Staying Sane Amidst Insanity
How can we say sane in a world that is seemingly insane?
As impossible as it may seem, I can assure you: there is a way.
As I write this, there’s a lot of craziness going on in the world. The future of the stock market is uncertain, riots are happening all over the country, and there’s a self-governing community in the middle of Seattle.
If aliens land in the next few weeks, I wouldn’t be surprised.
With everything going right now, it’s easy to get sucked into the news like a cringy reality TV show. And just like a show, everyday conversations end up gravitating toward the latest polarizing new episode.
As a result, the news takes up a massive amount of your precious mental bandwidth. Not only that, but it causes a slew of fun side effects like anxiety, frustration, and emotional exhaustion.
This poses a real problem because you have no control over this crazy world. And what’s even more problematic: if you’re not careful, it’ll make you crazy, too.
Things you can control, and things you can’t
Everything exists in one of two buckets:
- Things you can control
- Things you cannot control
Things you can control include your attitude and your actions. Your internal world.
Things you can’t control include the actions and opinions of others. The external world.
“Life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it.”
Letting yourself get caught up in the outrage of the news cycle isn’t helpful; it’s harmful. It swiftly sends you on a downward spiral of negative emotion. And for what? There’s nothing you can do to change it.
You need to accept that you have no control over the news and what’s going on in the external world. Let it go.
Allow me to paint a picture for you: you stub your toe on a coffee table.
You’re immediately flush with anger and pain. But instead of taking a deep breath and walking it off like a rational human being, you continue to stew in anger towards this coffee table.
Maybe you even yell at the coffee table and demand that it apologize to you.
Sounds crazy, right?
Of course it does. I know technology and AI are making some pretty fascinating advancements, but that coffee table isn’t going to apologize to you any time soon.
Just as you can’t control that coffee table, you can’t control what goes on in the external world. No matter how outraged you become, no matter how many angry tweets you write, the external world is not going to bend to your will.
Like the coffee table, the external world doesn’t care about you or your emotions. The external world is neutral. The only meaning it has is that which you assign to it (think beauty is in the eye of the beholder). By itself, it simply is. Therefore, giving the external world your time and energy is pointless.
The simple solution is to stop watching the news. Stop filling your brain with irrelevant garbage.
If you’re a raging news-aholic, you might be saying to yourself:
“But Andrew, I can’t just NOT watch the news. I need to be an informed citizen. I’m not going to be one of you non-contributors.“
Look, I’m not saying you shouldn’t be informed (though, it’s worth noting that the degree to which mainstream news is “informative” is highly debatable). I’m saying you shouldn’t be informed about things that don’t directly pertain to decisions you make in your day-to-day life.
If you make trades in the stock market on a regular basis, then by all means, get your financial news. But if you’re like most people, you’re just getting a portion of your paycheck deposited into a mutual fund account, regardless of how the market is doing.
In other words, no matter what you learn from the financial news, it’s not going to change what you’re doing. Therefore, there’s no use in paying attention to it. Watching the Dow go up and down is an endless emotional roller coaster that leads nowhere and leaves you depleted.
This is the case for the vast majority of news we consume.
Think about it: how is knowing about the latest police reports, lottery winners, or goofy tweets from Trump going to change the decisions you make in your day-to-day life?
News flash: it’s not. Yet, you continue to give the external world copious amounts of your finite energy and attention. It’s silly.
I could go on about the problems with legacy news stations and media (in the future, I most certainly will). But for the sake of staying on track in this piece, regarding the news and the external world:
You can’t control it; stop letting it control you.
But don’t worry, I have good news for you: your internal world is a whole different story.
What you can control
The first thing we need to establish is that you have agency. You have the power to control what you devote your time and energy to.
You are in the driver’s seat of your own mind, but your mind isn’t a Lamborghini.
Your mind is more like an elephant. It’s large and powerful, but it has its own inclinations and needs to be tamed. If you aren’t consciously directing it where to go, it’s going to be the one directing you. It will likely lead you down a path of cheap dopamine addiction to polarizing news cycles, junk food, netflix, and other empty comforts.
Instead of beating your head against a metaphorical wall over the external world, you can choose to focus on creating meaningful change in your internal world.
That is, you can choose to focus on the things you can control instead of the things you can’t.
And, ironically, when you start taking action and making positive changes on the things you can control, your anxieties and negative emotions about the things you can’t control begin to fade.
“The antidote to anxiety is action.”
“So what actions can I take to create positive change in my internal world?”
I’m glad you asked.
Before getting to the specifics, understand that there’s a reason airlines tell you to put your own oxygen mask on first when the plane is going down.
If you’re incapacitated, how can you possibly be of help to anyone else?
It may seem noble to want to put others before yourself. However, if you truly care about others, the best way to help them is by first helping yourself. That puts you in the best position to actually be of help.
The most effective way to create change in the external world is to create change in your internal world.
As I mentioned above, that means taking responsibility for your attitude and actions. Here is a good place to start:
- Move your body
- Eat healthy food
- Get adequate sleep
- Be open-minded & curious
- Keep your emotions in check
- Be compassionate & empathetic
- Give your full, honest effort at everything that you do
- Nourish your relationships (most importantly, your relationship with yourself)
Doing these things is difficult, there’s no doubt about that. But ultimately, doing them will create more fulfillment, meaning, and positive change in all aspects of your life. Most importantly, focusing on the list above, the things you can control, will help you stay sane and create positive change in your life.
Imagine what a different world we would live in if everyone did these things. If everyone was accountable to themselves.
“Let everyone sweep in front of his own door, and the whole world will be clean.”
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
But the real challenge isn’t doing these things in the literal sense.
The real challenge is being brutally honest with yourself and owning up to your shortcomings.
The path of least resistance
What do you think is easier?
Getting your finances in order? Or blaming “the system” for your debt?
Cooking and eating healthy? Or ordering take-out because you “don’t have time”?
Going to the gym? Or going home to watch Netflix because work is stressful and you just need to relax?
The answers to these questions are quite obvious. It’s always easier to blame the external world and let those circumstances dictate your behavior. Your brain is masterful at giving you excuses to stay in your comfort zone.
What’s also obvious is which of the above options are objectively superior.
It’s no secret that cooking yourself a healthy meal is far more optimal than throwing your hands up in the air, complaining that you don’t have time to cook, and getting greasy take-out food instead. So why do you do it anyway?
I have a theory: focusing on what you can control is painful and difficult.
It’s so much easier to go down the negative spiral of victimhood. It’s much harder to go to the gym, eat nourishing food, and take control of your finances. Doing so requires acknowledging your shortcomings and areas for improvement.
Your ego doesn’t like that one bit.
Your ego would instead have you believe that you’re just fine; that the real problem lies in the external world. Your ego wants you to stay in your cushy little comfort zone on the path of least resistance.
This is a trap. And falling for it has staggeringly grave consequences.
The prerequisite for creating positive change
One of the earliest lessons my Dad taught me was that “honesty is the best policy, Schutt.” I can distinctly remember him saying those words.
The reason this is so fundamental is that all relationships are built on honesty. Without honesty, there can be no trust. And without trust, a relationship cannot thrive.
That goes for any kind of relationship, whether it’s the relationship you have with your spouse, your friends, your employer, your government, your insurance company, you name it.
But most importantly, the relationship you have with yourself.
“The strength of a person’s spirit would then be measured by how much ‘truth’ he could tolerate, or more precisely, to what extent he needs to have it diluted, disguised, sweetened, muted, falsified.”
Only you are capable of knowing the true extents of your faults, and facing up to them is difficult and uncomfortable.
However the existence of a fault isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The pessimist may see a problem, but the optimist sees an opportunity for growth.
And growth (i.e. taking control of your internal world and creating meaningful change) is what you should be striving for.
Living in denial of your faults for the sake of our short-term comfort leads to long-term discomfort. It doesn’t make your faults go away, it’s just sweeping them under the rug.
Blaming the external world certainly doesn’t make them go away, either. Instead, it’ll leave you feeling bitter, disempowered, and resentful of “the way life is.”
Continually living in denial and sweeping things under the rug inevitably leads to a huge mound in the middle of your living space, one that can no longer be ignored.
Instead of playing this futile game, you can choose to sacrifice our short-term comfort in order to better yourself and improve your internal world. This leads to long-term comfort, fulfillment, and peace of mind.
But to embark on this journey requires the courage to be brutally honest with yourself. The road to self-improvement leaves no room for denial.
“The only good is knowledge and the only evil is ignorance.”
You can’t change the external world. It’s simply out of your control. Continuing to worry about it is only going to bring you more unrest. So, to find sanity and peace in a chaotic world, focus on what you can control, your internal world. Be honest with yourself and give your full effort at making positive changes.Your progress will chip away at anxious feelings.
Confronting your flaws and overcoming your self isn’t comfortable, but it’s certainly fulfilling. And that’s where you’ll find sanity.