By Michael Bugeja, IOWA CAPITAL DISPATCH
The sages knew that “every day has its problems” — new ones that arise without warning — in addition to “everyday problems” that we face day in, day out.
Everyday problems include mental illness, sorrow, fear, injustice, violence, addiction, conflict and persecution — in other words, all the social ills that Jesus of Nazareth addressed in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:3-10).
The apostle Matthew coined the phrase “every day has its problems” (6:34), advising us not to fret about the future and warning, “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” (6:27).
Secular philosophers came to similar conclusions. The Confucian scholar Mencius (327-289 B.C.) believed success in life relied on adaptability. Every day has its problems, he believed, so it is futile to worry about or plan for the future. Even if you foresaw it, you would do so as the person you are today, not as the one you will be tomorrow.
Yet we plan our tomorrows as if everyday problems will disappear and no new ones will arise. We know by experience that this cannot be true.
Often the result is chaos as new problems compound existing ones so that our best-laid plans go awry.
This not only happens to individuals but also to organizations and governments.
Inability to adapt afflicts Congress.
In a Jan. 6, 2020 report titled, “What to expect from Congress in 2020,” elected officials were supposed to spend the year on the impeachment of Donald Trump (remember that?) in addition to conundrums of trade agreements, infrastructure, debt ceilings, drug prices, gun control, the census and election-year campaigning.
Those concerns were being debated throughout February when, according to reporter Bob Woodward, President Trump confided that he knew of a deadly virus that “goes through the air. … It’s also more deadly than even your strenuous flus.”
Neither Trump, nor Woodward, for that matter, had the gumption to mention that publicly at the time.
Instead, the president wanted to play down COVID-19: “I don’t want to create a panic.”
Nevertheless, in months that followed, millions of Americans insisted on leading their lives unaffected by the continuing specter of coronavirus. Some called it a hoax. Medical News Today listed 28 other myths, including that coronavirus was like the flu and gargling with bleach would kill it. The virus was supposed to die anyway in warmer weather.
This constituted a colossal failure to adapt.
Biological adaptability is a hallmark of the human species. A quote by Louisiana State Professor Leon C. Megginson, misattributed to Charles Darwin, captures the essence of “The Origin of Species”: “[I]t is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.”
Biblical, philosophical and biological truths all affirm the value of adaptability. To embrace it, we need peace of mind, the inner knowing that we can meet the challenges of the day.
This is a very American idea.
Benjamin Franklin sought peace of mind though frugality, sincerity, fairness, moderation, humility, cleanliness and tranquility, among other values.
He had a mindful daily schedule. When he awoke, he asked himself, “What good shall I do today?” He scheduled work every few hours. In between, he took time to relax, dine, do housework and enjoy music or conversation. Before bed, he ended his day by recounting whether he had done anything good to serve others. Then he got a restful night’s sleep of at least 7 hours.
Franklin’s biggest accomplishment was not the lightning rod. He helped devise checks and balances among the branches of government — executive, judicial and congressional — that remains a touchstone of our democracy.
The U.S. Constitution is known worldwide by its ability to adapt to the times.
In a 1789 letter to a friend, Franklin wrote, “Our new Constitution is now established, everything seems to promise it will be durable; but, in this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes.” That iconic remark reminds us that we can rely on little in life. Best, then, to adapt.
What could possibly be on the horizon in 2021? What new dilemmas will arise for which we will be devastatingly unprepared?
Think tanks will tell you it’s the economy, the recovery, health care, immigration, environment, climate change, terrorism, gun violence and civil strife, intensified by lack of leadership on top of corporate, public and personal debt.
But the sages would advise you not to worry because tomorrow will take care of itself, provided we learn to adapt.
Michael Bugeja is the author of “Living Media Ethics” (Routledge/Taylor & Francis) and “Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine” (Oxford Univ. Press). He is a regular contributor to Iowa Capital Dispatch and is writing a series of columns on the topic of “Living Ethics.”