“I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.’” – Muhammad Ali
There is a question generally attributed to the British after the World War II: “Did you have a good war?”
While war, like pandemics, can never be said to be good, the question’s meaning was more like, “Did you manage to make the best of a bad situation?”
When I was on my rowboat, the days felt very long. Even a single rowing shift seemed to go on forever, and the tedium could be almost unbearable. I was absolutely desperate to get to the other side, but the more impatient I got, the slower the time seemed to go.
I never doubted that I would get to the other side, but at times I didn’t know how I would get there without driving myself insane. I would get thoroughly sick of myself, bored to tears with my repetitive thoughts, and feel like I wanted to be able to crawl out of my own skull and be somebody else, somewhere else, for just one day — or even just one hour — of relief from myself.
The Present Bias
Here we run into another cognitive bias, the present bias. It is usually demonstrated in an economic context, as the preference most people have for a smaller financial reward now, compared with a larger financial reward later. Another way of describing it is instant gratification, and our entire developed world and economy have evolved to give us what we want, as soon as we want it (ideally before we realise we didn’t actually need it at all). Some entrepreneurs may take time to build a company slowly and carefully, but many are dreaming of the buyout before they’ve even registered the domain name.
We used to operate on longer timescales. If our ancestors wanted blackberries (the fruit, not the smartphone), no matter how desperately they wanted them, they had to wait for blackberry season. If they wanted a house, they had to build it. If they wanted a woolly sweater, they had to shear, and spin, and knit.
We’ve got so used to getting what we want, when we want it, that we’re worse than we’ve ever been at deferring gratification. During this pandemic, it has been interesting to be reminded that reality doesn’t always conform to our wishes. It might be frustrating to be forced to wait, or not to be able to buy what we want, or to have to postpone pleasures and plans.
But some things are worth waiting for.
It Doesn’t Have To Be Fun To Be Fun
A wise friend, a solo sailor called Adrian Flanagan, helped me reframe my situation, from one of frustration to one of fulfilment. He sent me a message:
“When you come to look back on it, the voyage will seem to have been over very quickly. Remember, it doesn’t have to be fun to be fun. And it will have been fun once you are among the elite few who have single-handedly rowed an ocean.”
He was right. When we’re in the thick of a crisis, it can feel challenging enough just to get through the day, let alone to think ahead to how we’re going to feel when it’s all over. But letting your mind time-travel into the future, to a point in time when the crisis is in the past, can actually be very helpful. It reminds us that, even though time might be dragging now, nothing lasts forever, good or bad, and at some stage we’re going to be able to look back and reflect, and decide whether we had “a good war” — and if we want to be able to decide that we did, we need to do what we can in the present to maximise our chances of getting that result.
Think about all the good stories you’ve read, watched, or heard. Did the hero always have it easy? Did everything always go according to plan? I very much doubt it, because stories of everything going smoothly are very boring. The hero will end their journey much as they started it if there is no adversity to force some kind of transformation. Every good story has some kind of stuckness or breakdown before the breakthrough. So if life seems tough right now, imagine ahead. Picture yourself when this is over — get the retrospective perspective. How does it look from there?
When you look back over your life, what have been the times when you have grown the most as a person? How did they feel at the time — were they easy, stressful, or somewhere in between? I’m guessing they were towards the stressful end of the spectrum — a bereavement, a diagnosis, a divorce, or some other crisis, that forced you to re-evaluate who you were and where you were going. So if you believe, as I do, that personal growth is a good thing, and “bad” times are more conducive to growth, then in fact what we call “bad” times are good because they make you grow more.
This is an excerpt from my forthcoming book in response to the coronavirus, The Gifts of Solitude, which will be available on Amazon within the next couple of days.
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And stay safe, sane, and as happy as you can in these interesting times.