worships youth. In a time when those supportive extended families are vanishing along with pensions, it’s no fun to grow old. Since only youth has value, we spend billions on anti-aging creams and pills, facelifts and botox treatments in denial of the inevitable. I’m not getting any older, are you?

Okay that’s enough. I’ve painted a scenario of accelerating change, almost chaos really, that is life in the twenty-first century. The times they are certainly a-changin’, and fast. The problem is that we enjoy order and routine. Confronted with so much change, we feel frightened and insecure. Since we’re always most comfortable with people who think like us, look like us, and share our backgrounds and norms, the mixing of cultures is not always smooth either. So, how do we cope?

Well dudes, you could just freak out. Get depressed, have a nervous breakdown, and suffer panic attacks. Lots of people do. I Googled “depression” and discovered that as many as 44 million Americans suffer from depression each year. I guess if you feel good these days, you must be abnormal. Now, depression isn’t new, but somehow I think the stresses of modern life are causing it to affect more of us. The problem with losing it as a remedy to change is that it doesn’t help you cope with and live in a changing world and it doesn’t bring you happiness. It may be popular, but I really don’t recommend it.

Another approach to change is pure and simple denial. Censorship is good, science is pure evil, and global warming is a left-wing plot. Fluoride used to be a communist plot, but you don’t hear much about that now that the Russians and Chinese have discovered the joys of capitalism. Marriage is immutable and God belongs in the Pledge of Allegiance. A century and a half after Darwin, half of Americans still believe in creationism. Despite no scientific evidence of an afterlife, a billion Christians anticipate eternal life and a still larger number of Hindus and Buddhists expect to be reincarnated many times over. Most of the world’s people apparently have no trouble denying death. Hey, if you can do that, anything is possible. So denial is the answer to change for many, if not most of us. The thing is though, it just doesn’t address reality. Long ago there were a lot less of us and our impact on the world was small. To be successful then, you exploited the earth’s resources, multiplied your numbers, and fought for dominance. However, if you lived that way today, you would be flaunting a reality of dwindling non-renewable resources, global warming, and opponent nations with nuclear weapons. If we are to survive in tomorrow’s world, we’d better practice sustainable consumption, population restraint, and peaceful cooperation today. Denial just won’t cut it - you’ll just find yourself dragged kicking and screaming into the future. Sticking your head in the sand doesn’t make change go away or help humanity cope with it.

So if freaking out and denial don’t work, what does? Well, we could go with the flow, let go of the transient and not be too attached to possessions, but fight to keep alive what is important to us: friendship, companionship, love, and justice. If we act together, we might have some say in making decisions about what gets changed. And if we cooperate peacefully with others, we won’t have to worry about who to hate; we won’t have to hate anyone. I like this approach. It’s not the easiest route, but in my opinion, it’s the best choice we’ve got.

To encourage cooperation and tolerance for diversity, it helps to study and interact with those different from us. In colleges and universities, in modern urban communities, and in liberal churches like this one, people of different backgrounds mix and our circles grow. I was lucky enough to spend 13 years in institutions of higher learning, after which I discovered liberal religion. So, unlike my parents before me, I got to know lots of different kinds of people; good, caring, compassionate people. Some were dark skinned and some were gay. Once labels get faces and have real personalities, barriers fall. Before long, I found myself marching in a gay rights parade, and supporting gay marriage. Anything new and different brings fear and uncertainty, but eventually we overcome it. Someday, possibly much sooner than we think, gay marriage will be just as commonplace as the once taboo pairings of rich and poor, Jew and Christian, and black and white. In the last few years, I’ve studied Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, and I’ve met people who practice those faiths. I’ve tried Transcendental and Insight Buddhist meditation. The world grows smaller and our perspectives grow larger.

Another thing to realize is that we don’t have to subscribe to the youth culture. Many older people are healthy and vital. This church is full of seniors who stay active traveling, volunteering, and being together in friendship with one another. I’m jealous of their free time. Daniel Gilbert, author of “Stumbling on Happiness” says that older people spend more time doing what they enjoy with close friends and less doing what they have to do with mere acquaintances. As a result, people in their 70’s tend to be happier than those in their 20’s and 30’s. So there!

So, what will the future bring? The technology part is easy to predict. In the next 5 years, we will see a computer the size of a PDA, containing a high resolution camera, a cell phone, and WiMax high speed worldwide internet access. With global positioning to centimeter resolution, you’ll be able to locate lost pets and maybe even misplaced keys. I can guess at the world I expect in twenty years — we’ll have wrist watch computers that we talk to. A keyboard will be to the next generation what a typewriter is to us today. That’s fine with me; I never learned how to type very well anyway. We’ll have cleaner air and water, renewable energy sources, the start to a reversal of global warming, and an expansion of the sustainability movement, with more communal sharing of resources. Hey I can dream, can’t I, and it sure sounds better than the alternatives. Cures will be found for cancers and AIDS, and there will no doubt be brain enhancements, too late for me, I’m afraid. Let us hope reason will prevail against more devastating wars.

I cannot even pretend to know what changes lie beyond in the centuries to come. Humans have been dismally poor at long range prediction in the past, so I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. The future won’t be long in coming. We can’t be sure how globalization will play out, how we will be affected by the damage of global warming, or how burgeoning populations of third world citizens vying with us for limited resources will impact the future. I am uncertain of the social changes all of this will bring about. I only know they will happen, be frightening, and turn our worlds inside out.

Although I don’t know what’s around the distant bend, I think I do know how we can survive, prosper, and be happy, no matter what. Here it is — what you’ve been waiting for: my personal answer to how to survive in the twenty-first century. If you don’t like it, invent your own. My secret is living in the present moment and making the best of whatever the world brings. It may be wise to learn from the past and prepare for the future, but we must never forget that it is always now. I believe salvation lies in celebrating the rebirth of each day, each breath and heartbeat, the wonder of conscious life, the creativity and imagination of humanity. The cry of a newborn baby, the joyful laugh of a youngster, the look in the eyes of a couple in love, the wonder of lying out under a star-filled sky on a warm summer’s evening, the sound of crashing waves at the sea-shore, and the glowing smile of a proud grandparent — these transcend change. Being in community with compassionate, caring, and loving family and friends who help one another, allowed our ancestors to prevail a thousand generations ago. It is what will sustain our descendents a thousand generations into the future. This church may eventually disappear with the changing needs of future generations, but other institutions will arise to carry on the task of bringing people together. Of that I am certain, because we need each other. So now in this moment, as you prepare to walk out of here and face another day in the 21st century, relax, take a deep breath, feel your heart beat, sense the life force of the community that surrounds you here today, and celebrate being alive.



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