The funny thing about my response to Hans Rosling’s brilliantly innovative book, Factfulness, is I purchased it while completing revisions of my own book: Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah. However, I then promptly set it aside until Dreams was in the hands of my publisher and well on its way to the printer.
Given Microsoft founder Bill Gates’s exceptional endorsement Factfulness (co-authored by Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund), there was little reason to doubt its examination of “Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World and Why Things Are Better Than You Think" was fully worth my committed attention. The cautiousness I felt stemmed mostly from concern the Factfulness in question might be overloaded with an excess of data and abstract theories while ignoring the intent behind my own work.
The journalist in me always welcomes insightful research anchored by documented trends. The poet in me welcomes even more strategies and proposed solutions informed by compassion plus analytical insight. Therefore, acknowledging the hearts and souls that give often-referenced numbers their significance means a lot to me.
Developing a New Perspective
Doubt and apprehensiveness lingered throughout my reading of the first chapter on “The Gap Instinct.” I accepted easily enough Rosling’s proposal that for purposes of public discourse we should do away with the term “developing countries” and instead adopt language suitable for “sorting countries" into 4 income levels. Level 1 would be home to the most impoverished and Level 4 comfortably occupied by the wealthiest. Levels 2 and 3 could be considered the international middle classes.
Upon reading the following, the only thing I could do was smile: “Since you are reading this book, I’m pretty sure you live on Level 4” (p. 37). In fact, at this specific point in my life, I'm nowhere near it. But just by reading the book, it would seem, I at least possess Level 4 instincts, or qualities, and have adopted practices which may yet elevate my economic status.
Rosling’s notion, nevertheless, appealed to me. Factfulness essentially provides us with a framework and set of lens through which to view and assess the evolving realities of nations and individuals. Moreover, how could anyone not admire the depth to which the good doctor's reasoning was by informed by his many years of service to humanity? Given my passion for real-life historical literary heroes who, somehow, managed to beat the odds against them in order to produce compelling classic works, I had to admit he just might belong on the same level as those very heroes. He had, after all, devoted his final breaths to completing it.
Instinct & Realization
Going from one chapter to the next, Rosling points out how our worldviews may be distorted by 10 factors, or tendencies, categorized as follows: the Gap instinct, Negativity, Straight Line, Fear, Size, Generalization, Destiny, Single, Blame, and Urgency. What astonished me was how often he presented stories of himself giving in to these instincts. In one such account, by way of demonstrating the Fear Instinct, he mistakes a Swedish pilot for a potential Russian fighter pilot and almost needlessly destroys an expensive air force G-suit to treat him.
In another, illustrating the Urgency Instinct, he endorses a suggestion to prevent the spread of a contagious disease in Nacala, Mozambique, by setting up a military roadblock to prevent buses from entering the area. The result is one of unexpected deadly consequences. The unreserved humility with which this world-class educator and medical researcher shares his hard-won lessons is admirable. Although humanity's capacity for compassion IS not been included as a resource for making "things" better, and the word compassion does not appear in the index of Factfulness, the various elements of which is is comprises--like empathy, mindfulness, forgiveness--are evident enough.
Necessity & Recognition
The need to confront and learn from mistakes, combined with the compassion often required to accomplish precisely that, is a major theme which runs throughout the text and art of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah. Some of the errors examined I considered my own. Some I did not. All required adapting to the demands of reevaluation and change.
The story "Trees Down Everywhere," for example, presents a meditation on the consequences of denying the realities of climate change. It further considers the necessity to exercise compassion not just for people currently suffering the consequences of it and for "future generations," but for the Earth itself.
In addition: “The Bridge and the Monument: A Tale of Two Legacies” contrasts the racially-inclusive social vision of the late Dr. Abigail H. Jordan with the racially-oppressive politics of former Georgia (USA) governor Eugene Talmadge. (Included in the appendices are statements are statements on community efforts to change the name of the Eugene Talmadge Memorial Bridge spanning the Savannah River.)
The title story looks at how the horrors of human trafficking exemplified by America's historic Civil War continue to haunt world populations in 2019. It further suggests how exercising compassion and forgiveness toward an unexpected population segment impacted by the war could play a significant role in finally healing from it. Anyone questioning the relevance of such an observation need only recognize calls for reparations for the descendants of Blacks who toiled in slavery in America for centuries continue to increase as the 2020 election for the next U.S. president grows closer.
Other stories in Dreams, "Like A Brazilian Thanksgiving in Savannah" and "Savannah by the Twenty-first Century Numbers" look at ways a sense of compassion informs our approaches to such issues as immigration, caregiving, the historic impact of demographic shifts, dynamics of inter-generational interactions, and embracing diversity.
NEXT: Hans Rosling’s Factfulness and the Search for Compassion Behind the Numbers Part 2
The various works with the late great artist Luther E. Vann, particularly ELEMENTAL, The Power of Illuminated Love, are fairly well-known. For its blending of visual fine art and poetry by two creatives, ELEMENTAL continues to stand as an exceptional tribute to creative energies and individuals which made the Harlem Renaissance such an exciting political and cultural arts phenomenon.
Some, however, might be surprised to learn Vann’s art also adorned the covers of several more of my books, including: the poetry collection The Bridge of Silver Wings; and, the novels Christmas When Music Almost Killed the World, and Songs from the Black Skylark zPed Music Player. In Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah, Vann’s aesthetic relationship with the artists Claude Monet and Kahlil Gibran is explored in story titled “Monet, Vann, and Gibran at the Telfair Museum of Art.” The following is a short excerpt from the story:
“When considering how the practices of slavery, philanthropy, and rebellion could all converge behind the exquisitely-rendered doors of the Telfair Museum, it becomes less difficult to imagine the different implications of it housing works by artists as diverse as France’s Claude Monet (Nov 14, 1840 – Dec 5 1926), America’s Luther E. Vann (Dec 2, 1937-April 6, 2016), and Lebanon’s Kahlil Gibran (Jan 6, 1883 – April 10, 1931)... There is a kind of unrecognized kinship between their painted meditations on the layered realities of human existence and the ever-unfolding wonders of time’s relationship with space, and light’s eternal dance with shadows and hues.” (from Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah)
The above reference to “practices of slavery” (hopefully obviously) should not be taken as allusion to those associated with today’s Telfair Museums of Art. It refers rather to past practices which made possible the foundation upon which the museum was founded. It is nevertheless painfully relevant to our modern times because of the current pandemic of human trafficking. That makes the work and function of the modern Telfair Museums, which often bridges cultural divides and celebrates human diversity, all the more essential.
100th Anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance
The second epigraph at the beginning of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah comes from a contemporary and friend of Nobel Prize for Literature winner Albert Camus (1913-1960), the French poet Rene Char (1907-1988):
"On our temperate side we have a series of songs in us, guarding us, wings of communication between our calm breath and our highest fevers..."
The hope to establish a balance between temperance and its opposite, heedlessness or chaos, so that a "series of songs" may flow unimpeded, is an important theme in "A Brazilian Thanksgiving in Georgia," the second story in Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah (ISBN 978-9388125956). In fact, the story might also have borrowed from Char's quote the phrase "Between Our Calm Breath and Our Highest Fevers" for an alternate title. This is the synopsis for it:
"One Thanksgiving holiday when people all over the country are gathering with family members to enjoy a good meal and each other’s company, the narrator makes peace with the fact that his estrangement from certain relatives will make the occasion a challenging one: for the widowed family matriarch he looks after, and, for himself. Having already resolved to make the best of a sad situation, he is surprised by a visit from two friends, a brother and sister from Brazil. In addition to several boxes loaded with traditional Brazilian food, they bring with them much-needed inspiration."
Determining the best strategies and practices when it comes to caring for aging populations is something impacting the lives of people around the world. While Traditional Elders may be the primary recipients of this care, Millennials, members of Generation X, and Baby Boomers are largely the ones charged with providing it. And members of Generation Z eventually will inherit the same responsibilities.
How well we accomplish the task before us with love and compassion or how miserably we fail has become one of the true 21st-century tests of what we like to call-- our humanity.
100th Anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance
Read More Blog-Notes on Dreams from the Immortal City Savannah:
"The realization of dreams, like every battle for freedom, has always required compromise to one degree or another. When the result of a concession, however, is the mutilation of your soul or the cancellation of someone else's future, then it may be said the desired goal was corrupted or destroyed rather than attained." –Aberjhani (from Dreams of the Immortal City)
There are two quotes at the beginning of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah. This is the first, by the author and Catholic monk Thomas Merton (1915-1968):
“It is true that a person always remains a person and utterly separate and apart from every other person. But it is equally true that each person is destined to reach with others an understanding and a unity which transcend individuality…” (T. Merton from A Life in Letters)
These wise and useful words from Merton illustrate one of the primary themes of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah (Cyberwit.net Publishing) which is the necessity of individuals and social groups to reconcile themselves with one another to achieve sustainable peace and mutually-beneficial progress. Merton referred to that necessity as though it were/is an inevitability described as "an understanding and a unity."
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968) called it "an inescapable network of mutuality" and the "inter-related structure of reality.” I have tended, for some years now, to think of it as a convergence of historical confluences which either align the priorities of individuals and societies with historical trends or place them in conflict with the same.
Navigating the Dynamics
Living in the 21st century means mindfully deciding exactly how one fits into such ideological configurations. That is also about the way it was when Dr. King and Merton were formulating their conclusions during the 1960s. And It is what we see in the pages of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah as people navigate the dynamics of such issues as: personal conduct in public places, assessing the value of long-held cultural traditions in a world of rapidly-evolving multiracial demographics, and maintaining a healthy sense of self within environments made toxic by factors like greed, xenophobia, demagoguery, and other debilitating regressions.
A good example of the invigorating challenge before us is "Cities of Lights and Shadows and Dreams," the very first story in the book. It is described in the following synopsis:
One of the great compromises people sometimes have to make in life is accepting that plans do not always work out as preferred. In Cities of Lights and Shadows and Dreams, the author becomes preoccupied by a strange false memory of being in Paris, France, just after World War II, a time when a number of African Americans had made their way to The City of Lights. Tears in the fabric of this memory allow him to see himself in another later time in his hometown of Savannah where he talks with singer India Arie and others about the visit to Paris but which in fact has never taken place.
The story introduces the parallel themes of displacement, expatriation, attempted escape from painful conflict, and unavoidable return as the narrator imagines what it was like for author Richard Wright (Native Son, Black Boy) upon his arrival in Paris and struggles to make peace with the reality of his actual life in a very different time and place.
Or we can look at it this way: journeys and destinations are not one and the same. The first has to be engaged with a great deal of committed flexibility and enthusiastic perseverance before the other can be enjoyed with any amount of secured satisfaction whatsoever.
Co-Author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
Creator of Silk-Featherbrush ArtStyle
About the Author:
A passionate reader, committed writer, artist, photographer, dedicated practitioner of mindfulness, hurricane survivor, maker of poems, believer in the value of compassion, historian, award-winner, journalist, adherent of beauty, and student of wisdom.