The Torment of the Past and Future

Our brains and the way we think about the world are basically our real world super power. We are able to predict what is going to happen five minutes from now, five hours from now, and five days from now. We can remember loads of information from our past and synthesize that information in new situations to draw new conclusions. We are able to intuitively recognize what other people are thinking and to deduce how they felt in past situations or how they will feel in future situations. Our brains do incredible work to help us move through the universe and our species would not be here today without our brains’ super powers.

 

But as great as these super powers are, they can also lead us astray and cause real problems in our lives. Ruminating on things we do not like from our past or on our fears for the  future can be life ruining. We can become embarrassed, scarred, and find ourselves in so much pain from our past that we cannot enjoy our present. Similarly, we can become paralyzed with fear, disillusioned with possibilities, and stuck thinking about negative things may happen in the future, causing us to forget our present moment. In Letters from a Stoic Seneca writes, “But the chief cause of both of these ills is that we do not adapt ourselves to the present, but send our thoughts a long way ahead. And so foresight, the noblest blessings of the human race, becomes perverted. Beasts avoid the dangers which they see, and when they have escaped them are free from care; but we men torment ourselves of that which is to come as well as over that which is past.”

 

To a much greater extent than many of us do, we should probably seek out psychological services to help us better order our thoughts. Stoicism has helped me with remembering the present and has given me tools to use to avoid ruminating on the future or past. Combining psychological services with a stoic toolkit can be very helpful in a world where happiness is presented in a way that doesn’t actually reflect the things that will make us happy. We want to plan ahead and strive for a healthy life where our needs are provided for, but if we become so focused on needing out life to have a particular type of car, or so focused on what might happen if we are not able to pay certain bills, then we can ruin our health and our current lives. And if we cannot let go of the past, if we cannot look at what has happened in our life and say, “that sucked, but here is what I can learn moving forward,” then we will constantly be haunted by ghosts. Learning to be present is not just about breathing exercises and comfortable pillows. Being present is about recognizing when our minds have jumped ahead or when our minds are stuck in the past and learning to refocus the mind on the current moment, the only time where we can take any action to improve things.

Lets Consider Our Standards for Life

In Letters From a Stoic Seneca writes, “Let us try to maintain a higher standard of life than that of the multitude, but not a contrary standard; otherwise, we shall frighten away and repel the very persons whom we are trying to improve.”

 

On an initial quick read, this quote seems to be saying, live better than the masses but don’t act like you are better than everyone else. That’s good advice that has been said so many times that it is basically useless. We already all believe that we are morally superior to other people and we are especially likely, according to Robin Hanson in an interview he gave on Conversations with Tyler, to say that our group or tribe is morally  superior to others. If you give the quote a second thought however, you see that there is a deeper meaning within the idea being conveyed.

 

The first thing we should consider is what it would look like to maintain a high standard of life. In his same letter, Seneca advises that a high standard of life does not mean that one wears the nicest possible toga or that one has silver dishes laced with pure gold. A high standard of life is not about maintaining exorbitant material possessions. Advertising in the United States would make you think differently. A high standard of life is advertised to us as driving the finest sports car, demanding the best possible wrist watch, and having exquisitely crafted faucets. Seneca would argue that these things don’t create a high standard of living, but just show off our wealth. I would agree.

 

A high standard of life, Seneca suggests and I would argue, is a well ordered life in which we can live comfortably but don’t embrace the mindset that it is our possessions that define our success and value. A high standard for life means that we cultivate habits which help us be more kind and considerate. We pursue activities and possessions that help us be more effective, less impulsive, and allow us to better use our resources and intelligence.

 

Maintaining this version of a high standard of life can have the same pitfalls we may associate with the Real Housewives of LA if we don’t give thought to the second part of Seneca’s advice. Maintaining high living standards can lead us to selfishness and self-serving decisions if we don’t think about other people and how we operate as a society. Seneca’s advice is about becoming a model for other people and helping become a force that improves lives by encouraging and inspiring others. This idea was echoed in Peter Singer’s book about effective altruism, The Most Good You Can Do. Effective altruists want to direct their efforts, donations, and resources in the direction where they can have the greatest possible positive impact on the world to help the most people possible. One of the ways to do that is to inspire others to also strive to do the most good they can do. No one would follow an effective altruist who gave away all their money and lived a miserable life. But someone would follow an effective altruist who gave a substantial amount of their money to an effective and meaningful charity and still lived an enjoyable and happy life.

 

Our high standard of living in the end should be one that drives us toward continual improvement. A life that makes us more considerate, more thoughtful, less judgmental, and less impulsive. It should encourage others to live in a way that helps them be happier and healthier, rather than living in a way that suggests that having expensive things and showing off is what life is all about.

Depart Contentedly

Within Stoicism there seems to be a healthy focus on death. Seneca, Aurelius, and other Stoic philosophers constantly reminded themselves that each day they were drawing closer to their death, and that before their death both their bodies and minds would atrophy. The focus on death was meant to be a reminder, that time on earth for any one of us is short, and if we don’t use the time accordingly, we will fail to do the most with the opportunities we have.

 

Seneca writes, “No man can have a peaceful life who thinks too much about lengthening it.” Recognizing that we are mortal is scary. Knowing that we will die, we will no longer experience the world, no longer engage in relationships, and that the earth will keep spinning whether we are here or not is terrible. It is hard to imagine a world without us and the fear of missing out on amazing new things in the world is enough to keep one up at night. But striving to stay alive forever and being afraid of death at every moment is also terrible. The constant worry that one might die is likely to elevate stress hormones and bring death a little closer. Trying in vain to do nothing but extend ones life creates an unhealthy focus on death, rather than a focus that helps us engage meaningfully with our loved ones, friends, and community.

 

Seneca continues, “Rehears this thought every day, that you may be able to depart from life contentedly; for many men clutch and cling to life, even as those who are carried  down a rushing stream clutch and cling to briers and sharp rocks.” We should try to live a fulfilling and meaningful life so that if we die at any moment, we can die proud of what we have done in the last 24 hours or over the course of our life. This sense brings an awareness of our actions and how we are spending the moments of our lives. Are we on autopilot meandering around through the world, or are we truly present with our friends and loved ones? Have we just been trying to accumulate more stuff, take the coolest Instagram photos, and drive the most fancy car? Or have we tried to find ways to give back, to encourage those who are close to us, and to improve some tiny piece of the world not just for ourselves but for others as well? We all want the first set of things I mentioned, the ones that feel good and make us look cool, but we know the second set will help us sleep better at night. Remembering our death will help us shift our priorities and do more so that we can one day pass one with content instead of fear.

Thoughtful Friendships

Last week I listened to an interview with The Minimalists on the Kevin Rose Show. The Minimalists have been in my orbit for quite a while and generally focus on an approach the world based on what is necessary and what adds true value to our lives as opposed to chasing every little thing that we think we want. When we step back and look critically at the things in our life and ask ourselves why we have certain things and if we truly need them, we can begin to do more with less and remove stressful clutter.

 

One area that was briefly mentioned in the podcast was friendship and how we can bring a type of minimalist approach to our friendships. The idea was not that we should have a bare minimum number of friends in our lives, but rather that we should be thoughtful about who we spend our time with. We should look at the friends around us and ask if our friendship is beneficial for us or for our friend, ask what type of benefit and value we receive from our friendship, and ultimately we should consider whether our friendship makes us but better and happier people. This means we avoid trying to befriend people who are popular, powerful, and wealthy but generally don’t live in a way that would help us be the best versions of ourselves. We should let go of poisonous relationships that lead us to do things we don’t really want to do or lead us to become people that we don’t like.

 

Seneca wrote about this in Letters From a Stoic almost 2,000 years ago, “Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship; but when you have decided to admit him, welcome him with all your heart.” Seneca is also encouraging us to be thoughtful with our friends and to be choosy with the people we spend our time with. Rather than using friendship to try to move up a career or financial ladder, and rather than using friendship to try to look more popular, our friendships should be with people who help us think more deeply about the world, help us engage with the world in a meaningful way, and can be loyal people that we can open up with about our challenges in a way that is healthy for both of us. Once again, this doesn’t mean that we should not have any friends, but that we should work to cultivate meaningful and close friendships.

Seneca on Being Content With What We Have

“It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor,” wrote Seneca in Letters to a Stoic. A big challenge in the United States today, and across the globe in our social media connected world, is being content with what we have. There is always a temptation to do and have more. We want to have the most exotic vacation photos on Facebook, we want to have the best decorations during the holidays, and we feel like we need to get a new car when the neighbor gets a new car. The things we possess and the memories we have become stale quickly and the remedy that we turn to first is purchasing more and going further.

 

Seneca continues, “What does it matter how much a man has laid up in his safe, or in his warehouse, how large are his flocks and how fat his dividends, if he covets his neighbor’s property, and reckons, not his past gains, but his hopes of gains to come? Do you ask what is the proper limit to wealth? It is, first, to have what is necessary, and, second, to have what is enough.”

 

A key theme of stoicism is that we cannot rely on standards and measures set by other people to determine our own value or whether we are successful. We cannot compare ourselves to other people who have had different opportunities and challenges in their own lives. The best we can hope for is good luck and to do the best with what we have. These ideas become very freeing and have become very popular following the great recession where many hard working individuals ran into an economic downturn and faced obstacles that were beyond their control. Defining success by things that can be measured from the outside always leaves you in a place where your own success is beyond your control.

 

Seneca would describe the state of needing other people’s approval and needing certain possessions to impress people as being in a state of true poverty. If you can only feel wealthy and successful because you have more than someone else, then you will never be able to enjoy the richness of life. Self-awareness and a deep focus on the world around us helps us to see great wonders in even the mundane and banal aspects of life. Having material and financial success is great and can make for a more exciting life, but you will never be able to enjoy that life if you cannot find your own value in who you are as a person separate from the adulation and praise of others. If you can only define success for yourself as somehow being more than another person, you will always live in poverty and fail to truly enjoy the moment you have and place you are at right now.

Seneca’s Reminder to Get Stuff Done

As I was waking up this morning and getting my coffee going, I was thinking about some things that I have recently needed to do, but have not worked on. I’m usually not too much of a procrastinator, but a few things have slipped by the last couple of weeks. A quote from Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic returned to me this morning with perfect timing.

 

Seneca wrote, “Lay hold of today’s task, and you will not need to depend so much upon tomorrow’s. While we are postponing, life speeds by.” There are a couple of things I would like to work on, but that I have not managed to prioritize in my life. I continuously end up feeling more pressure as I delay what I intend to do and waste time with things that I like but that I know are not as valuable. Seneca’s quote, I hope, will help me refocus where my attention is and what my priorities are.

 

Seneca is one of the Big Three in Stoicism which generally focuses on being present in the moment through building our self-awareness. When we take a moment to really think about where we are, what our situation is, what we are doing, how we are feeling, and what pressures we or others have placed on ourselves, we can understand ourselves and approach the world more objectively. This type of self-awareness can become a feedback loop that helps us set our priorities and identify what is working well and what is not working well in our lives. Self-awareness and a well grounded sense of presence can help us separate from the story we tell about who we are and refocus on the daily actions we can take to move forward in the best way possible.

 

Seneca’s advice is not anything special, but if you consider his advice within the larger stoic context of self-awareness and presence, you can see that he is correct. We continuously have less  time left in our lives to do the things we want or to make the world a better place. We can spend our time doing easy and self-serving activities, or we can take advantage of the time we have now to do the things that matter to make our lives and the lives of others better. The choice is ours and with some attention and focus we can make the most of the situation we find ourselves in.

Physical Conflict and Military Economies

I’m currently reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer. Shirer takes us on a journey from the rise of the Nazis in Germany through the Second World War to Hitler and Nazi Germany’s defeat. I’m only a couple of hundred pages in, and just finished a section about Nazi Germany’s economy in the period leading up to war. A question I had was how a downtrodden and economically distressed nation managed to become economically sufficient and even able to build itself up to host the Olympics in 1936.  A military-industrial complex turned out to be the answer. German rearmament “creatively” funded and controlled by the state pulled Germany out of its terrible recession to the great detriment of humanity.

 

We know what soon followed in Germany beginning in 1939 after their economic turnaround driven largely by war preparations. Wars and armies have given us many scientific advances and breakthroughs, but they also support dangerous world views that will limit us in a globalized world. “The sooner we start thinking globally, as a planet-spanning species, rather than as isolated warrens of very different creatures, the sooner we’ll be able to do away with physical conflict entirely, instead spending our valuable time, energy, and resources on productivity and progress,” writes Colin Wright in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be.

 

Nazi Germany, the United States, and other nations have at different times fueled their economies by building up their army and military capacities. Scientific advances, new technology, and better safety equipment have come from the research and development of modern armies. At the same time however, armies exist to protect us from a dangerous “them” and allow us to entrench the idea that we are different from someone else and will need to use our physical strength to defend ourselves against their dangerous attacks. There is certainly a threat out there and a potential loss of innocent life if we don’t have something to protect us, but I think Wright and others would argue that we direct a lot of resources toward defending ourselves when we could be directing resources toward fostering better connections and further development of all humans globally.

 

Wright and I seem to be on the side of “a rising tide lifts all boats.” The more we can do to improve everyone, from the most globally poor in desolate and devastated parts of the world to those who live in the most productive countries, the more our own lives will benefit. The alternative view is that the world is zero-sum, meaning that the pie is only so big and for anyone else to have more, we would have less. The zero-sum frame doesn’t see humanity as a global force but rather as collective groups of individuals who each have their own resources, skills, and abilities. Each pocket of humanity is responsible for its own well-being and advances, and each nation must do its own work to make itself great.

 

My argument is that approaching the world in this way will ultimately lead to fewer scientific advances, delayed development of the nations that need it the most, and instability that will breed resentment toward nations at the top and potential terrorism. That instability will create fear and further drive the need for a substantial military for protection, further driving a wedge between the nations that are successful and those who are not. What I want to see is a world that includes everyone, partly because we don’t know where the next genius to develop the next world changing technology will come from, and partly because each human should have their own chance to flourish and live a full life with reasonable living standards. This can only be done if we see ourselves globally as a single humanity and not as dangerous enemies.