But occasionally, life places us in a situation where our normal long-range hopeful way of thinking grows impossible. You’ve had a car accident; a very bad one. For weeks, it seemed like you might not make it at all, now you’re out of a coma and back home, but you still have multiple broken bones, serious bruises and constant migraines. It’s unclear from here when you’ll be going back to work — or whether you ever will. When someone asks how things are, one answer seem to fit above all: we’re taking it one day at a time.
Or imagine that a person is 89, mentally agile but very slow on their feet and often in pain. They had a fall last month and their left knee is badly arthritic. Yesterday they did some gardening. Today they may go to the shops for the first time in a while. You ask their carer how they are: we’re taking it one day at a time.
Or you’re a new parent. It was a very difficult birth, the baby had jaundice and required a blood transfusion — and now, finally, mother and child are home. The baby cries a lot in the night and has to take some medicines that aggravate the stomach, but last night was good enough and hopefully today, if the weather holds, there’s a chance of taking a trip to the park, to see the daffodils. How is it all going? We’re taking it one day at a time.
These may be extreme scenarios and a natural impulse is to hope that we will never encounter them — but they contain valuable teachings for anyone with a tendency to ignore their own advantages, that is, for all of us. One-day-at-a-time-thinking reminds us that, in many cases, our greatest enemy is that otherwise critical nectar: hope and the perplexing emotion it tends to bring with it, impatience. By limiting our horizons to tonight, we are girding ourselves for the long haul and remembering that an improvement may best be achieved when we manage not to await it too ardently. Our most productive mood may be a quiet melancholy, with which we can ward off the temptations of rage or mania and fully imbibe the moderate steadfastness required to do fiddly things: write a book, bring up a child, repair a marriage or work through a mental breakdown.
Taking it day by day means reducing the degree of control we expect to be able to bring to bear on the uncertain future. It means recognising that we have no serious capacity to exercise our will on a span of years and should not therefore disdain a chance to secure or one or two minor wins in the hours ahead of us. We should — from a new perspective — count ourselves immensely grateful if, by nightfall, there have been no further arguments and no more seizures, if the rain has let off and we have found one or two interesting pages to read.
As life as a whole grows more complicated, we can remember to unclench and smile a little along the way, rather than jealously husbanding our reserves of joy for a finale somewhere in the nebulous distance. Given the scale of what we are up against, knowing that perfection may never occur, and that far worse may be coming our way, we can stoop to accept with fresh gratitude a few of the minor gifts that are already within our grasp.
We might look with fresh energy at a cloud, a duck, a butterfly or a flower. At twenty-two, we might scoff at the suggestion — for there seem so many larger, grander things to hope for than these evanescent manifestations of nature: romantic love, career fulfillment or political change. But with time, almost all one’s more revolutionary aspirations tend to take a hit, perhaps a very large one. One encounters some of the intractable problems of intimate relationships. One suffers the gap between one’s professional hopes and the available realities. One has a chance to observe how slowly and fitfully the world ever alters in a positive direction. One is fully inducted to the extent of human wickedness and folly — and to one’s own eccentricity, selfishness and madness. And so natural beauty may take on a different hue; no longer a petty distraction from a mighty destiny, no longer an insult to ambition, but a genuine pleasure amidst a litany of troubles, an invitation to bracket anxieties and keep self-criticism at bay, a small resting place for hope in a sea of disappointment; a proper consolation — for which one is finally ready, on an afternoon walk, to be appropriately grateful.
Vincent Van Gogh was admitted to the Saint-Paul mental asylum in Saint-Remy in southern France in May of 1889, having lost his mind and tried to sever his ear. At the start of his stay, he mostly lay in bed in the dark. After a few months, he grew a little stronger and was able to go out into the garden. And it was here that he noticed, in a legendary act of concentrated aesthetic absorption, the gnarled roots of a southern pine, the blossom on an apple tree, a caterpillar on its way across a leaf and — most famously — the bloom of a succession of purple irises. In his hands these became like the totemic symbols of a new religion oriented towards a celebration of the transcendent beauty of the everyday.
His Vase with Irises is no sentimental study of a common flower: it is the work of a pivotal figure in Western culture struggling to make it to the end of the day without doing himself in — and clinging on, very tightly indeed, with the hands of a genius, to a reason to live.
It’s normal enough to hold out for all that we want. Why would we celebrate hobbling, when we wish to run? Why accept friendship, when we crave passion? But if we reach the end of the day and no one has died, no further limbs have broken, a few lines have been written and one or two encouraging and pleasant things have been said, then that is already an achievement worthy of a place at the altar of sanity. How natural and tempting to put one’s faith in the bountifulness of the years, but how much wiser it might be be to bring all one’s faculties of appreciation and love to bear on that most modest and most easily-dismissed of increments: the day already in hand.
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