“Fighting the last war”

Part of the Maginot Line in France
Part of the Maginot Line in France (By John C. Watkins V from Wikipedia)

What can the Maginot Line in France teach us about problem solving? It helped me discover a flaw in my thinking, an error in the way I’ve been dealing with an important issue in my life. It showed me the danger of “fighting the last war.”

The Maginot Line was France’s response to the rising threat of Nazi Germany. The French government looked at their experiences in World War I and thought building fortifications along their border with Germany was the best way to defend themselves from attack. Their plan proved inadequate against Germany’s updated weapons and tactics. It was an example of the old adage, “Generals always fight the last war, especially if they have won it.”

This isn’t just true for generals, and the fear of defeat, not the complacency of victory, can cause us to fight the last war.

I’ve been afraid of getting sick in my fifties the way my parents did. So, I focused on my health, got regular checkups, and tried with occasional success to keep my weight under control. Recent changes in our family and increased stress made this harder. Actually, I made it harder. The more my weight went up, the more I panicked, and the more stress I put to myself. All of this caused me to gain more weight and start the cycle again. Every symptom became a cause for alarm. Even when my doctors told me that things were normal, I couldn’t believe it. When they said that I can be active and healthy in my fifties, I couldn’t shake the image of Mom’s stroke or Dad’s diabetic heart attack.

It wasn’t until a stupid accident that I realized what I was doing to myself. And it was stupid. I put a small stepladder on the wrong kind of surface and wore the wrong type of shoes, and I found myself sprawled out on the bushes on our front lawn. My right leg must have hit the stepladder on my way down. Worried that I might have broken something, I went to the doctor. It turns out that I just gave myself a nasty bruise, and I need to ice it and take it easy for a few days.

I felt foolish, not just about the accident, but how I’ve been handling my health in general. My fear of getting sick was making me sick. The more I worried, the harder it was to do what I needed to be healthy.

You need to be aware of your body. Call 9-1-1 (or the emergency phone number in your area) if you are facing a life-threatening situation. For unusual, but not immediately threatening conditions, call your doctor. By doing these things, you’re dealing with the situation you are experiencing at that moment — not a situation you fear might happen. You are acting with awareness, not fear or complacency.

We can’t let past experiences blind us to what is happening now. As stock brokerages put it, “Past performance doesn’t guarantee future results.” The real problems we face are usually things we didn’t anticipate, such as when I got appendicitis.

With those insights, I’m starting to seek a calmer, more conscious approach in getting myself in shape and avoiding the problems my parents had. Although I know the threat to my health still exists, I can’t beat them by fighting the last war — especially when I fight it from fear.