Sometimes one has the pleasure of feeling like a citizen of the world. Perhaps they felt like that on the day of the moon landing, when Armstrong told us what a leap our species had made. In 1920 women in the US were given the right to vote, and I’m sure many looked up at the sky that night and thought about how much closer they suddenly were to women worldwide. In 2008, Barack Obama was elected the most powerful man in the free world, and for eight years people believed not that anything was possible, but simply that we, as a species, were daring to look at one another without prejudice.
But this feeling is not always the symptom of good things. When a moment in history highlights that certain people still, in spite of these unifying events, judge others by their color, their religion, their ways of expressing love, their physical abilities or their way of simply being themselves, it can also make one feel like a citizen of the world, because hatred has the great side-effect of revealing a great number of those who oppose it.
There is also an unmistakable trend, made obvious by recent political decisions, that those who limit their own education by either trusting entirely in one book or idea, or by distrusting the work of experts regardless of whether they have read their work or not, tend to vote for the decisions that make a country more inward-looking, rather than interested in the world and eager to share.
But, to those who are opposed to this disappointing solipsism, I am glad to offer two simple ways of ridding oneself of this way of thinking, and even more glad to say that they are both remarkably simple. In fact, they can both be achieved right now, if the participant is willing.
The first is to accept that you are not special, that the earth is the consequence of cosmic entropy and that the universe is subject to indifferent natural law rather than a teleological drive towards a greater purpose.
And the second is to read about the world and beyond, and with reading, learn, and with learning, dismantle the superstitions that you discover no longer make sense.
If you have been told that climate change is a myth, don’t assume the person telling you has insider knowledge that others who are more qualified don’t. Read what scientists, a group of humans that would not succeed in their field if they didn’t rearrange and re-evaluate their opinions depending on what new information they find, have written and make up your own mind based on what you find out, not based on an impulse you have to fill in the gaps with wishful thinking.
It goes without saying that reading opens your mind. In a book you can discover what the girl on the other side of the world is up to, whether she’s fictional or not, and this will allow your empathy to grow. Even if you still believe yourself, your town, city, country to be priority number one, the more of the world you ingest through reading, the greater your empathy becomes, until soon you realize that there really is no reason for your existential struggle to have greater value than the girl’s on the other side of the world.
Empathy in an indifferent universe helps one to see that you shouldn’t fear women being equal, but instead wonder whether history has embedded this fear in you. Shouldn’t call to ban the Muslim faith, but wonder if Muslims aren’t simply displaying the same convictions as you are and happened to have been raised in a context in which they call these convictions by another name. Empathy helps you remember that patriotism comes from being proud of how your country acts on the international stage and that a fear of journalists should come from knowing that they are controlled, not from knowing that they are free to insult you.
A variety of reading material and this capacity for empathy can help you see that there is no correct way to travel across this planet. No one-true path, but rather a billion different ways to think, believe and be wrong about everything.
A variety of reading will eventually make you think: Have I been wrong about a particular subject my whole life? and accepting that our own intelligence is of no more consequence to the universe than the current explosion of a distant star can help you to say, Perhaps, and admit that that’s fine, because life is confusing and chaotic and we’re all inclined to subjective bias.
All we need is a little book-learned empathy. It can help us value each other more, our fellow travelers in this happy accident, the only company we might ever have, the wonderfully vibrant humans we’re lucky enough to share the ride with, who will make our life a pleasure if only we return or preempt the favor.
So read, for god’s sake, and if you can’t read, talk to people who oppose your worldview and find out why, and if you can’t talk, then arm yourself with the ability to ask whether the person giving you information has an ulterior motive, or something more than subjective bias or anecdotal evidence.
However you do it, find stuff out. You can do this in fiction and non-fiction, encyclopedias and dictionaries, holy books supplemented with the National Geographic and washing-machine instruction manuals interspersed with pages from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” By abandoning our arrogance, and for the most privileged of us, by abandoning the sense that we are entitled it, we give ourselves more time and motivation to read and learn about what it is to be human.
Then, perhaps, we can be better and want to unify rather than build walls between us.