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David Bouchier: Taking The Short View

Image courtesy nvodicka from Pixabay

A New Year should have something special about it — a sense of expectation, and a fresh start. But this year seems different. Nobody is building any new utopias. Quite a few are building bunkers.

Just about every greeting card we received this year expressed the hope that 2021 would be better. The 20th century was such a horror show, with two world wars and numerous other catastrophes, that we had high expectations of the twenty-first. But the first twenty years of this century have been a bit of a disappointment. It wasn't supposed to look like this.

However, let’s face it, no matter how much we worry and complain, we are lucky to live here and now. If we consider the history of the human race as one big party we arrived at just the right moment. The party is in full swing, all inhibitions have been cast aside, and the drinks have not yet run out. We older folks may even miss the worst of the hangover. Indeed, the great achievement of the modern age has been to forget about the hangover by forgetting about the future.

The Founding Fathers thought a lot about the future. “What will posterity think of us?” they wondered. But the word “posterity” has almost vanished from the language, and even the idea is no longer fashionable. It’s too remote, too far in the future, and we don’t want to think about it, so we don’t.

That, in a nutshell, is the secret of optimism — short-term thinking. Politicians are brilliant at this. They never look beyond the next election or fundraiser, so they are always hopeful and never feel the need to actually do anything apart from fundraising and electioneering. Posterity can take care of itself.

The rest of us have to learn short-term thinking for the sake of our own mental health. Any competent psychologist will tell you that the world is divided into optimists and pessimists, worriers and non-worriers, and our place on the scale depends on how and how much we think about the future. At one extreme a truly dedicated pessimist, like those hiding in bunkers in North Dakota, will gaze into the far future and anticipate all kinds of horrors, not for posterity but for themselves: new viruses, political chaos, global warming, civil war, the return of Donald Trump to The Apprentice, and the collapse of civilization generally. This cannot fail to create gloom and despondency. At the other end of the scale a natural optimist, like Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Neumann, will just glance at the clock and wonder hopefully what’s for lunch. It’s all a matter of time scale.

In other words, to guarantee a Happy New Year, we can and must live as much as possible in the immediate present, as many Eastern religions recommend. And not just Eastern religions: that genial 18th century letter writer the Rev. Sidney Smith advised that the secret of happiness was to: “Take a short view of life, no further than dinner or tea.” This is a piece of conventional wisdom we can all understand. Live in the moment. Pessimists may cry that the party’s over. But it’s not over today. This is the fourth day of 2021. So far, so good.

Copyright: David Bouchier


David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.