Taking It One Day at a Time

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Without us perhaps quite noticing, much of what we place our hopes in will be ready for

us in a very a long time indeed, in months or even decades from now (if ever): the successful

completion of a novel, a sufficient sum of money to buy a house or begin a new career,

the discovery of a suitable partner, a move to another country. In the list of our most

intensely-felt hopes, few entries stand to come to fruition this season or next, let

alone by tonight.

But occasionally, life places us in a situation where our normal long-range hopeful way of

thinking grows impossible. Youve had a car accident; a very bad one. For weeks, it

seemed like you might not make it at all, now youre out of a coma and back home,

but you still have multiple broken bones, serious bruises and constant migraines. It’s

unclear from here when youll be going back to work - or whether you ever will. When someone

asks how things are, one answer seem to fit above all: were taking it one day at a

time.

Or imagine that a person is 89, mentally agile but very slow on their feet and often in pain.

They had a fall last month and their left knee is badly arthritic. Yesterday they did

some gardening. Today they may go to the shops for the first time in a while. You ask their

carer how they are: were taking it one day at a time.

Or youre a new parent. It was a very difficult birth, the baby had jaundice and required

a blood transfusion - and now, finally, mother and child are home. The baby cries a lot in

the night and has to take some medicines that aggravate the stomach, but last night was

good enough and hopefully today, if the weather holds, there’s a chance of taking a trip

to the park, to see the daffodils. How is it all going? Were taking it one day at

a time.

These may be extreme scenarios and a natural impulse is to hope that we will never encounter

them - but they contain valuable teachings for anyone with a tendency to ignore their

own advantages, that is, for all of us. One-day-at-a-time-thinking reminds us that, in many cases, our greatest

enemy is that otherwise critical nectar: hope and the perplexing emotion it tends to bring

with it, impatience. By limiting our horizons to tonight, we are girding ourselves for the

long haul and remembering that an improvement may best be achieved when we manage not to

await it too ardently. Our most productive mood may be a quiet melancholy, with which

we can ward off the temptations of rage or mania and fully imbibe the moderate steadfastness

required to do fiddly things: write a book, bring up a child, repair a marriage or work

through a mental breakdown.

Taking it day by day means reducing the degree of control we expect to be able to bring to

bear on the uncertain future. It means recognising that we have no serious capacity to exercise

our will on a span of years and should not therefore disdain a chance to secure or one

or two minor wins in the hours ahead of us. We should - from a new perspective - count

ourselves immensely grateful if, by nightfall, there have been no further arguments and no

more seizures, if the rain has let off and we have found one or two interesting pages

to read.

As life as a whole grows more complicated, we can remember to unclench and smile a little

along the way, rather than jealously husbanding our reserves of joy for a finale somewhere

in the nebulous distance. Given the scale of what we are up against, knowing that perfection

may never occur, and that far worse may be coming our way, we can stoop to accept with

fresh gratitude a few of the minor gifts that are already within our grasp.

We might look with fresh energy at a cloud, a duck, a butterfly or a flower. At twenty-two,

we might scoff at the suggestion - for there seem so many larger, grander things to hope

for than these evanescent manifestations of nature: romantic love, career fulfillment

or political change. But with time, almost all one’s more revolutionary aspirations

tend to take a hit, perhaps a very large one. One encounters some of the intractable problems

of intimate relationships. One suffers the gap between one’s professional hopes and

the available realities. One has a chance to observe how slowly and fitfully the world

ever alters in a positive direction. One is fully inducted to the extent of human wickedness

and folly - and to one’s own eccentricity, selfishness and madness. And so natural beauty

may take on a different hue; no longer a petty distraction from a mighty destiny, no longer

an insult to ambition, but a genuine pleasure amidst a litany of troubles, an invitation

to bracket anxieties and keep self-criticism at bay, a small resting place for hope in

a sea of disappointment; a proper consolation - for which one is finally ready, on an afternoon

walk, to be appropriately grateful.

Vincent Van Gogh was admitted to the Saint-Paul mental asylum in Saint-Remy in southern France

in May of 1889, having lost his mind and tried to sever his ear. At the start of his stay,

he mostly lay in bed in the dark. After a few months, he grew a little stronger and

was able to go out into the garden. And it was here that he noticed, in a legendary act

of concentrated aesthetic absorption, the gnarled roots of a southern pine, the blossom

on an apple tree, a caterpillar on its way across a leaf and - most famously - the bloom

of a succession of purple irises. In his hands these became like the totemic symbols of a

new religion oriented towards a celebration of the transcendent beauty of the everyday.

Vincent Van Gogh, Still Life: Vase with Irises Against a Yellow Background May 1890

His Vase with Irises is no sentimental study of a common flower: it is the work of a pivotal

figure in Western culture struggling to make it to the end of the day without doing himself

in - and clinging on, very tightly indeed, with the hands of a genius, to a reason to

live.

It’s normal enough to hold out for all that we want. Why would we celebrate hobbling,

when we wish to run? Why accept friendship, when we crave passion? But if we reach the

end of the day and no one has died, no further limbs have broken, a few lines have been written

and one or two encouraging and pleasant things have been said, then that is already an achievement

worthy of a place at the altar of sanity. How natural and tempting to put one’s faith

in the bountifulness of the years, but how much wiser it might be be to bring all one’s

faculties of appreciation and love to bear on that most modest and most easily-dismissed

of increments: the day already in hand.

The School of Life is coming to New York from the 4th to the 6th of October for a three-day conference

where you'll have the chance to meet other like-minded individuals and embark on a journey of genuine self-discovery and self-transformation. We hope to see you there.

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