False Reality

In a number of conversations he had with colleagues and former students, he was often questioned about the moral decline of students he taught. With a teaching career that spanned 50+ years over seven decades, he seemed to be one who had a unique insight into the changes in society.

His response was often a shocker. “I’ve seen no decline”, he said. “I think of morality as one of purposeful living. To me, it represents such things as kindness, authenticity, caring, respect, and support for others. I haven’t seen a change in any of these personal traits in the span of time I’ve taught. The students I taught in the 60s are not that different from those I teach today.”

“If you relate morality to such superficial things as hairstyle, clothes, biological traits, interests, and other surface-level images of a person, then there are differences. But to me, these aren’t moral traits. Work ethic hasn’t changed nor has their willingness to volunteer. In fact, I’ve seen an increased sense of purpose and figuring out their why.”

“I’ve wondered whether my sample size is skewed and whether there has been a general decline in morality. I recently saw that a publication in Nature Magazine (The illusion of moral decline | Nature) has concluded the same thing that I’ve seen. In 107 surveys of more than 4 million people spanning a period of time from 1965-2000, the perception was that moral behavior was on the decline.”

“But the reality didn’t match the perceptions. They didn’t see a decline in their own morality over time. The illusion of a decline in morality could be attributed to what we pay attention to. Those who espouse the negative get a lot more attention than those who believe in the goodness of others. When was the last time you saw a political ad that focused on kindness or purposeful living? I guess creating fear is a way to get elected. Psychologists call this Biased Exposure and Memory (BEAM).”

“When I get notes from alumni, they consistently focus on what I taught them about being successful as a person. Then they mention things like how they lived their lives, not their job title or salary. That’s consistent from those in their 20s and those who are now grandparents. They haven’t changed their values or what it means to live a purposeful life.”

“Why are our perceptions so wrong? Neuroscientists are beginning to understand how we can change the wiring in our brains. Unfortunately, those who want to stoke fear, grievance, and dismay have captured the media world we live in. Those who believe in hope, joy, kindness, and like traits struggle to draw our attention.”

“But for all the doom we are bombarded with, we have faith that our values and purpose are the way to live our lives.”

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“People take different roads seeking fulfillment and happiness. Just because they’re not on your road doesn’t mean they’ve gotten lost.” – Dalai Lama

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