The next time you’re consumed by anxiety – which, given the headlines, is probably this minute – you might borrow a tip from the philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, author of the excellent new book How To Be A Stoic. In a recent podcast, Pigliucci described how he used Google Street View and Google Earth to create a slideshow that starts with an image of his own home, then zooms out, out and out, until it shows the whole planet. He consults it when feeling overwrought. You couldn’t hope for a more vivid illustration of the Stoic “dichotomy of control”, which urges us to restrict our attempts to change things to those actually in our power, instead of making ourselves miserable railing against those that aren’t. (See also the “serenity prayer”, popularised by Alcoholics Anonymous.) You are – not to be rude – a tiny part of the cosmos. That doesn’t make you powerless. But it does mean you’re almost certainly stressing about things that will, without doubt, remain majestically unaffected by your stress.
If you ask me, such perspective shifts are even more powerful when applied to time. The problems you’re experiencing today seem uniquely fraught and important, but that’s mainly because you’re so narrowly focused on the present. This is, of course, the reasoning behind the old suggestion to ask yourself if your worries will matter on your deathbed, or in a decade, or even next week: they probably won’t. But you can do better than “probably”, as the psychology blogger David Cain points out, by turning your gaze backwards rather than forwards. Because it’s an undeniable fact that every single problem you’ve ever had is currently solved, with the exception of today’s small handful. “Every heart-twisting crisis, every fearsome responsibility, every breakdown of confidence or hope, everything I ever thought I couldn’t handle” – all sorted. “Every single disaster has inevitably given up its emotional hold, except that thin leading edge of the two or three things that are really bothering you right now.”
We tend to live, it has often been observed, in a constant state of anxious anticipation of the next potentially stressful event. But the usual Buddhism-tinged solution – to be “present in the moment” instead – is notoriously hard to put into practice. It’s easier to look back at previous forthcoming events, and ask if your anxiety proved justified. You could try the exercise I recently undertook, following Cain’s line of thinking, which I trust the Stoics would have endorsed: every morning, make a brief note of what feels like your biggest problem. As the list accumulates, you can start looking back at earlier entries. Guess how many months it took for my former worries to seem laughably overblown? Five days: that’s how many months. Most of what troubles us turns out to be tolerable, or even wonderful, or just never happens at all. Next time you worry that something’s going to ruin your life, it’s worth remembering that if you’d ever been right about that before, even once, your life would presently be ruined.
Excerpt from The Guardian, read the full article here