Evanston RoundTable, March 18, 2020
Hey Bunkie. Are you stuck in existential despair? Terrified the end times are at hand? Certain the latest outrage from Washington, Springfield, City Hall or your next-door neighbor will push you over the edge?
Well, listen up, Bunkie, because I have a word of advice. Actually two:
Yes, you can work your way out of many a slough of despond merely by picking your head up and taking note of the big, big world around you. Here’s how:
Step 1: Turn off your device.
Step 2: Go outside.
Step 3: Look around.
So simple. Yet many folks are incapable. You see them peeled to their phone, prisoners of their TV, half dead from inactivity and insipidity. Or they’re outside moping along, staring at their shoes, mired in pity, barely coping, riven with self-doubt and despair. Given the state of the world, it’s understandable.
But hey—the world has always been in a state! Take the last thousand years: we’ve had war (some 2,300, according to the Wikipedia site “List of Wars”), famine, plague, massive death. Just in the last five generations we’ve endured two world wars, the Great Depression, the Korean War, Vietnam War and the Cold War. Just when we thought the coast was clear there was 9/11 followed by democracies on the run, the planet at risk and a global pandemic threatening to finish us off. Is it any wonder people are freaking out?
But hysteria is unhelpful. Navel-gazing morosity only leads to fuzzy thinking and negative introspection. Who could feel good stooped over in that attitude? It’s a sure-fire prescription for despair.
This isn’t a new idea. “Sit all day, in a moping posture, sigh, and reply to everything with a dismal voice, and your melancholy lingers,” wrote William James, the founder of American psychology.
Looking out at the bright outside world helps bring it into clear focus, where it belongs. Looking around exposes you to the newness of the familiar: neighborhoods and communities you’ve traversed a thousand times before but have never really seen. Two of America’s great cities—Evanston and Chicago—are at your feet with thousands of museums, restaurants, sports venues and other attractions.
We are blessed with countless gardens and parks as well. “Nature is the art of God,” said 17th century English naturalist Thomas Browne, and even without divinity nature is art at its highest, most profound level.
The author Alice Munro wrote in an early memoir that as a girl she was saved from nighttime “demons” by venturing outside in the wee hours to observe the tiniest details. “I sometimes halted in my night walks…it eased me to look towards town, maybe just to inhale the sanity of it. All the people getting up, before long, having their shops to go to, the doors to unlock, the milk bottles to take inside. Their busyness.”
Busyness helps ease us out of our doldrums. Better to feel the wind, taste the rain, enjoy the sun, marvel at nature. Note particulars. Observe the vast universe at ground level—lawns, lakes, even streets and sidewalks—where whole other ecosystems with their own unique creatures and constellations thrive. Appreciate the many-limbed architecture of the trees overhead—nature’s blessed handiwork of chlorophyll and oxygen. Thrill to the clouds in the sky that produce a free, ever-changing display of light and shadows, color and patterns. We can do this even keeping our “social distance” from our neighbors.
Getting out into nature is not a repudiation of ourselves: it is our selves. We are one with the universe.
Problems will never disappear. But thankfully, remedies, even if temporary, are well and easily at hand, after which we can address those problems more clearly and with fresh energy.
And looking around also brings into focus those who are not as well off as we are, triggering our empathy and, hopefully, desire to help. That is the best way to escape the doldrums.
So get out there, Bunkie! Pick your head up and look around. The world is a big place filled with wonder and beauty. Find your niche and burrow in.