Existential philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said “Life can only be understand backwards, but must be lived forwards”. There is a limit to what we can control and what we can plan for and if 2020 so far has anything to teach us, it is that.
In these pandemic days we have been plunged into uncertainty, into a situation that will only truly be understood backwards and must be lived forwards. There are times that we can get around this to a certain extent, we can keep our personal world small and surround ourselves only with the familiar and predictable. This will be boring and unsatisfying, but it does offer an illusion of control which can be enticing. But, an illusion it is. Despite our defensive walls, a global disaster can come along and remind us that there is no certainty.
Eventually, whether we like it or not, if we want to live in a satisfying way, we must live forwards. We must take those tentative steps into the unknown, however shaky they may be, however terrified we may be that we are going to mess this up. You might mess up, of course, but you might also learn something precious, maybe even something life-changing, that could not have been learned in a tidy or organised way. You might even find that you have given yourself a gift, that the messiness and unpredictability of life is anxiety provoking, yes, but it can also be joyous and celebratory.
On the other side of this coin, is when we try to live without ever planning at all, without reflecting on the past, without integrating our learning. We might jump from one emotional impulse to the next, telling ourselves that we live in the moment, but instead what we find is that, while life can be exciting, we seem to repeat the same mistakes again and again. Remember, life can only be understood backwards, but it does need to be understood.
Slowing down and taking the time to reflect and understand might feel boring and unexciting, but it is the other part of what makes life satisfying. Living on impulse alone is a little like eating chocolate for every meal. It tastes great, but it doesn’t last long, you’ll be hungry again soon, and you’ll likely have a blood sugar/emotional crash shortly afterwards. You need some vegetables.
So, what was Kierkegaard trying to teach us? I believe it was that satisfaction and fulfilment are only available to us when we find a balance between the work of reflection and risk. Do your work, live reflexively - that's important, but remember that we will be messy humans too. Sometimes, no matter how well prepared we are, no matter how much homework we have done, we will find ourselves unprepared (or in the middle of a pandemic). And then, we will do our best, and while we might delight ourselves with the discovery of previously untapped capabilities, there is also a chance that we will get it wrong. Or both.
Whatever happens, we will be living life to the full, and that is all we can do.
As that other great existential philosopher, Alanis Morrisette, said “You live, you learn”.