23 April 2023
Thanks to my wife I recently came across a book, whose title caught my attention. It’s called Factfulness. The reasons we are wrong about the world – and why things are better than you think, by Hans Rosling, a medical doctor, professor of international health, and renowned public educator, who was also adviser to the World Health Organization and Unicef.
Usually, these kind of books are not my cup of tea, because I would prefer to read novels or books on spirituality and mindfulness as you probably imagine, but I was curious so I started reading it. The author’s thesis is very simple: the common assumption that the world is getting worse is wrong and I’ll prove it by testing people on global statistics that are commonly accepted by reliable sources such as the World Bank Organization, the UN Annual Report, and the World Health Organization. Based on their statistical reports, he set up a questionnaire that he then tested on people all over the world, realising how little they knew about what was really going on in the world. Asking questions like the following one:
There are 2 billion children in the world today, aged 0 to 15 years old. How many children will there be in the year 2100, according to the United Nations?
A: 4 billion
B: 3 billion
C: 2 billion
The results of his research are astonishingly shocking because they show that the major problem in the world is not poverty or injustice or even climate change, but ignorance, meaning the lack of knowledge. Bear in mind that he tested audiences from all around the world and from all walks of life: medical students, teachers, university lecturers, eminent scientist, investment bankers, executives in multinational companies, journalists, activists, and even senior political decision makers. We are talking about highly educated people who take an interest in the world. But most of them -a stunning majority of them- got most of the answers wrong. Some of these groups even score worse that the general public; some of the most appalling results came from a group of Nobel laureates and medical researchers. Interestingly Hans Rosling realised that the more he tested people, the more ignorance he found. He became aware of one important fact: the people he tested had knowledge but it was outdated, over several decades old. What’s interesting about his book is that it shows us that very often we may to realise that we live in a world of global illusions. We don’t see the world as it is because we have too many filters, which we can call misconceptions, and they are led by the negativity instinct that tells us that “the world is getting worse” even if there is enough evidence to show us exactly the opposite. Feeling seems to prevail over thinking or even facts, which we simply ignore.
Now, what does this have anything to do with the Today’s Gospel and the Joy of the resurrection? Well, I probably would say: quite a lot! As matter of fact, people who has gone through the experience of the passion and resurrection of Christ, passing from darkness to light, experiencing the joy of healing his spiritual wounds and seeing his suffering redeemed into joy, this people know what we are talking about. Imagine, a Ukrainian soldier who meets again his family after months of fighting and seeing just violence and war in his devasted country; or people who witnessed the end of apartheid in South Africa (something unthinkable until Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu made it possible).
Peter and the apostles went through a life-changing experience as well as the disciples meeting Jesus on their way to Emmaus. The see the world as it is.
What is fascinating about Hans Rosling’s book is his effort to help people have a change of perspective. Ignorance means darkness, and a very dangerous one when people in a position of power make decisions based on false assumptions.
Also, I’m glad that a books like this one came out now! For years Christians have been accused to be naively optimistic about the world. Although I’m genuinely an optimistic person, I have to confess that getting older made me a bit more pessimistic about the world. However, Hans R. helped me change my perspective. In fact, like him, I don’t feel I’m an optimistic or pessimistic person anymore, but a possibilist (which off course is a made up word): when I see bad things happening I also see possibilities for things to get better. As a matter of fact, bad and better don’t contradict each other.
Dividing the world into optimistic and pessimistic people is very dangerous exercise, because what we tend to do is to balance all the negative news with the more positive ones. It is a natural instinct, which could be comforting, but self-deceiving. We may have to keep the two thoughts in our heads together not to be accused of being naively optimistic.
Bad and better go together. If we hear someone saying that things are getting better, it doesn’t mean that we should “relax” or “look away”, but that things can be bad and better at the same time. Let explain this to you with an example.
A good friend of mine who live in London had his first child in an incubator, because the child was born premature. The baby health’s status was extremely bad and his breathing, heart rate, and other important signs were constantly tracked so that changes for better and for worse could quickly be seen. The doctors also said to the parents that for a few seconds the oxygen didn’t reach the brain of the baby during childbirth warning them that it could have caused some brain damage to their baby. Imagine how my friends felt by hearing this! Now after a week, he was getting a lot better. On all the main measures, he was improving, he still had to stay in the incubator because his health was still critical, but that he was safe. Today this child is a healthy boy with a brilliant mind and no sign of brain damage. Does it make sense to say that my friend’s child situation was improving? Yes, absolutely. Does it make sense to say that it was bad? Again yes, absolutely. This is why saying that ‘things are improving it doesn’t necessarily imply that everything is fine and we should all relax, but that we don’t have to choose between bad and improving because they live together. Bad and better coexist without contradicting each other. Peter and the apostles who boldly stand in front a crowd in Jerusalem and announce them the resurrection of Jesus are a testimony of this truth. They are fearless because they know the truth, they see the world as it is without filters. They are not naïve. They know that the people in front of them is probably the same people who shouted “crucify him” to Pilate on Good Friday, but they also know that there is a possibility that they can change for better. As a matter of fact they do. Many became Christians after listening to them.
The disciples of Emmaus are another beautiful example of this change of perspective after a life-transforming experience such as meeting the risen Lord. Jesus talk them through the Scriptures while walking alongside them on the way to Emmaus, and they wake up and see that the world is not getting worse because Jesus died, because they missed the best part, which was they're right in front of their eyes. They were blinded by their ignorance.
I don’t know about you, but I think that we live in a very challenging time. The risk of been blinded by a huge amount of false assumptions and misconceptions about the world is extremely high, and dangerous. One of them is certainly the one that we can live without worrying too much about our spiritual and inner life as far as we have enough money in our bank account, a decent job and other material things that make us feel safe in our houses. The reality is that happiness goes beyond our material world, and the values, relationship and spiritual bonding we share when we come together is intangible and priceless, but most of all essential to our lives. I truly believe that as Christians we celebrate the resurrection as testimony to the need of being vocal about the possibility for the world to get better, and also to the importance of sharing with the world those life-transforming experiences that brought us from darkness to the light. The world needs to hear them. As Peter and the disciples of Emmaus we must feel a fire burning inside us and urging to share the good news with the rest of the world. They might call us naïve, but the truth is that we long to see the world as it is, and are perhaps being possibilist we touch reality more that we can’t imagine.