Imagine a time of economic prosperity and peace, when everyone feels like they have purpose, and most of us have hope. You have a house, a reliable car, sufficient food, good health, a strong community, and everything else that you need.
You think you know what way is up, and what way is down.
Now, think about that life crumbling apart. If you’re alive today, it’s probably not too hard to imagine. You see the world around you is in turmoil. You may lose your income, get evicted from your home, your family member gets sick, someone dies, or in some way, all of sudden, life goes on a new, uncharted course.
The fact is that life will go off the rails at some point for everyone, and it is often unpredictable when it will happen.
But, believe it or not, it probably won’t be as bad as it seemed.
The reality is that there are thousands of versions of a “good life” and you can find some serenity in ALL of those versions.
I know this because it happened to me. I have wrestled with alcoholism and drug addiction, came out in a less-accepting time and place for gay people, moved to many new states and even more cities, traveled alone to far-off lands, went from community college to earning a doctorate, experienced death of loved ones, and have been at every end of the income ladder. To be honest, they all have pros and cons. And I’m grateful for all of it.
When life has given me crap to deal with, I first need to reorient myself, but I always come out better in the end. It might be hard for awhile. I might lose a lot stuff in the process. But it’s often temporary, as long as I don’t wallow in self pity. I will always find laughter again. I will always find a new community. I will always learn some lessons. I will always teach other people what I learned. I will always build more confidence. I will always realize that I didn’t need all that stuff I thought I needed to be happy. And, though it may sound crazy, I will always grateful for it in the end.
Good and bad times will both make me a more well-rounded, compassionate, and humble person, and I get to push on with something new.
“Normalcy” is always fleeting.
Buddhists teach about the reality of impermanence, and that nothing — absolutely nothing — lasts forever. (Think Pangea, the Roman Empire, the Soviet Union, and the Great Barrier Reef.)
If you’re lucky enough to have a sense of calm right now, you should enjoy it. But don’t take it for granted, because it won’t last. If you’re experiencing immense hardship right now, that won’t last forever either.
Look around: Our nations, forests, cities, loved ones, possessions, even us —all of it, someday, will cease to exist.
As far as I can tell, there is no evidence of an eternal soul or an afterlife (though please correct me if I’m wrong).
This is your life — now.
So, we better make the best of it, no matter what comes our way.
These realities should not depress us. In fact, they can free us from all the trivial requirements and expectations of modern life. They can force us to do what we want, when and if we can, and reject the rest.
And this can also help us understand:
It will get better, and, at the same time, it can always be worse.
There are nearly 8 billion people in the world today. Billions of them are worse off than us right now, no matter what is going on, but many still find a semblance of joy and purpose. And, at any given moment — no matter how bad things are — millions of people would give up everything to trade places with you.
Why is that? It’s because somewhere, deep down, or in the future, there is hope for you. Things can get better. And you can grow from these experiences.
The truth is that every member of our species has their own unique version of human existence. And your version today is not the only good one.
This knowledge should empower us to accept that, no, life won’t turn out the way we planned it. But, on the other hand, we can build a better life, no matter how things might look today.
If you have your health now, use it to go somewhere you want to go.
If you have money now, spend some investing in something you want.
If you have time now, book it pursuing a passion you love.
And if you’re faced with uncertainty, try to embrace it and roll with the punches.
After all, none of this — health, money, time, peace— is guaranteed, nor is it everlasting. Part of being human is going along for the ride for as long as we’re able.
We still get to shape reality — and we can ignore the noise.
When things get better, it’s usually due to two factors: time and/or effort (and maybe a bit of luck). But we can also rethink what “better” means in the first place.
After a great calamity, we get to rediscover our priorities and reimagine our future. We can realize that, yes, sh*t happens, but we also get to decide important contours of how our life can look going forward.
In the present day, I think we should all feel empowered to rethink the norms and systems we live in.
All we have to do is look around and see all the ways our systems have failed us. Look at history. Look at the news today. But even regardless of whether you think things are good or bad for you today, the way you go about assessing everything could still use a refresh. After all, there aren’t as many rules as you might think.
According to Yuval Noah Harari, the author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, much of what we believe about the world is simply made up. This includes morality and ideas about progress, and many things that stress us out, but it also includes institutions we think are eternal.
Harari argues: “The truly unique trait of Sapiens is our ability to create and believe fiction.”
Two of our greatest fictions, he says, are money and religion. Of course, these are inescapable realities for many of us, but they were also created and believed by people before they existed in an eternal sense.
The more we understand that our concept of good and bad — or even what is and isn’t — are made up, we get the opportunity to challenge these traditions. Specifically, we can see that what is bad actually provides us with a new set of opportunities.
Only when we recognize that many ways of living are OK and that our personal journey is unique, we can reshape our world in a way we enjoy more.
We get to determine the difference between The Truth and our truth.
In America, we have long been fed a fantasy that we are somehow more special than others, despite there not being a lot of evidence for this.
In our effort to deal with two concurrent crises, tens of million of us have lost our jobs and over 125,000 have perished due to a preventable pandemic while other countries have mostly recovered. In its aftermath, even more of us will have been shackled with insurmountable medical bills and impending poverty. And yet we continue to be lied to about our condition, what led to it, and what we should do going forward.
We lack a common purpose but we all have one thing in common, which is mass uncertainty about the future.
In this scenario, we get to tell ourselves the truth: we are not exceptional; though, on a personal level, we can be f***ing awesome.
In 2017, the author Kurt Andersen wrote in his book Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire (A 500-Year History) that Americans have a brand of individualism that has led us to a distinct flavor of insanity.
According to Andersen, this manifests itself for Americans in the following way: “[You] believe the dream, mistrust authority, do your own thing, find your own truth.”
In many ways, this explains the unmasked idiots going to political rallies, but it could also explain why countless people pursue their own dreams, reject the lies of the masses, and create their own better realities.
Not all insanity is bad insanity — it may just be a different way of looking at things.
When bad stuff happens to us, we should be even more encouraged to chart a new path.
Without being mindless idiots, we can take a page from their playbook and understand we are free to live our best lives now. Clearly, there is room to innovate upon the status quo. We can surround ourselves with people who inspire us, help us think differently, and realize our truths. We can shed the things that hold us back. We can learn from our trials and tribulations, and from people who have lived through existential crises in the past and thrived — or not.
After all, there is no other choice if you want a better life.
If you’re experiencing pain, fear, and confusion, you’re not alone. And it will get better.
Nothing is permanent, nor should it be. There are no guarantees of continued success, bailouts, or progression in this game of roulette called life. But there is a guarantee that you can find something new and build something different.
And there is always hope.
“You cannot find peace by avoiding life.”
-Mrs. Woolf, (the character in the movie version of the book) The Hours