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Going to Hell in a Handcart?

The other day, a friend of mine asked a very deep question.

"How do you keep your equilibrium when all around us the world is going to hell in a handcart?"

He's struggling to balance his work and his family responsibilities - he's a father of two young children - whilst at the same time he's struggling with his own fears for the future.

We're living in uncertain times, and there's much we might worry about. Climate change, pandemics, wars and the threat of them, economic woes, it's all on our radar.

It might seem that as individuals we're powerless to do anything about any of these things.

Thinking back over my lifetime, it's always been the same. Big, bad things have always loomed large, many of them man-made and completely avoidable, and over none of them have I been able to exert what appears to be even the slightest influence. I was going to compile a list, but it would have been a very long and depressing one.

A feature of all of these big threats, regardless of whether they actually occurred or not, was and is fear: the fear they engendered in the population at large. Yes, this calamity could occur, and if it did, it could have an impact on us all. And so we worry, we become anxious, and our anxiety then has a negative effect on our entire life. Anxiety is corrosive. It eats away at our sense of wellbeing, it limits us, and it steers us towards inward-looking, self-protective actions (or more accurately, reactions) that only serve to make the situation worse.

My friend's question led me to think about what I do in the face of all this fear, uncertainty and doubt and to ask myself why I don't feel depressed or crushed under the weight of it.

First, I control the things that I can control. I can make my own choices about many things, and so I do that. I do not live by default, free-wheeling down the road to hell. I look where I'm going and I steer my own course. I might still be going to hell - time will tell - but if so I'll be damned by my own actions, not because I blindly followed the herd.

Second, I learn to live with the things that are beyond my control. Sometimes I grumble about them, but I do not ignore them. When I feel angry enough about them, and I feel that no matter how huge the issue might be something has got to be done about it, then I get a bit more active. I look for things that I can do, no matter how seemingly small or ineffectual they might be. When elections are called, I carefully consider all the issues and the character and competence of the candidates before I place my vote. I support protest movements. I've been known to take to the streets and join a noisy protest. I make sure my voice is heard.

Third, I know that anxiety will help no one and so I refuse to succumb to it. If I feel it attempting to get a grip on me, I remember those first two things. I don't sit back and let it all wash over me. I get on with my life, with doing the things that matter to me, and if I see something happening that I believe is really not okay then I do something about it.

Fourth, I meditate. I've been practicing Vipassana meditation for years now (lost count!) and I find it exceptionally helpful in keeping me grounded and in touch with my authentic self.

I understand that I am not a passive spectator looking helplessly on as life unfolds. For better or worse I'm part of it and I share the responsibility for what happens, and for what doesn't happen.

In short, I have a strong sense that I am in control of my life, and that even though it's impossible to control everything that happens around me I surely can control how I feel about it and what I choose to do to respond to it.

And one last thing: is it really true that the world is going to hell in a handcart? If it's seemed so for so long, why hasn't some sort of cataclysm happened already? Perhaps the feeling of impending doom is just another example of catastrophising, awfulising, inflating the negative aspects of the situation while ignoring the positives. Catastrophising is such a "normal" aspect of most people's mindset that they don't even notice they're doing it, and even when their attention is drawn to it they'll still deny it and claim that they're just being realistic. Sure enough, shit can and does happen, but be honest, is it really that bad?

Do you really want to be dragged down by the pessimists around you, or would you prefer to be in control of your feelings? When you take responsibility for yourself, you get to choose whether to react emotionally to the situation or whether to pause, breathe, think, and then respond rationally. Take a look around. Unthinking, emotional reactions only lead to more stress, more conflict, more confusion, more chaos and more pessimism. Reasoned, rational responses lead to positive, constructive actions that often result in problems solved, conflict resolved and fear, uncertainty and doubt banished.

"The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane." - Marcus Aurelius

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