Do you feel like you’re living in unprecedented times? You’re not alone. Most people do. Because of COVID, politics, climate change, technology, or some combination, most people think that today is like no other time. And as a result they feel scared and anxious.
The good news is that ancient wisdom can help.
That’s because we are not the first generation to feel this way. People always have. Ironically, unprecedented times are the norm. And we can learn from the people who, though centuries of trial and error and observation, discovered successful strategies for coping with unfamiliar territory.
In particular, people researching the human condition long ago found out that our natural tendencies in times of uncertainty lead us astray. Just like we have to learn about nutrition in order to eat well (lima beans, sadly, are more nutritious than chocolate cake), we also have to learn about what’s healthy for us behaviorally in order to live well.
Here are three ancient takeaways for today:
Our first destructive natural tendency is to ask “why?” “Why did COVID happen?” “Why was my town flooded?” “Why did my aunt die of breast cancer?” And so on. But “why” is the wrong question here.
People in antiquity discovered that life is inherently a mixed bag. Good things happen and bad things happen. But they don’t each have a reason.
Asking “why” any particular thing occurred is doubly harmful. It pushes us away from understanding the nature of our lives. And, worse, it pushes us toward destructive answers: “God is punishing us.” “I must have done something wrong.” “She died because she wasn’t brave enough.” And more.
Instead of asking “why,” we should ask “what’s next?” However:
Our second destructive natural tendency is to look back instead of looking forward. “I used to have…” “Things used to be…” “Society was once…” This is the wrong approach.
And, again, it’s doubly harmful.
It pushes us away from reacting to our current conditions. Imagine refusing to carry an umbrella in the rain because the sun used to shine, or dressing in children’s clothing because we use to be children. That’s what we do when we look back.
Worse, our recollection of the past is distorted, because we automatically tend to smooth out the rough edges. Stripped of its turbulence, our (false) memory of the past creates an impossible standard, a metric by which our current lives will always seem lacking. (This is why so many people long for “the good old days,” and why so many political movements lure people with promises of restored greatness. It’s also why it’s considered a good thing to “sleep like a baby” even though babies regularly wake up screaming in abject terror.)
Instead of looking back we should look forward. However:
Our third destructive tendency is to try to recreate the past. We think we are building for the future, but the future we conceive is often just the past reborn.
For example, during COVID many people asked whether things would ever “go back to the way they were.” That was the wrong question. Things will never go back. The right question would have been “will we feel the way we felt before COVID?” That is, “will we feel okay again?” (The answer is yes.)
I’m reminded of the rich kindergarten girl who was asked to write a story about a poor family. She wrote: “Once there was a very poor family. The mother was poor. The father was poor. The little girl was poor. The dog was poor and the cat was poor. The maid was poor. The butler was poor. The chef and the gardener and the chauffeur were poor. They were all dreadfully poor.”
Just as the girl in this story naturally imagined poverty through the limited window of her wealth, so too most people naturally imagine the future through the limited window of their past. So even when we think we are looking forward, we are still looking back.
Instead, we have to build a new future — not a replica of the past. And that’s a terrifying task.
But at least we can avoid making things worse by asking the wrong questions (and giving the wrong answers), by dwelling in the past (and distorting it), and by trying to rebuild what is forever gone.
Freed of these three natural tendencies, even the most turbulent lives become a little calmer.