Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

Hope – No One Has Been Able To See the World This Way Before

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“People can live for weeks without food, for days without water, for minutes without air but not even for a second without hope.” – Multiple Sources

At MIT’s imaging lab they have developed a camera that is able to take pictures with images that capture what happens in a trillionth of a second. They can take 500 frames of a movie in a billionth of a second. The speed of this camera allows the development team to capture the images of photons, individual packets of light, moving through various liquids. Dr. Raskar who developed this technology indicated at this point that “no one has been able to see the world this way before”, so where this may lead is anyone’s guess. The trick to new applications utilizing this astounding ability is not simply the capturing of the images of photons as they move about and interact with objects, but in correctly interpreting what those images mean. For instance, how light interacts with a piece of fruit may be able to tell us how ripe that fruit is (I can see the iPhone app now). Or how it bounces off a cell may be able to tell us whether that cell is cancerous. Or the photons may inform us instantaneously if a bridge is about to experience a catastrophic failure, whether water is safe to drink, or if a sore throat is a serious illness. The information that ordinary light can convey in this manner may make it an everyday tool of civil engineers, chemists, doctors and many other people. Other possibilities will of course arise that we cannot even imagine at the moment. The future for this new technology and by extension for Dr. Raskar looks glorious, for “no one has been able to see the world this way before.”

I want to contrast that image of the world with the one held by that Joaquin Luna Jr., who in November killed himself. Jaoquin was a high school student in the top quarter of his class from Mission, Texas who dreamed of being the first in his family to go to college and of becoming a civil engineer. His parents brought Joaquin to this country illegally as an infant for a better life. He knew of no other existence beyond his life in the United States. As he applied to colleges he realized that given his status, his dream was out of reach. He wrote in a note, “I’ve realized that I have no chance in becoming a civil engineer the way that I’ve always dreamed of here…” The day after Thanksgiving he apologized to his mother, saying that he was sorry that he would not be able to become the person he dreamed, went into a bathroom, placed a handgun underneath his chin and….that was the end for him for he was not able to see the world the way he dreamed it to be. His was not a grandiose dream, it was a modest dream, but one in which he had lost hope – regardless of the reason.

There is a debate now raging between those who advocate for creating a path for illegal immigrants that allows them to stay in the USA vs. those who advocate treating them as criminals. Did those who came to this country illegally break the law? Yes. Should we create conditions in this country that cause high school students with modest dreams to kill themselves as they lose hope in those dreams? Can anyone really advocate for that? That is not what this country traditionally has been about.

Hope is a key driver that causes many of us to achieve, to put off current rewards for a better long-term future, and to be resilient in the face of adversity. Hope is largely what this country was built upon as millions upon millions entered this land as immigrants from all points on the globe looking for a better future for themselves and their children. Those immigrants fought for this country, those immigrants died for this country. Those immigrants gave us the innovative, scientific and entrepreneurial spirit that allowed us to flourish, to become what we have. It even allows scientists, who come from their native lands for an exceptional education and for opportunity, to photograph a photon itself using new technology developed right here and opening up a new world of possibilities. And hope is what we have given back to the world over the last centuries, with the notion of American exceptionalism largely based on us as the keeper of world peace, as a source of innovation and development, as a bastion of freedom and as a welcoming nation. The words on the Statue of Liberty used to mean something, and they still mean a lot to me.

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
(Emma Lazarus)

Hope in the essential goodness of mankind is, contrary to much evidence, what makes us believe that we can get through whatever hardships we are facing and that the future will be brighter for all of us. Hope should not be based on wishful thinking or simple belief, but on evidence. Is there any evidence that can give us a sense of hope in mankind’s future – how we treat each other? I believe that there is.

What are the odds that mankind will evolve away from harsh treatment of their fellow humans, treatment that destroys hope? Will the future be brighter? Steven Pinker in his new book, A History of Violence, examined the level of violence that humans have perpetrated upon other humans over the long term. He states, “In the decade of Darfur and Iraq, and shortly after the century of Stalin, Hitler, and Mao, the claim that violence has been diminishing may seem somewhere between hallucinatory and obscene. Yet recent studies that seek to quantify the historical ebb and flow of violence point to exactly that conclusion.” He suggests that our societies, perhaps mankind itself has evolved over time to a less violent form or that if not driven evolutionarily that our social structures and interdependence created conditions that lead to lower levels of violence and perhaps more hope.

Certainly the growing acceptance of our individual differences among the majority may be an indicator of that. And as a species, or as larger societies, mankind may in fact have become more beneficent beings. But at the individual level, I am reminded of the story of the little girl who is seen picking up starfish on a beach littered with the dying creatures. She stood there throwing them back into the ocean one at a time. She is asked why she is throwing individual starfish back, as she can’t possibly make a dent, a difference in the large number of the creatures that lay dying on the beach. She picks up another one, throws it back in and says “I made a difference to that one”.

The importance of making a difference to each individual, one at a time cannot be overstated. While it is easy to speak in terms of trends and large numbers we must never forget that when events happen for better or for worse that they happen to individuals, individuals that are human.  There is a saying in the Jewish tradition, paraphrased it goes, “A person who saves a life it is as though they have saved the whole world. And one who takes a life it is as though they have destroyed the entire world.” We owe it to our fellows to save as many of them from Jaoquin’s fate as we can – one at a time if need be.  Remember “no one has been able to see the world this way before”.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

December 13, 2011 at 10:16 pm

Posted in Human Behavior

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  1. […] to make about what we want to be as society, perhaps what we have been evolving to anyway (see Hope…). Do we want to reward people for taking care of themselves, perhaps to the exclusion of taking […]

  2. […] work for a better future, if not for themselves then for their […]

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