Having a Bad Day? Think 536.

Going straight to the fiery pits of hell would have been preferable to living at that time.

Sooner or later we all have a day that we wish we could have skipped. It’s part of life. Don’t let anyone make you feel guilty for feeling sadness, anger, or disappointment. The so-called “negative emotions” are just as valid as the positive ones, and if you squash them down too often, you’ll lose the ability to express them in healthy ways, and you may even become unable to identify those feelings when you’re experiencing them. This could render you incapable of resolving the issue.

I’m not one to tell people that they should let a smile be their umbrella. First of all, it’s condescending and rude, and it discounts what people may be going through. It also sets people up for failure if they’re still working through their feelings. It makes them feel guilty for having a legitimate reaction to a bad situation.

No. Lean into your grief and frustration, I say. That way you can process it, work through it, and move on. It’s never good to let things fester.

There is no point in comparing someone else’s tragedy to your own. Hardships are like gaseous elements. They tend to expand to fill up your personal space. What may not seem like a big deal to you can seem catastrophic to someone else.

People are entitled to their emotions. If you find yourself wanting to say, “You shouldn’t feel like that,” please think twice. It never ends well.

Having said that, though, I will admit that when I feel like I’ve been stuck in Eeyore mode for an uproductively long time, a bit of perspective helps me get through these rough patches. (It’s important that this perspective comes from within, though. If you say something like, “Think of the starving Armenians” to me, you’ll only remind me of my mother, and it won’t make that burnt Thanksgiving turkey any more palatable.)

Perspective can change my attitude. And attitude is everything, if it’s used as a tool in one’s own emotional toolbox. However, the whole attitude concept should never be used as a weapon to wield against someone else when you’re wanting to feel emotionally superior.

Has “snap out of it” or “get over it” ever worked on you? No? Then don’t blurt that out to others.

When I am casting about for a little personal perspective, though, I find the year 536 to be something worth contemplating. Many scientists believe that was the worst year in human history to date, and for very good reason. I’m fairly certain that I wouldn’t have survived it, but I’m grateful that my ancestors managed to. I think going straight to the fiery pits of hell would have been preferable to living in the Northern hemisphere at the time.

Imagine this. It’s early 536, and you’re primarily focused on surviving the winter. You are grateful when the sun breaks through the clouds and bounces off the snow, practically blinding you. Your life expectancy is around 30 years, so you take comfort wherever you can find it. What you don’t know yet is that that will be the last time you will see a patch of blue sky for the next 18 months.

Soon, your whole world will be enveloped in a mysterious fog that seems to thicken with time. The sun, while visible, looks like a dim blue ball, and you cast no shadows, even at high noon. And this goes on day after day, month after month. I can barely get through a Pacific Northwest winter with my sanity intact. I can’t imagine enduring 18 months of it, especially without knowing its cause or if it will ever end.

If you were living in some parts of Europe or Asia at the time, the temperatures dropped around 36 degrees F. China reported snow in August. Crops failed, plunging the world into famine. Starvation is a horrible way to go. To add insult to injury, wars seemed to be breaking out all over the Byzantine Empire.

And while people were struggling to get past these horrors, it happened again 4 years later, causing the temperatures to drop yet again that summer. People must have thought that they were being cursed by God. Given that we’re only now figuring out what caused this catastrophe, it must have seemed like an ominous mystery to those living at the time.

But wait. There’s more. All of this famine and pestilence led to the first significant bubonic plague breaking out in the following year, which killed off about half of the people that were left in the Mediterranean alone, and that hastened the demise of the eastern Roman Empire. The plague seems to have been carried by infected rats, and those rats were on the move because, like the humans, they were desperate to find food. Documents from the time describe millions of people dying, people vomiting blood in the streets, piles of corpses and the persistent stench of death.

We have all seen what our relatively brief pandemic lockdown has done to the country. The disasters of 536-543 destroyed the world economy so profoundly that it did not recover to pre-disaster levels until the year 640. Just imagine that. When you’re only going to live 30 years to begin with, that means many generations suffered without hope for nearly 100 years.

Based on documents from the time, along with tree ring data and ice core samples, historians and scientists now believe that this whole situation started with a gigantic volcanic eruption, probably in Iceland.  It threw so much ash into the atmosphere that it caused a volcanic winter that persisted for 18 months. Then there were subsequent eruptions in other locations. All this led to war, famine, pestilence, plague, and a century-long economic disaster.

So, yeah, when I’m seeking perspective, all I have to say to myself is 536. I’m thinking of having that tattooed on my arm in a colorful gothic font. Portable perspective.



Author: The View from a Drawbridge

I have been a bridgetender since 2001, and gives me plenty of time to think and observe the world.

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