At this time last year, I wrote about expectations, and how they often seem to be the source of so much of our unhappiness. I know too many people for whom 2019 was less than great, and I count myself among those.
2019 cannot be done with fast enough.
There’s an old cliche about the fact that when you’re driving a car, the windshield is exponentially larger than the rear-view mirror, and that the reason for this is that it’s much more important to focus on where you’re going than where you’ve been. You can still choose to devote more of your attention to the rear-view mirror, but that is bound to get you into an unpleasant state of affairs sooner or later.
What’s the point of keeping your attention on the road you’ve just travelled? There may have been some bumps, some potholes, even a few lunatic drivers in your way. There’s no guarantee that the road ahead will be any smoother, but hopefully you’ve gotten better at spotting the potential hazards and avoiding them.
You can still occasionally glance at the rear-view mirror, of course, for reasons of situational awareness, but that’s not where your focus should be.
Therefore, we take the lessons of the road, we learn from them, and we move forward. Even though on a professional level 2019 was not a great year for me, I had the opportunity to read quite a bit more than I have in a while; about philosophy, psychology, and social issues. So what have I learned from the past year’s road? A few notables:
- I discovered the Stoics and their beautiful advice that dates back over 2,000 years. From Epictetus, the reminder that there are things under our control, but many more that are out of our control, and so why fret about those things that are out of our control, or get attached to them too much? From Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor who was an avid Stoic, to be grateful every day for being alive.
- From Jordan Peterson’s “12 Rules for Life”, I have learned to stand up straight and be proud of who I am, and to stop comparing myself to others. Instead, I now compare myself to My Self a year ago, a month ago, or even yesterday: am I working to become a better, stronger, kinder, more resilient person?
- From John Stuart Mill’s classic “On Liberty”, I have learned to debate using reason and facts, rather than simply emotion. There are times when I’ve wanted to jump into a debate, thinking I clearly had a more correct opinion, but upon delving into the theme of the opposing opinion and reflecting on it, found that it was in fact I that had the incorrect opinion. Hence my rails and rants against the cancel culture that pervades much of our public discourse. To quote Mill:
“…the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.
“Those who desire to suppress it, of course deny its truth; but they are not infallible. They have no authority to decide the question for all mankind, and exclude every other person from the means of judging. To refuse a hearing to an opinion, because they are sure that it is false, is to assume that their certainty is the same thing as absolute certainty. All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility.”
- And finally, from Steven Pinker’s “Enlightenment Now”, I was reminded of the tremendous progress that humanity has made in so many areas of life: health, wealth, peace, security, etc. Despite what the media and the online narrative would have you believe, things are indeed getting better. He also makes a case for Humanism, which is something that has resonated with me for some time. He summarizes it with a quote from Spinoza, the 17th century Dutch philosopher:
“Those who are governed by reason desire nothing for themselves which they do not also desire for the rest of humankind.” Progress consists of deploying knowledge to allow all of humankind to flourish in the same way that each of us seeks to flourish.”
One of the questions I have pondered in 2019 was whether our past defines us, and to what extent. While the events, situations, and people we’ve encountered on our journey certainly contribute to who were are in the present, we must be careful not to hold up the negatives as the defining moments of our life, which I observe to be a tendency amongst people. I submit that it is highly likely that there are more positive things to consider on your journey so far.
And so, as 2020 begins, I invite you to spend more time looking out the windshield, rather than the rear-view mirror. You can absolutely occasionally glance at the rear-view mirror, if only to see where you’ve been and the progress you’ve made, but that road is behind you and there’s no going back. The journey lies ahead.
Happy New Year, and may 2020 be a great one for all of you!