Today is February 9 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you wind the clock?” Elwyn Brooks White, generally known as E.B. White, was an American writer. For more than fifty years, he was a contributor to The New Yorker magazine. He was also a co-author of the English language style guide The Elements of Style. In addition, he wrote books for children, including Stuart Little (1945), Charlotte's Web (1952), and The Trumpet of the Swan (1970). In a 2012 survey of School Library Journal readers, Charlotte's Web came in first in their poll of the top one hundred children's novels. He was also responsible for writing hundreds of wonderful letters. Here is one example. In March of 1973, White wrote the following perfectly formed reply to a Mr. Nadeau, who sought White's opinion on what he saw as a bleak future for the human race.
“Dear Mr. Nadeau:
As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread, and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.
Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society—things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is obvious that the human race has made a mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man's curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.
Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.”
Navigating the chaos and practicing the art of living well requires us to maintain a perspective that is clear, rationale, and focused. Nadeu’s belief in a bleak future for the human race could easily exist today. A global pandemic, political upheaval, and severe income inequality are just three of the many issues confronting humans today. To suggest that our future is worse off than previous generations, however, remains a bit unchecked and is called Declinism. As Dr. Christopher Dwyer wrote in his September 2018 Psychology Today article “You may have heard the complaint that the internet will be the downfall of information dissemination; but Socrates reportedly said the same thing about the written word. Declinism refers to bias in favor of the past over and above ‘how things are going’. Similarly, you might know a member of an older generation who prefaces grievances with ‘Well, back in my day’ before following up with how things are supposedly getting worse. The Decline Bias occurs because people do not like change. People like their worlds to make sense, they like things wrapped up in nice, neat little packages. Our world is easier to engage when things make sense to us. When things change, so must the way in which we think about them; and because we are cognitively lazy, we try our best to avoid changing our thought processes.”
More recently, Rebecca Renner commented on the events of 2020 and wrote in a September 4, 2020 National Geographic article “Our ancestors might disagree that 2020 is the worst year on record. Sure, frightening things are happening, but many of those things happened in the past, too, including the 1918 flu pandemic, during which 50 million people died. Plus, the belief that civilization is on the decline is a tradition as old as civilization itself. Even Ancient Athenians complained in the fifth century B.C. that their democracy wasn’t what it used to be.”
As you reflect upon today’s question keep in mind two other characteristics of today’s society: the propensity to view the world through a negativity bias and, conversely, the tendency to exhibit a nostalgia bias when thinking about the past. As Renner wrote: “In Western culture, people already have a propensity to interpret present events negatively and tend to prefer the past. When we think about the past, we tend to remember positive experiences, also known as nostalgia bias.” Are you stuck in the past? Are your memories about the past filled with nostalgia where everyone and everything was perfect? Does today frighten you into forgetting about tomorrow? How often do you say: “well back in my day?” Have you abandoned tomorrow? Navigating the chaos and practicing the art of living well requires one to wind the clock and remember tomorrow is another day. Do you?
Remember, in his letter White took responsibility to “get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.” You have a role in the events of the day. You can contribute a certain level of order and steadfastness. You can provide hope to those who need it most. The choice is yours.