Back in school, weren’t we all taught to see history as progressive? The bad old days were unpredictable, insecure and dangerous (nasty, brutish and short) . As luck and hard work would have it, we proceeded neatly from the dark ages to present time: stupidity giving way to enlightenment, cruelty trading places with fairness and equality, mental labor replacing drudgery. It seemed clear that all things- local, regional, national, and global- would continue to get better and better. The golden age was just over the next decade.
But for us 60 somethings, it is today’s world that looks chaotic unpredictable, insecure, and dangerous. All the certainties of that long-ago timeline have been shuffled and scattered. New wars, new rebellions, new countries, new political leaders, new technology, new diseases, new economy and new ethos don’t fit neatly on that progressive time line. Maybe the new timeline is curving, wavy, or discontinuous. I can strive to accept some “new paradigms” and claim to embrace change, but how does anyone cope when change is hitting you from all sides and “progress” seems to be a sick joke?
Time to bank on that old chestnut: taking “one day at a time.” As with most every cliché, there’s a hard kernel of truth within. It has a corollary: break complex tasks and problems into small, manageable pieces and tackle one part at a time. I easily become overwhelmed and over-wrought trying to understand why my mother’s skilled care Medicare benefit is used up, figuring out how much money I’ll need for retirement, or even whether a vacation this year is doable, let alone how I can help the victims of the earthquake. All those details; all those contingencies; all those imponderables. That’s when the “one-day-at-a-time” philosophy has to kick in. My father’s final piece of advice for me was to “Do the task at hand.” I took that to mean that you should do a good job with the current task or problem and the rest would take care of itself, to take one day at a time.
People as different as columnist, Dear Abby and Poet, Billy Collins address the “one-day-at-a-time” stance.
“Just for today, I will live through this day only. I will not brood about yesterday or obsess about tomorrow. I will not set far-reaching goals or try to overcome all of my problems at once. I know that I can do something for 24 hours that would overwhelm me if I had to keep it up for a lifetime. I will accept what is. I will face reality. I will correct those things that I can correct and accept those I cannot.” – Dear Abby
Each one is a gift, no doubt,
mysteriously placed in your waking hand
or set upon your forehead
moments before you open your eyes.
Today begins cold and bright,
the ground heavy with snow
and the thick masonry of ice,
the sun glinting off the turrets of clouds.
Through the calm eye of the window
everything is in its place
but so precariously
this day might be resting somehow
on the one before it,
all the days of the past stacked high
like the impossible tower of dishes
entertainers used to build on stage.
No wonder you find yourself
perched on the top of a tall ladder
hoping to add one more.
Just another Wednesday
then holding your breath,
place this cup on yesterday’s saucer
without the slightest clink.