These are challenging times, but try to keep it all in perspective

Besides being one of the best liberal arts educations you can get, the study of history is also quite therapeutic. The ancient Stoics had a technique for helping individuals deal with the vicissitudes of life, called negative visualization. Basically it’s about preparing your mind for the worse by imagining, beforehand, that things could be a lot worse. Well socially speaking the study of history pretty much provides the same therapy. We may think the current coronavirus epidemic and all that’s happening are really bad, but as any good student of history would tell you, “True, these are not the best of times, but believe me our societies have faced situations far far worse.”

It’s only in modern times, with the advances of modern medical science, like vaccinations, antibiotics, and antiviral drugs, that societies have been able to save millions of lives ultimately from deadly bacterias and viruses that regularly emerge within populations. I would say the discovery of the vaccine should be rated the greatest life saving discovery in medical science history. Before vaccines any new toxic bacteria or deadly virus disappeared only after it had burned through a population.

For example, when the bubonic plague (known as “the Black Death”) was ravaging Europe during the 14th century some regions, towns, and cities, had well over 50% of the population whipped out. It’s estimated that two-thirds of the approximately 660,000 deaths of soldiers during the American Civil War were caused by uncontrolled infectious diseases. Upwards of 2 million soldiers died of infectious diseases during WWI. During the 1918-1919 Spanish influenza epidemic, the world’s death toll was somewhere between 50 and 100 million dead. In the United States alone we had about 675,000 deaths caused by the Spanish flu.

History provides something needed by individuals and societies during difficult and challenging times, and that’s perspective.

The current coronavirus epidemic is a very challenging situation. No one should downplay the long term damage and disruption to our society. But while we’re lamenting how bad this situation is we should try to remember that many past generations in history experienced far worse and ultimately recovered, rebuilt, and thrived. We will too.

The Other Side of the Hill

caspar_david_friedrich_-_wanderer_above_the_sea_of_fog
Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David French

Very recently I celebrated my half century mark. Yes, the kid finally turned 50. Being a guy who loves books means memorable events naturally remind me of memorable phrases in literature. This occasion reminded me of a passage in John Buchan’s memoir:

Sir Walter Scott had a pleasant phrase for middle life; he called it reaching the other side of the hill. It is a stage which no doubt has its drawbacks. The wind is not so good, the limbs are not so tireless as in the ascent; the stride is shortened, and since we are descending we must be careful in placing the feet. But on the upward road the view was blocked by the slopes and there was no far prospect to be had except by looking backwards. Now the course is mercifully adapted to failing legs, we can rest and reflect since the summit has been passed, and there is a wide country before us, though the horizon is mist and shadow.

At this point in my life, I no longer feel I have anything to prove or anyone to impress for that matter. It’s a nice feeling. I still have goals and dreams to be sure, but there’s less worldly ambition to them and more a feeling of what contribution can I make and legacy can I leave. My hope now is that I can offer something truly valuable to those around me and those on the ascent. I’m hoping I can offer that most important, but sometimes difficult, lesson in life: a sense of perspective.