Challenges and help.
THE 2016-2017 FORTNIGHTLY REVIEW serial.
Serial Preface and Contents with Publication Schedule
By ALAN MACFARLANE.
EACH GENERATION FACES new challenges. The present and the foreseeable future are no worse than many past eras. Yet there are huge changes afoot, as I have argued, which will make for new kinds of difficulties. I have touched on those relating to computers, migration, changing health, and longevity and others. To these can be added the loss of certainty and faith which seems to put our deepest assumptions in question.
What can I say to young people growing up in such an age, especially where the whole world seems to be changing very rapidly—and especially fast in countries such as China, India, and much of what used to be called ‘the developing world’ which are trying to ‘westernize’ or ‘modernize’?
Here are just a few things that have helped me in my search for a way of living. They buffer some of the stresses and strains and bring me internal peace and hope. They are in no particular order and the list could be extended and deepened, but this is a start.
THERE IS FRIENDSHIP. Much can be dealt with by sharing with others, and most thoughts and activities are enriched by reflecting on them with friends. Our families may give us support and comfort, especially when we are young, but many find themselves rather alone as they grow into an adult world. Making a real effort to form, retain, and build strong friendships I have found to be a real solace. The art is to find people we can trust, who have similar enthusiasms which we can share, who can see outside themselves, who treat us with affection and respect, which we reciprocate.
It is a craft or art which we learn from our infancy, and friendship can cause pain as well as happiness. Yet in what has been described as ‘the lonely crowd’, the increasingly individualistic and competitive world we live in can be made warmer and more meaningful if we have real, equal, and non-manipulative friendships.
A SECOND THING I have learnt is humour. Life is often apparently bizarre, cruel, senseless, unfair. It can hit and hurt you. Yet I have found that humour – whether seeing the ridiculous, the hypocrisy and pretensions, the delightful irrationality, the unresolvable contradictions and paradoxes has helped. Laughter can bring down dictators and will make a private grief something that can be shared. Again humour is an art and craft and much of my education was teaching me to appreciate different forms of humour and the deeper lesson that life is far too serious to be taken entirely seriously.
Another lesson concerns the relations between mind, heart, spirit, and body. They are all connected and each affects the other. In particular, I was brought up with the saying ‘a sound mind in a sound body’. If your body is in bad condition, this is likely to drive down your mind (and vice versa). I certainly know that by doing the obvious minimal things, I have found happiness and contentment easier.
Watching what you eat and drink (moderation in all things – I do not eat red meat, do not drink much, do not smoke or take drugs) is essential. Many of the things we ingest shape our moods – for example drinking large quantities of tea (black, brown or green) is of enormous benefit in terms of energy, calmness, and confidence.
Or again, enough exercise – at least twenty minutes reasonably fast walking each day, some body-loosening and calming exercises (ten minutes of simple yoga each day) not only adds to your lifespan, but is intellectually stimulating. Walking, as many have observed, is a huge aid to thought or, as Albert Einstein put it ‘the legs of the wheels of invention’. Not getting too tired – sleeping properly, stopping to have rests every thirty minutes or hour at least in whatever one is doing, allowing enough and a little spare time for every job so that one is not stressed – makes life suddenly better.
Another thing I have found is the reflecting on my life, keeping a diary, noting down thoughts, filming life as it passes and watching the films, examining the life of my ancestors and parents, all helps me to put my own life into context. We tend to write fewer letters on paper nowadays, so need to make a special effort to replace this by personal self- observation and analysis. Treasuring the passing days by keeping a record of them, which will be a solace in older age, is also worthwhile.
I HAVE ALWAYS found it helpful to learn from others. The idea of a role model is especially important nowadays as the world changes so fast and increasing numbers of people in many rural areas outside the west are moving away from their families. In relatively stable societies it might have been enough to watch parents and close relatives to see how to live. Now your parents often belong to a generation brought up in a different world and you may not be able to respect or even like them, and certainly they seem to have little sound guidance for you.
Yet there are many great figures in history whose experience still has lessons for us today. I read, and write, biographies of such people, do film interviews with them, learn about how they faced difficulty and found fulfillment and how they improved their creativity. It is a interaction with people I have met and admired, from my first teachers up to my students today. These can be greatly supplemented by the vast wealth of extraordinary lives people have led in many different cultures.
One of the things which is happening is that different cultures are entering our living space and upsetting our beliefs and deepest and hitherto unquestioned assumptions. This is a challenge, but also an opportunity, for I have found that by becoming interested in how people in other civilisations and societies organise their lives, I find it easier to understand my own. I have found that educated travel – not only to other real places all over the world, or even the huge diversity most people can find on their doorsteps – but virtually, through the vast array of films and books about the world, is enormously stimulating and helpful.
I have also found an antidote to confusion and doubt is to look at history. We are often shocked into thinking that we live in the worst of times, that things are bleak and dark, that the world is currently in an unparalleled mess. A study of history (or even our past diaries) shows that although things do not repeat themselves exactly, they rhyme, as Mark Twain put it. There are patterns and tendencies and we can sort out our own experiences within a much longer context which helps us to understand and adapt. For while many may not believe in an ultimate God or heaven, we do not therefore have to believe that everything is meaningless chaos. Life is pretty orderly, in fact, and filled out with small satisfactions and repetitions.
THE TRICKS AND METHODS we develop are, of course, highly personal, and I am not sure how much of what I am writing will help you from your different worlds. All that I can say is that through friendship, love, the kindness of strangers, combined with trying to develop my self-confidence and trying to be kind and generous to others I have enjoyed my life. Leading a modest life which does as little damage to others in the world as possible, I have been enormously fortunate to reach an age (seventy-four) and a degree of peace, as I sit in a beautiful English garden on this June day, looking at the birds and roses.
Despite the deep tragedies around us, we should aim, in our modest ways, to make it possible for as many humans and other animals to live with such contentment. They should wake each morning with a sense of excitement, and end each day with a feeling of added richness. The only things which can stop this in our personal psychology are cynicism, hopelessness, lack of confidence. I was never very talented at anything as a child, but I learnt that almost anybody can do almost anything if they really know what it is they want to do and stick at it.
Good luck, and as they used to say in my culture, ‘God speed’. To paraphrase – ‘Humankind is born free. All we have to do is to recognise and throw off our chains.’
Thus concludes this serial.
Alan Macfarlane FBA, FRHistS, is Professor Emeritus of Anthropological Science and Life Fellow of King’s College at the University of Cambridge and co-editor of The Fortnightly Review.
Prof Macfarlane is the author of more than twenty books and numerous articles covering English social history, demography in Nepal and the industrial history of England, China and Japan. His survey text, The Invention of the Modern World, is published by Odd Volumes for subscribers to the Fortnightly.