These Maxims Help When Facing Uncertainty
Years ago I read a book by Martin Seligman on 'learned optimism'. It changed my life. In it, Seligman proposes – with various clinical and anecdotal trials as supporting examples – that one can learn to be an optimist and thus enjoy the traits that are statistically common for optimists – high achievement, better overall health, longer life spans, etc.
The foundation of learned optimism is based on a related topic called 'learned helplessness'. From Wikipedia, learned helplessness is "a psychological condition in which a human being or an animal has learned to act or behave helplessly in a particular situation—usually after experiencing some inability to avoid an adverse situation—even when it actually has the power to change its unpleasant or even harmful circumstance."
The theory goes like this: if one learns that actions taken will not impact on the outcome, that person will stop trying. In essence, that person will learn to feel helpless and, therefore, will behave as a pessimist. On the contrary, if one can learn to overcome a feeling of helplessness, that actions taken can impact the outcome, that person will learn to behave as an optimist.
And, as Vonnegut wrote in 'Mother Night', “we are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” If you act like an optimist long enough, then you will become an optimist; act like a pessimist long enough, you will become a pessimist.
I'm a lifelong optimist, though I would not have identified as such until reading that book. I tend to assume that outcomes will be favorable, even when there are compelling reasons why I might fail. I tend to choose the decision that seems best and act on it, and not worry too much about other decisions I might have made instead. When failures inevitably come, I tend to accept them as such and shift my focus and energy to new opportunities.
I'll admit it: lately I've been extremely pessimistic. From the lack of cure, treatment, or widespread testing for Covid-19; to police violence against and murder of African Americans; the historical and deeply systematic subjugation of many for the benefit of few – the news isn't good. It's enough to make a person feel helpless.
There are a few maxims that give me comfort when I feel like my actions do not matter, like I cannot untangle all of the thorny issues I face. Two are very well known, the other so obscure that I may be the only person who remembers its utterance.
The first maxim is from a Persian fable about a king who requests that a ring be made which will make him happy when he is sad. The result is a simple ring with the phrase 'This Too Shall Pass' etched into it. No matter how dire the situation, how bad or hopeless one feels, it will pass with time. Things will not remain as they are now. (Ironically, the same message applies to the fleeting nature of happiness and success, but that's a topic for another post.)
The second is attributed to Hillel the Elder: "If not now, when?" I first came across this message stamped on a silver coin, which I then carried in my pocket for years. I did not know the historical context (nor the Primo Levi book of the same name), but that phrase resonated with me. The quote is an admonition not to postpone a duty (or even an exciting activity) until there is 'more time'. From Hillel: "Say not, 'When I have free time I shall study'; for you may perhaps never have any free time."
The third maxim involves a personal anecdote. The first concert I attended at college was Dub Narcotic Sound System performing at the Comet Cafe, just off campus. It was a very small gig in retrospect, but Calvin Johnson was someone that I considered famous (he knew Ian MacKaye and Kurt Cobain!) and I was excited. After the show I asked Calvin if I could interview him for my zine and he graciously agreed. I ended the interview by asking if he had any motto or guiding phrase, to which he replied: "Go for it. This is the time." I have used that as a credo ever since.
Remember these phrases when you feel overwhelmed or uncertain. This too shall pass. Do not delay action waiting for the perfect time, for the perfect time may never come. If not now, when? Believe that your actions can impact the course of your reality. Go for it; this is the time. There is no other time to change your life.
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