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”.
5 thoughts on “Read the Eternities”
Great, thought-provoking post! I could not agree more regarding the low-information diet. I followed it myself over the last couple of years. However, being originally from Russia, having the cultural background, I think it’s critical for all of us to pay close attention to this conflict, filter Russian propaganda, understand and promote the truth behind the conflict and stand united in our condemnation of Putin’s actions as well as showing support for the people of Ukraine in any shape possible. Otherwise, we don’t know what country is going to be next to face this invasion. Some things are worth our attention!
Hi Yelena! Thanks for sharing your perspective. Yes, some things are worth our attention. The challenge is to know which, and how much attention to give them. It’s always a question of balance. A good friend of mine has family in Ukraine and I’m sure he’s paying more attention than I am. Should I be glued to the computer screen, following every latest twist and turn? During the early days of the pandemic, I paid fairly close attention to developments but then I found a few trusted news sources that I read once a week or less (this was healthier for me than reloading global statistics a few times a day!). Similarly for the recent fires here in Colorado – a horrific event, to be sure, but the most productive thing I could do was identify and support a very worthy local charity (the Sister Carmen Community Center).