Adaptive Ethics: Losing fear and living mindfully

What happens when your to-do list is overcome by events? (Photo illustration by Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The ancients knew something that we have forgotten in our daily digital skedaddle. Smartphones tell us where to be and what to do every minute, pinging us incessantly with pesky reminders about meetings, appointments, notifications and incomplete chores, assignments and deadlines.

On top of this, we make lists. There are apps for that, too, under “task management” with names like “Wunderlist,” “Todoist,” and “ToodleDo.” They help create lists we can share with family, friends and coworkers so that everyone knows how engaged and productive we are.

Just what we all need.

Trending slogans push us even harder:

  • Be you. Do you. For you.
  • Make it happen.
  • Think it. Want it. Get it.
  • I can and I will. Watch me.
  • If not now, when?
  • You got this, girl.
  • Okay let’s do this.

 The most famous slogan belongs to Nike: Just do it.

But what if you can’t? What if it seems everyone else except you is doing it on social media? What if you repeatedly fail to do what you planned the day before because your internet crashed or you did in a fender-bender?

You may have 10 items on your Wunderlist, but life has a gazillion in store for you.

Stuff happens. Yes, this alludes to the vulgar urban slang motto, “s— happens,” which you can read about in an article by that title in Psychology Today, explaining why human beings resist randomness.

As the Confucian scholar, Mencius (late 4th century BC), observed: “Let us decide firmly what we will not do, and we will be free to do vigorously what we ought to do.”

Mencius believed that to-do lists—and even life goals and bucket lists — limit us. We may assume the future is predictable but then are surprised when things do not work out. Yet we program our tomorrows in our psyches and smartphones with the same surety as we did our “failed” yesterdays.

The only thing you can count on, Mencius argues, is the unexpected.

Thus, the best plan for the future is “adaptability.” When you embrace that, you not only free yourself to handle life’s challenges; you lose fear of the future.

According to a 2016 study, the biggest human dread is the unknown “at the root of most fear-based psychopathologies … including panic disordersocial anxiety disorder, and specific phobias” triggered by the unpredictability of ambiguous threats.

The media is in the business of broadcasting threats — mass shootings, terrorist attacks, cartel crime waves, natural disasters, economic downturns, civil strife, war and holocaust. That’s not to say these things don’t or will not occur. Consider the coronavirus. But how realistic is it to worry every waking minute that death, destruction and disaster will happen to us because they did to someone somewhere else?

The number-one fear is not public speaking, by the way. It has been the same in each annual survey since 2016: government corruption.

Yes, that happens, too. We debate it endlessly on social media, unfriending those who disagree with our opinion.

“I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend,” wrote Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States.

In an 1816 letter, he stated that gloomy and hypochondriac minds “disgusted with the present, & despairing of the future” believe “the worst will happen, because it may happen.” He added, “How much pain have cost us the evils which have never happened! My temperament is sanguine. I steer my bark with Hope in the head, leaving Fear astern.”

Jefferson adopted a Mencius-like philosophy of mindfulness.

Myrna Brind Center for Mindfulness, located on the Thomas Jefferson University campus in Philadelphia, defines the philosophy as “living your life in the richness of right now, not being lost in memories of the past or overwhelmed by the worries or projections of the future.”

Mindfulness is at the core of Mencius’ philosophy. It asks us to adapt to the present moment without judgment of ourselves or others. Mindfulness dislikes multitasking, encouraging us to give our full attention to one person or activity at a time. A mindful person also is kind, compassionate and, above all, flexible.

The website mindful.org recommends everyday practices to live a nimble, purposeful life. Instead of making a to-do list, it advises a list of intentions:

  • How might I show up today to have the best impact?
  • What quality of mind do I want to strengthen and develop?
  • What do I need to take better care of myself?
  • During difficult moments, how might I be more compassionate to others and myself?
  • How might I feel more connected and fulfilled?

The coronavirus has delivered a powerful message to humankind. We are not in control. Each day, our lists have to be revised or abandoned because of social distancing or the cancellation of events, meetings and even religious gatherings.

Slowly, we are beginning to adapt to the uncertainties of life.

Adaptive ethics lessens anxiety and builds confidence that we can cope with everyday challenges rather than fret about those that may never happen. “Abide by this one precept,” Mencius says, “and everything else will follow.”