When things are grim, I think of a letter I once read. It was written by an old, sad man to his favourite nephew.
I forget the nephew’s name but the man’s name was Michelangelo and the note, translated from Italian, was dated some time in the early 1560s.
A life of immense physical effort and psychic torment was taking its toll on the greatest sculptor of the Renaissance. His tone was deeply gloomy, and through a catalogue of small setbacks a picture emerged of someone who felt that everything was gradually, depressingly, going to hell. The price of marble was rising. The deadlines were impossible. The patrons were Philistines who couldn’t tell a Pietà from a pizza.
And then he wrote something that I always come back to when life seems particularly difficult. Ah, nephew (he seemed to sigh): these are not good times to be an artist.
I found it a deeply affecting insight into a certain kind of soul, perhaps my own. It is a soul that slowly convinces itself, by collecting small disappointments, fabricating a pattern between them and then mistaking the imagined pattern for some kind of truth, that things have never been this bad. It is a powerful urge, strong enough to convince one of humanity’s greatest artists that the late Renaissance was a bad time to be making art.
Of course, the elderly have been giving up on the world since the first geriatric Homo erectus, 30 years old and ready to be tossed to the hyenas, shook his fist at all the damn youngsters with their newfangled gadget called “fire” (“If raw carrion was good enough for my dad, it’s good enough for you.”).
The poetry and art of our species is full of resignation and despair, of disappointed souls allowing themselves to mourn the death of civilisation, of love, of beauty, of hope. Perhaps it’s how we deal with growing old and facing the slowly dawning realisation that things end utterly.
Sometimes, though, it might just be plain delusional.
I fully concede that I might be finding patterns where none exist or mistaking my own anxieties for something more universal, but I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the global mood seems foul. To brush against the news on any given day is to come away soiled by an oil slick of misery. The planet is going up in smoke. Everyone is a crazy fundamentalist with a gun. Police forces are private armies. Sociopaths run countries, and gentle, funny people are hanging themselves. All day, every day, one simple message hammers at our sensibilities: we’re just the worst.
It’s easy to believe that message. The evidence seems overwhelming. But it’s simply not true. By various yardsticks the world as a whole is a less awful place right now than it has been, well, ever. Certainly there is no shortage of astonishing wickedness. But step back from the bloody minutiae of breaking news and one catches a glimpse of a planet on which murder and slavery are illegal, where reports of torture horrify us because torture is something we have largely left behind in the killing fields of history, and where protesters and pundits use words like “holocaust” and “genocide” to condemn what kings and generals of the last 5,000 years would have described as a quiet day at the office.
Consider Operation Meetinghouse in 1945, in which American aircraft showered Tokyo – a city made largely of wood and paper – with napalm-spraying cluster bomblets. More than 100,000 people were killed and a million injured in 48 hours.
If that information feels oddly difficult to grasp on an emotional level it might just be because you and I have no experience of a planet on which 100,000 people can be deliberately burned to death in two days in a major metropolis. And that, surely, is evidence of some kind of slow progress; some small consolation.
So if the world is a kinder place than it has ever been, why does it seem to grind against our spirits so much more cruelly than ever before?
An obvious culprit is the electronic media, but I suspect the main problem is not the content of the news but its context. We know how to hear about awful events. We’ve done it for millennia, craning against the murmur of the crowd to hear the messenger. But to receive news of awful events while alone, sipping a cappuccino on a sunny street, infects that news with a kind of insanity. And so, touched by that insanity, we assume that the world is going mad, and never suspect that perhaps it is merely the way we see the world that is going mad.
To unplug from the news is not to choose apathy over conscience. It is to choose sanity over chaos, and to choose to see the world as it is: slowly, painfully, spinning towards something better.
Originally published in The Times and TimesLive