Think times are bad? Here’s some perspective

Think we have it bad? In times past, a lady risked getting felt up by skeletons on the street.

Think we have it bad? In times past, ladies sometimes got felt up by skeletons on the street.

I’ve heard a lot of despair lately. Gaza, Ferguson, Ukraine, Ebola, beheadings, Robin Williams, racists, rapists, riots, killer cops, white supremacists. Everyone seems to think things could barely get worse.

The world has its troubles. There are many reasons to try to help. But don’t be tricked. The world always had troubles.

Social media pushes the negativity in our faces. It makes distant misery seem as immediate as if it happened next door. Things have been much, much worse. Remember the ritual of life.

The Year 541 saw the outbreak of the Justinian Plague. Half the world population died. Imagine that: Half the people you know, suddenly gone, and you left convinced you would die next. It’s inconceivable. They thought the world was ending. Understandably, civilization trudged through the years that followed.

In 1347, the Black Plague, or the Bubonic Plague, began its reign. Depending on where you lived, one-third to 75% of your town died. Imagine that. Some people rushed to God, convinced it was His wrath. Many more rushed to hedonism, convinced morality was folly.  The Crusades. The Inquisitions.

The Great War: 16 million dead—16 million; just think of that—the loss of an entire generation, and for what? And on its heels, the airborne influenza epidemic of 1918, which it’s now thought grabbed another 100 million people, or 5% of the world’s population. Predominantly, the dead were the young.  So some 116 million didn’t make it out of the 1910s, many of them never to marry or start a new generation.

Then World War Two. 65 million dead. 65 million, and that’s only a guess. Only a fraction of that was the Holocaust. Major ancient cities were laid to waste, heritage wiped from existence.

Numbers are one thing. To get my point, simply imagine how people must have felt when they were living through those cataclysms. When you abruptly bury half the people you know, when your town and the farms that feed you are laid to waste, when the only constants are decay, chaos, and hunger—in comparison, it makes tangling with a terrorist group seem like a day at the country club.

Whenever you get stressed, think of the bad times in history—and imagine how hopeless people must have felt then. It’s strangely uplifting. Mental health through schadenfreude.

Perspective tells us that ours is not the only fight, and ours is not the worst one—not by a million miles. Turn around and look at history instead of nurturing the anxiety on your Facebook feed.

We can deal with some rockets and roadside bombs. We can get through suicides and executions and the rigged American system. In context, Ebola is a blip.

We must take care of each other. We have lived through worse. If we lose perspective on the big picture, then our chaos really can get out of hand and become a disaster. We must remember how bad it can be if we’re going to keep a lid on things.

This summer has seen some terrible losses. There will be more. But you can do it. Take the long view. You’re all right. Let’s keep this ship afloat.

A little reminder about what "bad" really is. (Detail: The Triumph of Death (1562)  by Pieter Breugel the Elder)

What “rough times” can really be. (Detail: The Triumph of Death (1562) by Pieter Breugel the Elder)

One Response to “Think times are bad? Here’s some perspective”

  1. Sonja

    THANK YOU for posting this. I was just talking about it with my mom tonight, and she said the same exact thing you did. That we need to back up and get some perspective. That bigger and more tragic events have happened and we’re still here. There’s still hope, she said…there’s always hope. So I’ll keep you and her in mind the next time I start feeling pessimistic about our current trajectory as humans.