When We Can’t Control the Future, We Can Still Be Kind

A woman with a happy, kind smile

Have you ever experienced a frightening storm? One of those big thunderstorms that heats up over open land, and when a cold front meets it, everything gets wild. High winds. Heavy rain. Thunder. Lightning. The smell of minerals releasing as rain hits rock or pavement. 

My husband and I found ourselves in such a storm one August night. We’d packed up our full size Ford van with our almost two year old daughter and our gear and drove cross country to Lake Powell, Utah.

We’d pulled off the narrow highway rimming the lake. Nosing the van over the slick ancient rocks we decided to camp on a wide plateau suspended 700 feet above turquoise waters. We lit a campfire and, like my father taught me, wrapped potatoes in foil and baked them in the coals. Our daughter toddled happily over the red rock expanse finding drift wood and stones to toss over the edge. A snake slid past us. Startled, she asked, will it hurt me? We assured her it would not. We ogled a blazing sunset and went to sleep inside the van on its wide bed.

But in the darkness of midnight something woke me. A pressure. A sound. I shook my husband awake and said, “Something big is coming.” We looked out the back windows and saw white flashes of lightning and a massive wall of clouds in the distance. My daughter stirred and she latched on tight, responding to the tension. She would not let go for a very long time.

Then with a burst of wind the temperature dropped 30 degrees. Instantly our heaving breath steamed up the inside windows. We wiped the condensation and saw a shower of orange streaks shoot past us; it looked like tracer bullets streaming at us. It was the remnants of a fire that the wind had lifted and sent in our direction. At the peak of the storm as sheets of rain loudly pummeled the metal roof we could not see even ten feet; we shined a flashlight at the ground because we could not be sure the van wasn’t sliding across the rocks, pushing us over the edge. Terrified I held our daughter close as my husband’s big arms surrounded both of us.

When We Can’t Control the Future

Right now we are all in a storm — as the headlines never tire of reminding us. And, as a highly sensitive person, I find my feelings and anxious thoughts can outrun my reality. The threat of the pandemic makes me question my safety, my future. And it can lead all of us to pull away, to shun others, to become suspicious and give in to viral fear. 

After that storm in the campground, I changed the way I think about shocks and things we cannot control. I began to see safety as, in some ways, an illusion. Helen Keller may have been right when she wrote, “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it… Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure… Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”

The writer Camus would have agreed with her. But he also believed we had an important role to play, even if we can’t control the future. I never read his classic The Plague, but this brilliant op-ed reminds us that its whole point was to stop worrying about the future and instead take care of one another right now. Camus says we need to love our fellow humans and work without hope or despair, always striving to reduce suffering. “Life is a hospice,” he writes, “Never a hospital.”

I like the notion of hospice. Right now, we are all fearful of death and dying — how can we not be? But hospice tells us to apply comfort to ourselves and the distressed around us. 

To get that comfort, Camus suggested four laws of happiness.* These laws aren’t based on achievement or wealth. And they won’t fail you when plans go awry. Instead, the four laws help us find joy — and give joy to each other — in even the most uncertain times.

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4 Laws of Happiness for Uncertain Times

1. Have love for another being.

Who do you love? Start with those closest to you. And yes, include animals as well as humans. And let them know you love them.

But don’t stop there. Think of others you know more informally and also love. The cook who makes your favorite dish at your local restaurant. The journalists keeping you informed. The neighbor in senior living who is making sure others in their locked-down building are ok. Food shelf workers. Grocery clerks. The person reading stories to comfort kids on YouTube (or LeVar Burton’s podcast offering storytime for busy adults).

How do you show them you love them? I am making lists and writing postcards to people near and far. I am leaving thank-you notes. I am telling people when I speak to them why I appreciate them. Another way is simply listening, really hearing them. Sending my love out to others calms me and gives me purpose and helps them feel less alone — and more seen.

2. Make time for the outdoors.

Get outside and pay attention to what you see. I’ve noticed lots of redheaded woodpeckers busy now drilling into tree bark. The eagles nest near the river must have eggs in it. I heard their song yesterday. 

Not everyone lives in, or near, nature. A walk in the city can be magical, too. Look for the loving signs business owners have left on their doors. Find out which ones are partly open and doing food delivery or pick-up. Smile and nod to the other people who are out, instead of fearing them, even as you both keep your safe distance. Go to a park and bask in the silence or the wind in the trees or the birds singing like nothing is wrong. 

Nature renews us. Sing back!

3. Practice your creativity.

We are called to reignite and apply our skills, handiness, creativity, and imaginations. Perhaps start with a visual journal. I kept a lot of notes and journals through the 2008 crash and recovery.  If you don’t have art materials, start with what you do have. I make torn paper collages using magazines and tissue paper. A digital generation might make TikToks or Youtube videos or simply sketch or write and share it online.

Apply your creativity as a skill for connection. As soon as I realized this virus was serious I started cooking and storing food. But I also shared some with others. Meanwhile, I’m seeing more and more YouTube videos sharing lessons and demonstrations to excite our curiosity and help us feel in relationship with one another.

It doesn’t matter the art form. The secret is the exchange.

4. Let go of ambition.

Everything has changed and change unsettles us — profoundly. Brené Brown says we are living in a “massive experiment in collective vulnerability.” Part of vulnerability is accepting that the outcome isn’t fully in our hands. And, obsessing over the future only brings us more anxiety. Now is not the time to push ourselves farther than we can see. 

Instead, please be gentle with yourself. And with others. And trust. Trust that the sun sets, and it rises. That storms end. The ground stirs with earthworms. And we will again be nourished and sustained.

*Editor’s note: In fact-checking this article, we were able to confirm that the four laws can be found in Camus’ notebooks, and may have been based on four principles by Edgar Poe. However, we were unable to to find a definitive original source to link to.

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