Every culture has its folk sayings that help people to get through their days. We rely on them to give our problems a familiar, manageable feeling. Don’t worry about the small stuff, we’re often told. Life’s too short for that.
Back when our ancestors’ lives were indeed short and perilous, this was a very useful way to remind people not to get overly dramatic about small annoyances or disagreements. Why complain today when you might easily die tomorrow from an outbreak of plague, find yourself in the path of an invading army putting your village to the torch, or get eaten by a hungry lion or bear when you went out to gather firewood?
In today’s more civilized world, however, we are far more likely to die of some lingering old-age ailment than of plague or warfare. Our communities have lost many of the close ties that once came from defending against shared perils. It’s hard to imagine what the future will look like, or how we’ll deal with it. Although modern-day humans no longer have to worry about our children dying of smallpox or being captured by an enemy raiding party and sold as slaves, there’s plenty of space in our minds for lesser anxieties to take up residence. Workplace worries, family spats, and political disputes get blown way out of proportion. Perhaps we try to tell ourselves life’s too short for that—but it isn’t. Not anymore.
The primitive parts of our brains still are hard-wired to be on the lookout for anything that might want to eat us. Far below the level of conscious thought, we search for patterns in whatever surrounds us. If it doesn’t all fit neatly together into something recognizable, then we get anxious. Mix that primitive reaction with the massive complexity of today’s society, and it’s no wonder modern humans have sky-high stress levels. Subconsciously, we feel as if there might be unseen predators crouching nearby at any moment, poised to spring. Because we know there really aren’t any, we find other ways to explain our fears. Maybe that lurking enemy becomes our neighbor who votes for a different political party.
How can we convince ourselves that these anxieties are just small stuff and that we’re not in fact on the brink of catastrophe? “Life is short” doesn’t seem to be useful advice in the context of reassuring ourselves that there are no monsters under society’s bed. Such advice might instead make us worry more because it reinforces the subconscious feeling that we could get killed at any moment by something we never even saw coming.
The main challenge for modern humans is learning to deal with change and complexity. So I believe we could use a new folk saying to suit today’s circumstances: Life’s too long for worrying. When we get hung up on our grudges and fears, we might easily wake up one morning 40 years later and realize how much time and energy we wasted obsessing about small problems that could have been solved long ago, if we hadn’t convinced ourselves they were gigantic obstacles.
Although the complexity of our world may often leave us feeling anxious, it also gives us many opportunities to make positive changes. We have a vast array of choices that were unimaginable even a generation ago, and we’ll have exponentially more choices as time passes and technology continues to improve. Having so many options may cause us to feel overwhelmed; but because we have such long lives, we can accomplish very ambitious goals without doing everything at once. All it really takes is finding one way to do something constructive each day. Over time the small changes add up, and we discover that we’ve created far more than we might have imagined.