Dear Mum and Dad
Please don’t worry too much about what you might have heard about the fire at school. We’re all fine. And it was quite exciting with all the fire engines and confusion.
I did break my leg jumping out of the second floor window but the school nurse was very nice and the hospital is so close by, it wasn’t too painful walking there. They put a cast on after a few hours waiting and I’m fine now. The doctor said I should be back on games in a year or so.
My new boyfriend Jerry has been a great help. He’s one of the hospital porters and is previously married with two tiny children who are just lovely. So cute. He’s very keen to bring them down to meet the rest of our family before we make any further plans. I know you’ll like him.
I’d better go now – my room-mate Sally has made some friends from outside of school and we’re meeting them in the supermarket car park down the road. They sound really interesting.
I’ll call soon – hope you’re all well and the dog isn’t missing me too much.
Lots of love.
None of the above is true.
What is true is that I think I’ve failed my English exam.
I just wanted you to keep a sense of proportion.
This letter, and versions of it, have been doing the rounds for a few years now. It’s a neat way of raising the question of how we keep things in perspective in our daily lives; how we maintain a healthy sense of proportion.
Parents want certain things for their children; we all have our goals, ambitions, and hopes. Each one of us lives with personal fears and none of us is free from problems. The very fact of being alive – that stuff happens to us as well as because of us – means that with the smooth comes the rough. You cannot have one without the other.
The fact is: everything matters. Details matter. The daily events and challenges, the problems and their solutions, these are the stuff of our daily existence. Under-performing in an exam is not what any of us want; failure matters. And, particularly in the happy absence of greater threats and worries, this is a big deal. The worries of tomorrow do have to be met. We should not respond by drifting off into a comforting netherworld of reassuring psychobabble or bury ourselves in distractions, worthy or otherwise. Nor is it productive to beat ourselves up mercilessly over our failures.
Each of us experiences different doses of rough and smooth through our lifetimes. There are common experiences – exam or interview nerves, pain, bereavement – but there is no sense that these are evenly distributed (far from it), nor that we each feel these human experiences in the same way. We hear news every day of fellow human beings far worse off than ourselves; people who would rightly be staggered at the smallness of our worries compared to relentless and fundamental sufferings that others endure day by day. And yet, for me at least, I’ve never found the point that there are plenty people worse off than me to be of that much comfort; nor that it could have been much worse if things had happened a little differently.
So, how might we get relief (if you’ll pardon the pun) from life’s ups and downs? How can we retain a healthy sense of perspective? Lots of wise things have been said by thinkers and writers over the ages on the question of staying happiness and wellbeing. In these rather gloomy January days, such questions may be even more pressing than in the lighter days of summer.
Some suggest that it is about taking time to step back from, perhaps to hover above, our problems. This elevation then gives the chance to consider the issue in the broader sweep of our lives. What looks like a big bump when viewed up close, diminishes when we widen the lens of perception. It’s still there, and needs to be clambered over, but when we then descend back to the present issue, we may feel it is less imposing.
A second suggestion is to lose ourselves for some time, and regularly, in the concerns of others. We tend to get mired in our own problems, turning inward and growing depressed and frustrated. Finding ways to serve and help others makes us feel better. Extending ourselves to others helps recalibrate our settings and refreshes our perspective.
Alan Watts, a British philosopher whose birthday it was yesterday, argued that the heart of the issue of perspective is to do with our desire for security and certainty. In his 1951 book, ‘The Wisdom of Insecurity’, he suggests that we misguidedly pursue certainty; but this is not an achievable aim. It also keeps us oscillating between an unsatisfying view of past and an insecure view of the future – neither of which provide a sense of wellbeing. As such, he says, we need to accept the fluid and unpredictable nature of things. Watts goes on to say that we are at our happiest when we are fully immersed in the present – rather than dwelling on the past or agonising about what lies ahead. We can take control of certain things (the revision for the English exam); other things happen to us (fires, floods, illness). But the thing which we can always reliably control is our attention to the present moment.
Watts wants us to put our full effort into the here and now. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t think about the future and respect and treasure the past. We each exist on a timeline and we do need to prepare for what lies further up the line. Rather, he suggests that the current moment is where our default setting should be. Being fully present – being concentrated on the task at hand – these are the times when we are most productive. When we are painting, or playing hockey, or solving a maths equation, or playing the oboe – we are not thinking, ‘I am playing the oboe’ or ‘i am solving this quadratic equation.’ We are what we are doing.
So, the third suggestion is that we should endeavour to be fully present in what we are doing. We should maximise the amount of our time we spend in this mode of full absorption. This is the state in which we are happiest; when the issue of proportion does not trouble us. And at the other times, the good and the not so good, when we stand back and take stock of the landscape of our lives, we need to keep a healthy sense of perspective. And, having taken a good look, we need to get back to the task at hand with our fullest and best attention.