Here's some strange food for thought:
Everything you have ever experienced - every struggle, every failure, every heartbreak, every triumph, every epiphany, every challenge- has happened to countless people before you.
We all know this on some level, yet it’s so easy to succumb to the belief that our situation is unique. No one has ever felt like this before! No one has ever been this miserable, or this happy! No one has ever had this sort of crisis! Surely we’re special.
Take a look at any q&a site and you will see numerous people asking for advice about a particular situation, whilst explaining that their case is different. The standard guidelines don't apply. Their breakup or career crisis or uncertain choice is unique.
But we’re not that different to those who came before us, whether they were born a decade or a millennium prior to us.
Billions of humans have lived and died on this earth over thousands of years and dealt with the same questions. Who am I? What should I do with my life? What happens when I die? How do I keep going when everything is so bleak and hopeless? Every human who has ever lived has had pretty much the same needs and desires - stability, love, purpose, meaning, happiness.
To learn about ourselves and the world around us, we don’t need to pour over newspapers and news sites. We don’t need to probe into our souls to understand who we are and what we mean. We don't need to always look forward. Sometimes we need to look backward and learn from the mistakes and successes of others. By doing this, we add the sum of their years to our own. It would take a dozen lifetimes to learn all the lessons I learn from reading each year.
Today I'm reading The Art of Communication and taking on a Buddhist monk's lifetime of experience surrounding meaningful communication. Yesterday I read I Will Teach You To Be Rich by Ramit Sethi and skipped a good decade's worth of financial mistakes. A few days ago, I read Siddartha and absorbed a beautiful summary of Siddartha's search for purpose. Tomorrow I'll read a book of Montaigne's essays and who knows what I will learn.
We don't need to go into the woods like Thoreau to learn the value of solitude and simplicity. We don't need to run to Alaska like Christopher McCandless to understand what freedom means. We don't need to be exiled like Seneca to comprehend the value of home.
In Cosmos, Carl Sagan writes:
“Books permit us to voyage through time, to tap the wisdom of our ancestors. The library connects us with the insight and knowledge, painfully extracted from Nature, of the greatest minds that ever were, with the best teachers, drawn from the entire planet and from all our history, to instruct us without tiring, and to inspire us to make our own contribution to the collective knowledge of the human species. I think the health of our civilisation, the depth of our awareness about the underpinnings of our culture and our concern for the future can all be tested by how well we support our libraries...You have to know the past to understand the present.”
Billions of people have experienced the same things, although the vast majority of their lives are forgotten. Yet we have books, diaries, art, architecture, and music which records their experiences.
We have art which records every color on the spectrum of human emotion and experience, every possible struggle or doubt, every moment of confusion. We can learn everything we could possibly need to know from history and from the lives of those who came before us. So, why don’t we? Why do we keep making the same mistakes, racking up the same mishaps?
In a way, it comes down to vanity. We like to think of ourselves as unique, smarter and better equipped than our ancestors, too clever to make their mistakes.
But we do.
And we do, and we do, and we do.
Daniel Gilbert writes in Stumbling on Happiness that psychologists are defined by the way they complete the sentence 'the human is the only animal that...' I'm not a psychologist (heck, I'm not anything in particular.) Nonetheless, I would end that sentence by saying that humans are the only animals that can accrue unimaginable quantities of knowledge without knowing how to make use of it.
In The Silence of Animals, (a brilliant essay collection which I can’t recommend enough), John Grey writes:
“To think of humans as freedom-loving, you must be ready to view nearly all of history as a mistake...If there is anything unique about the human animal it is that it has the ability to grow knowledge at an accelerating rate while being chronically incapable of learning from experience...History may be a succession of absurdities, tragedies and crimes; but – everyone insists – the future can still be better than anything in the past. To give up this hope would induce a state of despair.”
Meanwhile, in Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury writes:
“We do need knowledge. And perhaps in a thousand years, we might pick smaller cliffs to jump off. The books are to remind us what asses and fools we are. They’re Caesar’s praetorian guard, whispering as the parade roars down the avenue, ‘Remember, Caesar, thou art mortal.’ Most of us can’t rush around, talk to everyone, know all the cities of the world, we haven’t time, money or that many friends. The things you’re looking for, Montag, are in the world, but the only way the average chap will ever see ninety-nine per cent of them is in a book.”
To make sense of the present - both our individual lives and the bigger, global picture- we should look to the past. This doesn’t mean falling for cognitive shortcuts (namely, the narrative fallacy, survivorship bias and appeal to ancient wisdom bias.) It doesn’t mean we should see history as a template or an instruction manual. We do have to make our own paths and figure some things out for ourselves. It also doesn't mean that current events don't matter. Of course, they do. But reading every news article we come across isn't the same as being informed. Keeping up to date with minutiae doesn't teach us anything. Understanding the latest political antics or finger-pointing over a disaster doesn't answer the important questions. What makes a good leader? How do we cope with and recover from a bad one? How can we recover from and prevent disasters? How can we avoid pointless conflict and Pyrrhic victories?
I have learned that we don't just need our own experiences, we also need to accept those of others. Not because it will immunize us to mistakes and bad judgments but because, as Ray Bradbury put it, that might help us to jump off smaller cliffs and make slightly less drastic mistakes.
Between 2007 and 2011, Yann Martel (author of Life of Pi) sent the then prime minister of Canada a book every fortnight. Each book was chosen to teach the prime minister something and to create a trickle-down love of good literature among politicians. It's not much of a surprise that Martel's 'books as bullets' approach didn't work. He never received a response or any indication that the books were read. His point - that politicians could learn from classic literature, poetry and history books- is an important one. It is important because Martel was illustrating that many of the questions people (especially leaders) face have been answered long ago. And that they are there for us to learn, if we are willing to listen.