Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Thoughts Along the Way: An exploration of why life seems so difficult these days

Rather suddenly the other day a fairly simple thought came to me, one that seems to answer a lot of questions.  It seems to me that most people, to some degree or other, have difficulty dealing with life AS IT IS.  Rather, they long for life AS IT WAS, or at least as they think they remember it, or even as they wish it would be.  Taking this thought one step further, we see that the difficulty begins with our relationship to reality. 

This discussion will approach this idea in as many ways as I can think of.  The idea relates to philosophy, psychology, religion, politics, and everyday living of all sorts.  What my exploration of this idea is leading me to conclude, at least tentatively, is that what we most commonly think are political or religious disagreements are largely the results of our level of dealing with what is versus what we would like things to be.

Although everyone of us has this problem, I have observed that certain groups of people appear to have greater difficulty dealing with “what is,” and others seem to find “what is” not all that troublesome.  I was curious about why that is the case.  Clearly, it is not a matter of intelligence, or education.  My observation is that older people, people from smaller towns, and those with a generally more conservative philosophy, either political, religious, or both, have a greater degree of difficulty in dealing with life today as it is.  Younger people, people from big cities, and those with a more liberal philosophy seem to handle life “as it is” with greater serenity.  There must be a reason for these differences, and they are worth exploring.  We also must repeat here that everybody has some difficulty with dealing with the “now.”

Now that I have mentioned “now,” let’s begin with the writings of numerous psychologists and philosophical writers who have emphasized in contemporary writings the importance of being in the “present moment” and dealing with “now.” (Refer to Eckhart Tolle, Dr. Wayne Dyer, Byron Katie, Don Miguel Ruiz, and others.)  People who have read these kinds of works are likely to be some of those folks who at least attempt to face the facts of today with some sense of purpose and acceptance.  Perhaps this is just because they have been exposed to the idea of focusing on the present.

Let’s look briefly at that present.  For some reason beyond the understanding of any of us, life on Earth has been in acceleration mode for a number of years.  Everything is moving so quickly.  Styles come and go overnight.  Technology develops so quickly that it is no longer a joke to say that your computer is obsolete the moment you take it out of the box.  Much of technology today is so advanced, the major portion of society can’t cope with it, let alone understand it or comprehend its implications, and heaven help us if any of it needs repair.  Most of my older friends love their computers, largely for e-mail purposes, but have no idea how to deal with even the smallest of computer glitches.  That’s not their fault.  Again, it is the speed of the changes in our world. 

So here we are living in a world that changes constantly, often overnight, and it seems that each day brings new things to absorb, to try to understand, and for many of us, it is more than we can deal with.  The result is that we spend a great amount of energy thinking about “the way it was” and wishing that life would be as simple as it was in years past.  This very human and common reaction manifests in our society in many ways.

Given that we live in a world of constant change, constant challenges, it still might be something we could handle if we didn’t have 24/7 media reports on that very situation.  Anything that happens anywhere in the world immediately turns up on our television screens.  It is difficult to avoid this constant reminder that the world is difficult, changing, and challenging.  Moreover, we don’t just get the news, but we get multiple interpretations and opinionated commentary on every little thing.  The world has always had problems, from the weather to wars, but it is only NOW that we have this distraction constantly shoved in our faces.  If we don’t see it on TV, it pops up on our computer screens.

All of this helps me understand the red/blue maps that appear rather often on television cable commentary shows.  I can’t help but notice that the red states, those in the deep South and the middle of the country are those that largely have small towns.  Conversely, the “blue” states most commonly contain the big cities: New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, etc.  Now why should this make a difference?

Given that I am one in that “elder” category, I am thinking back to my younger years.  Small towns and usually suburbs of the larger cities were quite homogeneous.  That is, there were at that time few ethnic or racial differences in those places.   Most people looked the same, sounded the same, and if they were churchgoers, attended the same few churches in town.  In high school, for example, most students knew all the other students by name.  When humans are surrounded by “same,” they feel a certain level of security.  The “other” as often discussed by psychologists, is not, in these particular circumstances, very different from oneself.  On the other hand, in the big cities, even in my youth, one would find a much greater diversity of people--ethnic, racial, and religious.  The “different” has always been a problem for human beings.  When someone looks different, sounds different, acts different, it poses a challenge.  Should I fear that person?  Am I safe?  Usually, of course, one is perfectly safe, but psychologically, may not feel safe because life now is not as it was before.

The observations above bring me back to the small town/ big city difference.  People raised in small towns feel safe, often leaving their doors unlocked.  People raised in big cities generally don’t feel as safe, and have multiple locks on their doors.  Nevertheless, the people in big cities grow used to diversity and to some degree it becomes “normal” to them.  People raised in small towns in the past (and perhaps present) aren’t as used to diversity, and the recent changes in those towns with perhaps influx of (legal or illegal) immigrants or refugees from other countries, suddenly pose something new to deal with.  It becomes a challenge.

I could use my own teaching experience as an example.  When I attended high school, as I already noted, the entire student body was quite homogeneous.  But when I taught high school some 20 plus years later, the suburban high school where I taught (in the same metropolitan area where I was raised) had already developed great diversity, with students’ families originating in more than sixty different countries, and all major religions represented in the student body.  Let me say that again:  twenty years! 

Let’s briefly discuss the political philosophy called “Conservative”  I don’t intend this to be a critical discussion, but rather, informative as it relates to our thesis that all of us have trouble relating to “life as it is,” but also that some folks find this even more difficult than the average.  To remain as neutral as possible, I’m taking a definition of “conservative” from the dictionary, which says: “Conservative—disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc. and to agree with gradual rather than abrupt change.”  I find that definition both interesting and insightful.  (And just to set it straight, my personal stand is that we need both Conservative and Liberal parties in our government, and that the whole system works best when they are fairly equal in strength and power.) The definition refers to “preserving existing conditions.”  This is an important part of the conservative philosophy, and it is undeniably important to preserve that which has proven to be useful to the country, or to humans in general.  But by its very wording, it refers to things in the past, or that originated in the past.  There’s nothing “wrong” with that at all.  But this approach reinforces my point that people with a conservative bent are more focused on the past, and therefore have a greater difficulty dealing with the present.  The definition also notes that conservatives can handle change if it is “gradual” rather than “abrupt.”  The problem we have noted about today’s world is that changes are taking places very rapidly in all areas of society:  political, technological, ecological, etc.  There is little disagreement on this particular fact.  Many books have come out in recent years discussing these developments.

The fact of the matter, however, as I see it, is that we live in a world of constant change.  Those changes seem to be accelerating exponentially.  This creates great stresses, especially for those folks who recall or wish for times “as they were,” or to keep those values or life styles that they see as “good.”  This is a very human response.   So the problem isn’t really just a matter of political preferences, or religious beliefs, or even prejudices.  It is quite basic.  ALL of us, again to some degree, have difficulty dealing with LIFE AS IT IS.  Those of us who recall a different experience, whether in our youth or some other experiential area, spend energy wanting our life to be AS IT WAS.  Surely, if we really ponder this idea, we can see that it is quite fruitless to waste our energy in this fashion.  We may not like the changes going on around us.  But most of them are outside of our control.  Fighting what we can’t control is wasted energy. We do, however, have the responsibility and right to express our needs or opinions via voting, letters, and other legal means, or to be proactive in positive, helpful ways.    If this discussion is starting to sound like the notable “Serenity Prayer” I would agree.  Just as a reminder, that little prayer goes as follows:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The strength to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.”

Each of us might find it useful to self examine our approach to life “as it is.”
Are we using life’s challenges, no matter how much they contradict what we would like our life to be, in as positive a manner as we are capable of?  Are we using our talents to be in the present, and perhaps to develop new attitudes toward life as it is?  Only each one of us can make those choices.  If we glue ourselves to a wishful longing for the past, we can never fully function in the present.  To be in the present, to accept “life as it is” even when we don’t like it, gives us the opportunity to be a contributory agent to the world we have been given.

The only way to deal with current situations is to be more pragmatic and alert, attempting to deal with whatever issue comes up in the present moment.  We can’t control what happens “out there.”  We can only change what happens “in here,” that is, inside ourselves.  Gandhi may have said it best:  “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”


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