It is very easy to get discouraged about modern life because things so often seem to go wrong. As a city-dweller I am constantly being frustrated because the subways don't arrive at regular intervals and are uncomfortably overcrowded when they finally roar into the station. Buses come in herds of two or three, leaving long intervals with none in view. The streets are dirty: they are fissured by potholes; at certain hours they are no longer safe. Within the larger social system, shortcomings of a much graver kind prevail. Young peole don't get educated; old people are unhappy. Everywhere there appear to be signs that life, as we are expected to live it, falls short of rational expectations.
When the blue mood overtakes me I make it a practice to reexamine, not the breakdowns in society, but rather the expectations in the light of which those breakdowns are defined and measured. Is it not possible, I ask myself, that we have created unrealistic goals? For several generations Utopian planners have been projecting the image of a world in which everything is orderly and every person is happy. The ideal of a planned society, clean, safe and freed from onerous labor, has taken hold of the popular mind; the so-called futurists have made the present look very bleak indeed.
The actual world has always proved more intractable than the Utopians imagined. Reforms in one area have been achieved at the price of tensions at other points; every problem solved has been the means by which new problems were provoked. Mussolini, it will be recalled, made the trains run on time -- but the cost was a surrender of personal liberty and the pursuit of vainglorious external adventures. The Elizabethans didn't put much stress on having clean streets, but they created an age of poetry. Even in the golden century of Greece the city of white marble, and the forum where philosophers debated the ultimate issues of life, were shadowed by the filth and decay of a dissolving order, by the degradation of women and the prevalence of slaves.
At an educational conference recently are were deploring the evident failure of American high schools: the illiteracy of their graduates, the decline in teaching skills, the general atmosphere of violence. Yet, as one member of the panel reminded us, the high schools of today have achieved remarkable successes that are too infrequently noted. In no other country in history has the virtual totality of youth been brought so far along the educational path. To give everyone the opportunity for secondary education, on terms of absolute democratic equality, is unprecedented.The often dismaying and even frightening byproducts must at least be weighed against this achievement.
Similarly, the modern city represents a victory over many forms of disorganization and malfunction. The complex machinery by which its population is brought daily to the workplace and returned to their homes at evening is startling to contemplate. On more human terms, the means by which its poor are cared for and its older citizens preserved from the worst consequences of their infirmity is beyond what many of the saints would have dreamed.
The danger of this kind of thinking is that it may seem to make us easily satisfied; those who pursue it run the risk of being called Pollyannas. But the real Pollyannas, I would contend, are those who confuse their hopes with reality , and are so optimistic as to think that every ideal will be fulfilled. It is good to hope; but it is folly to fall into despair when hopes are deferred -- or when their realization brings new difficulties in their train. Santayana once defined a wise man as one who "harbors probable wishes and who prays temperate prayers." The phrase is seductive; but the heroes of our time and race have been those whose wishes may have been improbable, but whose courage in enduri ng disappointments was unmeasured.