I once heard an interview with a woman who, as a young girl, was interned at a Japanese camp in the Philippines during World War II. Her father was sent to a POW camp, and she spent the entire war with her mother and brother in a camp for civilians.
Their situation, while nowhere near as bad as the camps for the men, was terrible. They endured hunger, illness, and shortages of every kind. There was some abuse by the guards, but she said that perhaps the most dispiriting thing she saw was interns cheating and fighting with other interns. Scarce resources, bad behavior.
And then came the most interesting part of the interview, the part that sticks with me even though I heard this many years ago. She said that she and her brother came through the ordeal with a strong and positive mental outlook, something she credited to her mother. The other children were constantly being told by their mothers that the world is broken. Things shouldn’t be like this. Someone will rescue us and the world will be set right. Until then, everything is broken. Her mother, on the other hand, said: This is how the world is. This is where we live. Sometimes people behave like this, and you need to understand it and deal with it.
The children (and their parents) who were waiting for the world to get fixed, they suffered, thinking they just had to hang on. Years passed without the hoped-for rescue, and they stewed in bitterness or despair. The ones who accepted the situation as it was fared better. Face the world as it is, and try to be decent. The world isn’t broken. That’s just how things are now. It’s the difference between clinging to the ceiling and standing on the ground.
This interview came back to me in 2020 as I, along with you and everyone else in the world, struggled to deal with the pandemic. You can tell yourself “Everything is upside-down and broken, but it will get fixed.” Maybe it will be fixed by god, or maybe by scientists. But I have long believed that the best way through an ordeal is to remember that internment camp. Accept the world as it is and try to be decent. Things might be get better. They might get worse. It’s hard to say. But we still need to make soup for dinner.
Steven Callahan gained fame as a sailor who, after his boat sank in the middle of the Atlantic, managed to survive for 76 days before being rescued. He made a similar observation about attitude and outlook. You can’t count on being rescued. You have to keep busy honing the craft of living from one day to the next with no end in site. This was the only way to manage the maddening frustration of seeing an unresponsive ship go by in the distance. You have to reach a point where rescue, if it comes, will simply interrupt a busy day of taking care of business.
As I mentioned, that interview about the internment camp stuck with me. But I was reminded recently of the notion of radical acceptance by this timely piece:
The crises won’t stop coming. Radical acceptance is the key to coping.
Stop acting like this is all so new! The world is old. You’re not so special. Get over it and make some soup.