November 25, 2013

A Lesson From The World’s Worst Week

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“Rehearse them in your mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck. All the terms of our human lot should be be before our eyes.” – Seneca
55Laney69
55Laney69

A lot of bad stuff happened to me last week.

I know the philosophers say there is no such thing as good or bad events–that there are only our perceptions which make things one or the other.

But my week began with a near fatal car accident on a dark highway and ended with someone breaking into my new home, ransacking it and stealing most of what I own–and destroying what they left behind. For good measure, my pet chickens were later decapitated and disemboweled by an unknown animal.

Why this happened and who or what is to blame, I’m not sure. But I can tell you for sure where the biggest problem lay: I was not at all expecting it. Not at all. And so it felt terrible.

We can easily accept in the abstract that there is no good or bad, that we create definitions and categories for objective events outside of our control. Yet, when it happens to us in reality, particularly as a surprise, our very human side kicks in.

It’s bad. We feel bad. Real bad.

Over the last few years, I have noticed something strange. The more in my head my career has taken me, the more vulnerable I have become. In some ways this is good. Writing forces you to become more in touch with your emotions; writing is often inherently an empathic act, so practicing it makes you more empathetic. So does reading. In my relationships, this has all made for positive change.

But there is another part of this vulnerability. Sensitivity to loud noises, to temptations, to moods–these are increased the more in your head you get. For instance, it makes many of us addicted to our routines and leaves us exposed when that routine is interrupted.

I think when you manipulate your own mind and your work all day, it feels natural to assume the rest of the world is like this too. You need things your way, and need them to happen on your terms. This is most definitely a weakness. Vulnerability is a good thing, up until it becomes an entitlement.

Not all of us are artists, I understand, but the point stands for everyone else too. Inured from harsh realities humans once accepted as commonplace–from sudden and unpredictable weather to sudden and unpredictable death–we can forget how capricious events can be. We deliberately do not think of these possibilities because we don’t want to ruin our (delicate) moods or disrupt our routine.

Life does not tolerate this for very long.

Fate often lulls us into complacency before reminding us that life is wicked and unpredictable.

As Euripides put it: “Foolish is the man who delights in his good fortune, supposing it will never leave him.”

The mathematical law of the universe says it more clearly: Everything regresses towards the mean.

The mean in life, we must never forget, is punctuated bursts of violence and destruction and someone else’s whim.

In a second, it can all change.

An accident. A diagnosis. A news alert.

Tomorrow, someone could blow up our economy and you could lose everything you have. A dictator could move the world towards war. Or, someone could slam into you in an intersection. Or they could come through an upstairs window and make off with your most valuable possessions.

This is life. These things will happen. Or maybe they won’t. No, they definitely will–the variability lies only in the degree and the ETA.

In your reaction to such inevitable events, you will undoubtedly ask yourself a million questions. Most of them will be pointless. One of them truly matters. Ask yourself: If it happens again, are you better prepared?

I don’t mean what you think I mean. Not: did you buy a bigger safe? Or did you set up security cameras or run a practice drill for some calamity? (Though all those things are important and helpful). Because by “again” I don’t mean the exact same event. I mean fate, misfortune, unpredictable and unpleasant circumstances.

So: Are you now mentally prepared for a world you cannot control? Now do you finally understand how random and vicious the world can be? Did you learn from your last reminder?

Because, to come back to those philosophers from earlier (whose advice about responses is a little more practical), we have only one choice. That choice is acceptance. See, we don’t control what happens to us. No amount of technology or civilization will ever make a difference in that regard, except at the margins.

What is in our control? Well, after our biology and psychology run their course–like shock for instance–all that’s left is our response. We control how we act, we control the stories we tell ourselves afterwards.

We choose whether we will make ourselves vulnerable. We choose whether we will get soft. We decide if we’ll be delusional.

We can also choose to prepare ourselves for a savage world. To use philosophy as a weapon in our defense. Bad things will happen. They will knock us on our ass. But we have the choice now to dull the surprise in advance and quicken our recovery time.

It’s up to you whether you’ll take it. TC mark

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