“This is the precept by which I have lived: Prepare for the worst; expect the best; and take what comes.” Hannah Arendt
In the last few weeks, in living the confinement with my family, my natural tendency has been to seek the opportunity and the “gift” in what seems like a “curse” for my teenager children forced to be confined with me and their mother.
So seeking the “silver lining” in this situation is asking me what I am exactly doing: deluding myself? Trying to reassure myself? Feeling myself up with positive emotions so I can be ready for what ever might come?
It seems an increasingly important question as uncertainty is building up and nobody seems to know what is going to happen.
I went back to a book which on many levels has had a great impact on me and my beliefs, “Man’s Search for Meaning” of Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist who survived the hell of the holocaust as a prisoner and I was reminded of the observations he made that many prisoners had died around Christmas 1944 and New Year 1945. He remarked that many prisoners had such strong hope they would be out by Christmas that they simply died of hopelessness when that didn’t happen. They didn’t die because of the colder weather, new epidemic, additional work, more punishments or additional privation but simply from losing hope. Good news of the advances of the Russians and the Allies had fuelled in many prisoners a naive optimism that they would be released and when their hope was dashed and Christmas passed, they lost courage and disappointment overcame them, robbing them from their will to live.
What it means to me is that the business of hope and optimism is tricky and deserves to be better understood if we want to be able to draw some benefit from it and avoid being drawn into hopelessness. So how to go about it?
It is important to remember that we are biological beings and our biology didn’t evolve to make us happy and carefree when confronted with danger. Negative emotions, we perceive, are signals to grab our attention from whatever we were thinking or doing so that we focus on the danger at hand. Seen in this perspective, negative emotions are “security guards” on the look out for troubles, their functions is to inform us on how to adapt and act in the moment. Overriding these negative emotions in the present situation, forcing a “fake and fabricated optimism” is dangerous as it robs us from our instinct and intuition for adaptation and survival.
“Prepare for the worst…”
So let’s not kill the messenger, our negative emotions here, but let’s listen to the message it brings. Our body in this crisis reacts by sending us emotions of shock and grief as there is this feeling that in a way what we have known might no longer be there in the same form and way we are used to. It is both a shock by the magnitude of the change and it brings and a feeling of grief as there is a sense of loss for what we had and will lose. So “sugar-coated” optimism along the lines of “it is ok, it will pass, it is not that bad” prevents us to prepare and adapt for what is coming and which might be significantly different from what we know. Seeing and accepting Reality as It truly Is allows us to see what is possible. “Fake optimism” is an attempt to delude ourselves from the reality, it feels good but it won’t help us to perceive what is then possible in this new reality. Over time, fake optimism cannot be sustained as its gap with reality can never be breached and the day of reckoning comes, and when it comes hopelessness as described in Franckl’s observation looms.
To me this is along the line of the “Yes…And…” of the improvisation course I am taking. During Improvisation, your improv partner throws something at you, it is not your choosing, you might like it or not, AND you take it as it is. Your job is to immediately sees what is possible with it and to go building on it. So to me this crisis is a “Yes…And…” moment.
In the “Yes…” phase I prepare for the worst, I listen to my negative emotions, I sense how “bad” it is, how “threatening” and “dangerous” it might become. I pose, I slow down, I take it in, I accept that things have changed, maybe in a profound way, maybe for ever, probably for the worse…I do not know but I know it is a discontinuity, a before and an after, a significant moment. I don’t judge, I don’t analyse, I take it as it comes. It is hard because I am filled with negative emotions but I stay the course, I let them wash me over…and…
“Expect the best…”
AND I choose to see this new reality through multiple perspectives, seek what is possible and my optimism is in believing that everything is workable, it doesn’t mean that things will be ok or better but a way to work out this new reality is there for me to find so I can adapt, survive and possibly thrive.
And today I understand that what I believed to be a paradox, “Prepare for the worst, Expect the best”, is in fact a sequence, a wise description of a process, a description of how our biology works, using emotions to feed our cognition. So I use my emotions to prepare and mobilise my inner resources for adaptation, it is to say Yes to what is, that I like it or not. And…it is to clarify what is possible, to hope that the “best” is what I am designed biologically to seek and to find if I am to survive and thrive.
“Take what comes”
This is a way to remind us of our limited ability to control the environment and the world, it is about equanimity, it is about facing reality for what it is and not what we would like it to be. In a Taoist tradition of the “path” is to be indifferent and neutral as to where the next bend of the path will take us, it is about cultivating the resourcefulness and adaptability in us that what ever comes we are ready to deal with it.
It reminds me of an ancient Navarro India tribe which behaved differently from the other neighbouring Indian tribes. When the drought was coming, they would also set the fire and do a ceremony to party to their Ancestors and Nature to support them. But if all the tribes were praying for Nature to send the rain, this tribe was praying for Nature to give them the strength to adjust to drought. It was not about changing their circumstances, it was to grant them the strength to change themselves.
This is in my view is the invitation of out troubled times.
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