This Thought for the Day reflects on the worldly winds as the news shows them blowing through the lives of those caught up in a maelstrom they never expected
Step back from the details of several stories that have dominated the headlines recently and they seem to retell one of the oldest of all narratives. A man has risen to fame, riches and power, but things turn against him and he is facing disgrace. We must wait till the final act to discover if the fault’s his own or he’s a victim of injustice, but either is the material of tragedy.
‘All political lives,’ wrote Enoch Powell, ‘end in failure, because that is the nature of human affairs.’ Distancing ourselves from the opinions and emotions that swirl around the news can therefore show a pattern that touches our own lives. The Buddha said that those human affairs are subject to what he called ‘the Eight Worldly Winds’. There are four pairs: gain and loss, status and disgrace, praise and censure, pleasure and pain. When things are going well and we are respected and praised we think this is our just reward. But everything in life is impermanent and inconstant, and good fortune is often due as much to circumstances as merit. We grasp onto our gains and struggle against our losses, but when circumstances change, so do our fortunes and the winds that bring praise soon enough bring censure.
Writers like Shakespeare are fascinated by what happens to people when they lose the props they’ve relied on. We can find ourselves confronting the nothing that faced Macbeth as his enemies closed in. What are we left with when we lose our jobs, our careers hit the buffers, or we’re burdened by the sense that we never truly fulfilled our potential? What are we left with when the person we love stops loving us back, or turns out to be different from what we imagined? Perhaps they just change.
Tragic heroes, failed politicians and disgraced celebrities can seem to shrivel before our eyes when the wheel turns. The value of recognising the worldly winds as they affect our own lives is finding a deeper strength. If we base our emotional security and hopes for happiness on things that can’t sustain them, the Buddha suggests, we’re destined to suffer. This is even true of the most basic human instinct to seek pleasure and avoid pain. The alternative is letting go of our need for pleasure, praise and success and learning to accept the difficulties that might otherwise overwhelm us. This isn’t just grim stoicism. It means enjoying pleasures but not living for them, and sticking to what you believe in, whatever the world brings or others think.