One of my favorite Thoreau aphorisms goes like this: “Read not the Times; read the Eternities.” Yet in times of turmoil – war, revolution, depression, pandemic, and the like – it can be difficult to focus on the timeless questions of how to live well because merely living take precedence. On the other hand, there’s invariably something bad happening somewhere, and it’s difficult to draw the line between what requires urgent attention and what is an ephemeral distraction or news-industry sensation.
Justifiably, in the last week all eyes have been on the reprehensible actions of an authoritarian thug whose conscript armies have invaded a neighboring country without provocation. Unfortunately, at some level turmoil is one of the eternities of human existence. How does one best manage oneself in such situations?
For the last eight years or more I’ve been on a low-information diet so that I can concentrate my energies where I can directly make a difference (family, friends, team, community, etc.). Even when major events occur in the world, I strictly limit how much attention I give them and instead try to think clearly about their fundamental causes (e.g., it might be time to re-read Thucydides’ History or Eric Hoffer’s True Believer) and their implications for how I should live. Although these implications might be eminently practical (e.g., stocking up on essential supplies, helping family and friends, volunteering in my community), I try not only to react but also to reflect and to act deliberately.
Not that I always manage myself perfectly – far from it. And let it be noted that after the Civil War broke out, Thoreau followed the news from the battlefront as closely as anyone else! Thus I’ll end with two aphorisms of my own devising: although it’s true that “there’s no monopoly on hypocrisy”, it’s also true “you don’t have to achieve an ideal to realize the benefits of idealism”.