Sometimes the best way to realign ourselves is to think, “What if I were a peasant?” At the very least, I find it helpful because there are so many things we have now that we didn’t. There’s the basic stuff like vaccines, air conditioners, electric lights, washing machines, and so forth, but it’s more than that.
The average peasant probably never left their little village more than once. Perhaps a single person from their village left to get supplies from a big city, traveling for weeks to buy a fabulous luxury, like a ribbon and other important things for farming. Reading about old cities, it’s clear that the cities were disgusting, and diseases were everywhere. This is largely before the advent of sanitation systems (ignoring the Indus River Valley and Rome), so the filth would likely shock us to our core if we were to travel back to see it.
With the strict hierarchies, abuses of civil rights (not that they even understood the concept), a people’s only focus was survival. They didn’t have to deal with the higher questions, because their local religious or magical specialist told them everything they needed to know. When we have time to think about the premises and beliefs we hold, things get more complicated. We start to consider why we are here, we begin to have this idea that we are meant to be here for a reason. Or, at the very least, we tend to look for a reason.
It is in this stage that there is a proclivity we have to wish we were back in the past. After all, if we lived in some ancient Greek time, we wouldn’t have to wonder about our lot in life, we would trust it to be destined, with none of the ambiguity of modern life where the roles themselves change faster than our biology can keep up. Even for the religious, faith becomes more difficult when we have more control over our actions. If you want to honor God as a peasant, you go to church, don’t steal your neighbor’s cow, etc. If you want to honor God now, you have to watch your behavior in a far more complex social situation, likely doing far more intellectual work.
But here’s the catch: we shouldn’t want to be in the past. For as much existential pain quelling going back in history might solve, the worse and worse the physical circumstances get. Humans need stress, need pain. Being uncomfortable motivates us to get out and do things. If we were perfect, we would have no motivation for existence. When we are okay internally, we are likely focusing on surviving the external. When we are okay externally, we are likely focusing on surviving the internal. The burden and type of stress have changed, but everyone is suffering, no matter where or when they are.
We have a limited amount of control over what happens around us, and what happens inside our own heads. To be sure, we are more in control than we might think, but there is always a wild element involved. We aren’t sure about the future, our faulty memories may make us unsure about the past, but we can always find solace in the moment (Thus the success of things like meditation and mindfulness in helping anxiety and depression). Whether or not you have faith in an afterlife or the divine or even a plan for your existence, the fact is you are here right now.
You are not alone in your hurting, and you are not alone in your rejoicing. Whatever this life business is, you are alive. You are living, and you didn’t ask for it, so why should you feel guilty for it? You exist, and just like everyone else, you are doing your best. It is a wonderful thing are you here and you are here right now. The pain you feel would always be there in some form, but the beautiful thing about where we are right now is that we have the means to try and find the best of it. We may always suffer in some way, but we can change how we deal with it, and thereby survive it, so we can make the most out of what we have.