I have two strategies for dealing with the randomness of life.
Ok, let’s get real.
The world is a terrifying place.
I know people look at me and think, “Jon, what on earth do you have to worry about?”
“You’ve got as much money as any sane man could want. You live in one of the most beautiful and prosperous countries on earth, at one of the most peaceful times in history. And those lessons you’ve been taking in armoured tank operation are really starting to pay off.”
“Surely, you’re as secure as man can be.”
And that is all true. But the world is still a terrifying place.
The truth is that despite my money, my social networks, my armoured tank and cache of 40-pound shells, I am still just a fragile clump of animated meat.
And all meat has a use-by date.
When I pause, in between drinks, sometimes the thought comes: “Death is coming for me too.” I don’t know when or where it’s going to get me, but I know that it will. There’s no way round that one.
And all the fortresses I build to protect me from suffering and misery – the money to buy me a certain standard of living, the social networks to insure me against misfortune, the sons to look after me in my old age – none of these are set in stone. They’re subject to the dice-rolls of fate, just like I am.
And even this tank would be pretty useless without fuel. I wonder how it would go in an apocalypse really.
As humans, we crave security. It’s a fundamental need. We need to know that we are safe.
But there are just no guarantees.
In fact the only guarantee really is that you’re going to die.
So it’s kind of ironic. The only guarantee we have is that, at some point, all our efforts to protect us from suffering and to keep us safe, will fail.
We are united in a common destiny and that destiny is compost.
(Ok, bear with me, this is going to become uplifting and inspirational soon, promise. I’ve just got to set the scene. For the time-being, imagine a beautiful woman climbing to the top of a mountain. Look. Look how happy and satisfied she is.)
The point I’m trying to make is that we give a lot of energy to trying to create ‘security’ for ourselves, but we’re giving a lot of energy to a fight we just can’t win. Not in the end.
I guess this is a feeling that comes over me every time I come to Greece. Greece is no stranger to disaster and calamity, and hidden in each of those history-book entries are thousands of stories of individuals having the rugs of security ripped out from under their feet.
Take the Greek Financial Crisis for example.
I’ve met loads of people whose lives were as secure as you could imagine before the crisis. They had iron-clad jobs with the government, in senior roles, paying very well. They had modest mortgages and made sensible financial choices. The people they hung with all did the same.
And then the crisis hits and bam. They either lose their job or are forced to take a massive pay cut. Now that modest mortgage becomes unmanageable, and they start eating into their savings (all the while worried if the money they put in the bank will actually be there when they need it!)
That’s ok, we’ve got enough to tide us over for a few years. But two years become four. Four becomes eight, then ten. You’re selling jewellery and the heirlooms your grandmother gave you, but it just isn’t enough.
Suddenly you’re in the cue at a soup kitchen, wondering what the hell happened.
You thought you were secure, but fate had other plans.
But the truth of it is that in the greater scheme of Greek history, the financial crisis is one of the more palatable disasters.
I’m thinking about the Smyrna disaster for example. Smyrna was the Greek name for what is now Izmir in Turkey.
Before World War I, Smyrna was a large cosmopolitan city and a peaceful home to Turks, Greeks, Armenians and Jews.
But after the war, Turkish forces entered the city and set fire to the Greek and Armenian quarters. Massive swathes of the city were razed, and up to 100,000 people were killed, and as many again became refugees.
Now you might say that the fate of people living in a foreign land was always going to be precarious, but there had been Greek people living in Smyrna for over 3,000 years, as boundaries shifted this way and that.
And I reckon the Greek people living there, with their businesses and ancient churches and large communities, would have thought that this war and geo-political argy-bargy would pass the same way, and leave them in peace.
But it didn’t. And any gold and wealth they had was stolen from them at the port… if they survived at all.
Security is pipe-dream.
Or go back even further. Like the city state of Thebes in Ancient Greece. Thebes is all of 50km from Athens, so it’s hard to imagine they were once enemies. It’s like Brisbane and the Gold Coast getting in each other’s grills.
Anyway, Thebes fell under control of the Macedonian empire under Alexander the Great. They were never happy about this, and in 335BC, when Alexander was off fighting another war somewhere, the leaders of Thebes rebelled.
Alexander wasn’t happy about this of course, and marched promptly back to Thebes to sort it out.
He surrounded the city and initially offered some favourable terms for their surrender, but the leaders of Thebes refused, and the city was laid to siege. It didn’t last too long, and Alexander showed the world that the girls of Ancient Greece didn’t call him ‘the great’ for nothing.
But he was worried about other cities getting uppity too, and so Alexander decided to make an example of Thebes. He slaughtered thousands in the fighting, and the 30,000 that survived were promptly sold into slavery.
He then DESTROYED THE ENTIRE CITY, burning every house to the ground.
Actually, not every house. He left he house of Pindar standing. Pindar was a famous lyric poet who had once said some nice things about Alexandar’s father, Phillip II.
So that was nice. He left his house standing. Thoughtful.
Anyway, within this epic would have been thousands of individual stories – of rich merchants and noblemen who lost everything. Entire houses and family dynasties destroyed.
And all the trappings of security they amassed – their wealth, their political influence, their slaves and personal guards – it all came to nothing.
Nothing can save us from our destiny of compost.
As Pindar himself wrote:
Creatures of a day! What is anyone?
What is anyone not?
Our mortal being is nothing,
Nothing but a dream of a shadow.
(Phillip was awesome
Please don’t mess me up.)
The grim point I’m trying to make is that fate is cruel and random. In the face of that, there is nothing that can guarantee your security and safety.
The best you can hope for is a series of temporary defences, before your own body just claps out and you die in your sleep.
(No wait. Seriously. Uplift coming soon. Remember. Pretty girl on a mountain.)
I have two strategies for dealing with this.
The first is I keep my skills sharp. My personal skills – the skills I can take with me anywhere.
I don’t know if you know, but I started out in sales and copywriting. Mostly my work life is more entrepreneurial and managerial these days, but I like to keep my writing skills sharp. That’s half the reason why I write these blogs – to stop my tools from going rusty.
(The other half is that I just like the sound of my own voice.)
But for me, if I know I have a capacity to create value, and that capacity is something that lives inside me – is not dependent on anything else – then that gives me a sense of security.
The second strategy is that I just try not to take it all too seriously. I try to make a discipline of facing the random cruelty of life, and just accepting that this is the game we are playing out here.
In a world where there are no guarantees, I try to just be ok with the downside.
And by that I mean, when that fear comes, as it does – when I become aware of my painfully vulnerable situation – I don’t try to block it. I don’t try to raise my defences or quickly turn my mind to other things.
I just try to be ok with it. “Yep, Jonno. That’s just our situation. Animated compost.”
If I can be with it for a bit, and when I realise that we’re all in the same boat, I can find a way to make peace with it. Life is just like this. A dream of a shadow.
And there is a bonus gift in here for lucky shoppers. When you are aware of how fragile and vulnerable life is, how lucky you are to know peace and security, then it becomes precious to you.
You become grateful for it, and live each day with a hunger to make the most of what you have.
I know that all sounds backwards. To live life fully, make a discipline of scaring yourself silly.
But that is just how it is.
You cannot protect yourself from fate. But you can squeeze the juice out of every wonderful day. That choice is yours.