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.

Individual Circumstances

For many of us, things in our life and our mental states begin to break down when we look around and compare ourselves to others. We can be perfectly happy on our own, enjoying our own flow of life, but when we see the neighbors buy a new car, when a friend posts vacation pictures on Facebook, and when a family member gets a promotion, we suddenly feel inadequate. Conversely, when we have overcome obstacles it is easy to look at everyone else who has not been as successful as us and look down on them, criticizing them for not being as strong as us and for not making the smart decisions that we had to make to get to where we are.

 

In my first example of comparing ourselves to others, I am referring to jealousy and envy that we can feel relative to others. Our status in the world will always be relative, which means that as someone else does better, our status relative to  that person is in a worse position. There is no global status meter ranking us all, but we unconsciously rank our status against one another all the time. It is stressful, and it is also all made up. Recognizing our status comparing impulses and choosing not to allow these impulses to drive our lives will free up our mind, our goals, and what we feel we must do to show that we are just as successful as other people in our orbit.

 

The second example from the opening paragraph of comparing ourselves to others is something I have been thinking about more recently. Once we become successful, I would argue that we have an incentive to over-hype the obstacles we faced and to make it even more challenging for other people to follow in our footsteps. If I had come from nothing and succeeded, and a hundred thousand people after me also came from nothing and found success, then my achievements would look smaller. If, however, I came from nothing and achieved great success and suddenly found myself in a rare group of individuals with very few other people able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, then my accomplishments would look even more impressive. What I did to achieve success may not have changed, but how it is perceived will change based on how many others also become successful. We have plenty of incentives to build up our story, trump up the obstacles we had to overcome, and to then criticize those who don’t make it. We shouldn’t believe the story we tell ourselves, because it is probably and exaggeration and will likely make life unnecessarily challenging for others, just so we can hold a special place in our own minds and in the eyes of society.

 

In his book Becoming Who We Need To Be, Colin Wright writes the following, “Don’t compare your efforts to that of your peers. Everything you do should be customized for your individual circumstances.” We never know all of the challenges that another person faces. We never know what advantages another person has in life. And ultimately, for ourselves, neither of those things matter. What does matter is whether or not we are making efforts to be well-rounded individuals and whether we exist in society for ourselves or with the goal of making all of society better for everyone. Comparing ourselves to others in an attempt to monitor who is working hard, who is cheating, who deserves what they get, and who is high or low status will simply burn us out and lead to negative thinking and negative interactions with others.

A Harmful Sentiment

I am fascinated with tribalism. We all have a part of us that looks around at the world and recognizes who is like us, who is different from us, what people are part of our family, and how people in our group behave. Everyone in our in-group stands above the people in our out-groups. Those “others” seem to take on any negative qualities that we want to assign to them. People who are less wealthy than the people in our tribe are less intelligent or lazy, and that is why they are not as well off. People who are doing better than our tribe financially are greedy or privileged elites and don’t really understand what it is like to be a true American. Our tribe, however, is full of hard working, smart, and all around good people.

 

We all seem to share these tribal tendencies, and they can be harmful when we start to pull into our own group and ascribe negative qualities to all the other groups out there. Colin Wright addresses our tribal behaviors in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be by looking at “America First” from a tribal perspective. Wright describes the benefits of a globalized community and population. Using the insights, developments, and tools created around the world to raise the standard of living for everyone, and not just to use discoveries in one part of the world to improve that part of the world. He writes, “People in the US should be taken care of, certainly, but to paint our relationships in those terms [America First] implies that we have to be utterly selfish and introverted in our dealings with others, when in fact, being more open and generous will bear much greater fruit. That sharing our strengths and celebrating the strengths of others is somehow detrimental to our well-being is an ignorant idea easily sold to a mistrustful populace.”

 

Wright argues that America First trumps up some of the worst aspects of our tribal nature. It highlights who is in our tribe and who is outside of our tribe and focuses solely on increasing the status of those in our tribe. The sentiment abandons the idea that improving the lives of everyone will improve our own lives, and seeks only to expand the economy, fortunes, and standards of living within our own tribe. This may work and we may have great prosperity for the few who are part of our tribe, but putting ourselves ahead of others so openly and blatantly while also denigrating those outside our tribe may create extreme mistrust and anger. Stability, fairness, and long-term well-being may be sacrificed in our selfish quest to primarily enrich ourselves.

Getting Beyond Economic Success

In his book Becoming Who We Need To Be author Colin Wright examines the way we think about and operate as a society around money. He suggests that money has grown in importance and engulfed every aspect and function of our lives in ways that are damaging but often hidden from us. He writes, “As we grow into adults who care about things like self-actualization and happiness defined in ways other than the color-within-the-lines manuals we’ve been provided, we still often limit ourselves to defining happiness in economic terms. If I can make this much money each month, I can leave this soul-sucking job I hate. If I can reduce my expenses, I won’t need to work so much and can free up time to spend on that hobby I’ve been neglecting. If I invest properly now, I may be able to not work at all at some point in the distant future.”

 

Wright argues that money has become our default measurement of success and happiness.  The idea that we can be both happy or successful without large amounts of money does not align with the ways we actually live our lives. We see the story of people getting away from this mode of thinking in movies all the time, but we rarely live our lives with something other than money at the center of all that we do. As a result, our goals, daily routines, and attention are all focused on helping us make more money or use our money.

 

Money itself will not make us happy, but it does provide us with new opportunities. I recently listened (I think to an episode of Tyler Cowen’s podcast but I can’t remember) to an economist suggest that money does not make us more happy above a certain level, but that our level of life satisfaction does continue to increase as we have more money. Our overall happiness may not continue to increase as we have more money, but having more money seems to open up new possibilities in our lives and give us more ability to engage in the world in a satisfying manner.

 

A question we should think about, is whether there is a way to change how we approach life so that we can have a high level of satisfaction without needing ever more money. Does our satisfaction come from distinguishing ourselves from others by purchasing court side tickets to the game? Do we get satisfaction from displaying our status with a large RV? Is our satisfaction contingent upon fancy trips and traveling to exotic places? I don’t know if there is specific research around this idea, but perhaps we can shift what we use on an individual level as our default for success away from money and begin to find more satisfaction in our lives in things that are more meaningful than purchasing expensive and fancy items that show off to our Facebook friends and broadcast our status. Exactly what the alternate version of success will be for us will likely vary from person to person, but it will probably favor relationships and connections with others over material possessions and purchases.

Make Up Your Own Fiction

I am really fascinated by ideas of our personal narratives and how powerful the stories we tell ourselves can be. On some level I think we all understand this, and recently I have been thinking about the power of our narrative within political ideology. The Democratic Party seems to be criticized for creating a narrative where where people are hopeless and can’t make it without a little help. Conversely, the Republican Party seems to operate in a narrative where people can always pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they just try harder. I don’t think either of these simple narratives about how the parties treat people is really accurate, and it is not what I am actually writing about today, just a quick example of how narratives can drive so much of our beliefs and ideas.

 

A quote from Fernando Pessoa in his book The Book of Disquiet translated by Margaret Jull Costa shows the power of narrative, “The truly superior (and the happiest) men are those who, perceiving that everything is a fiction, make up their own novel before someone else does it for them…” What Pessoa is saying is that we can all recognize the power of narratives in our own lives, and create our own stories rather than try to live up to stories that other people have made for us. His ideas in this quote align with a lot of the Stoic ideas and thoughts that I try to live by. His quote acknowledges that we are under pressure from other people to be the person that other people want us to be and to achieve a picture of success created by someone else. Writing our own story, however, gives us the chance to be our own person and to pursue a life on our own terms.

 

“Since life is essentially a mental state and everything we do or think is only as valuable as we think it is, it depends on us for any value that it may have.” A painting is only as valuable as we decide it is. A car is only valuable if we all recognize it as such. Any given activity is only valuable if we decide it is a valuable way to spend our time. There are certainly things we can all recognize as more valuable than others based on the use, form, and function of the thing, but at the end of the day, nothing has inherent value just on its own unless we decide that there is a value attached to it. We should all be aware of the value we place in ourselves, the things in our lives, and how we live so that we can craft a story about who we are that creates meaningful value in our lives and in the lives of others.

The Scale of Our Pain

I usually have one of two feelings when I fly into a large city or walk through a large crowd of people. I either feel insignificant and tiny, recognizing that whatever I do will eventually fade into oblivion among a sea of billions of people. Or, I feel proud to be part of an incredible collection of brilliant and capable human beings, each experiencing the world from a unique point of view, each with our own desires and feelings, and all connected by our shared humanity. Regardless of which sensation comes to mind, both help me recognize that what is going on inside my head, the reality of the world that I have constructed for myself, is not the full scope of human experience and is nothing more than just a world inside of me. Whatever fears, doubts, plans, successes, and assumptions I have are not any more real than the same thoughts going through the millions of people that might be living in the big city that I am flying into.

 

Recently, an entry in Fernando Pessoa’s book, The Book of Disquiet, has given me the same type of feeling. In a section of Margaret Jull Costa’s translation, Pessoa writes about pain, and about how our pain can feel so infinite and overwhelming to us, yet at the same time be so small and insignificant within the scope of the universe. In 1933 he wrote, “To consider our greatest anguish an incident of no importance, not just in terms of the life of the universe, but in terms of our own souls, is the beginning of knowledge.” When we start to recognize that we are not the center of the universe and when we can acknowledge that the severity of our emotions and feelings do not make them more real or more important in the scope of the world, we can start to see more objectively and without a filter orienting everything around us.

 

“It isn’t true that life is painful or that it’s painful to think about life,” Pessoa writes, “What is true is that our pain is only as serious and important as we pretend it to be.” Anything in our lives can take on extreme meaning and value. At the same time, anything in our life can be tossed out without care. What we focus on, where we put our attention and energy, and what we decide to be important is what will become our reality. Pessoa recognized this through his extreme self reflection, and from this point he became aware of his own insignificance and how little his thoughts and desires truly mattered to the rest of the universe. Any pain that he felt is simply a pain that he felt at that moment. Any experience he had was fleeting, because he was not a permanent fixture in the universe and not something that overwhelmingly shaped the universe.

 

Seeing this in ourselves and becoming aware of who we are and where we exist in the world is important if we want to do the most good with the time that we have. If we choose to live completely within our own mind, then we risk living in a way where we put ourselves before all others. We will seek more and more and attempt to raise ourselves above others while decreasing the pain we feel. Alternatively, we can step outside ourselves and try to engage in the world in a way that will improve the interactions between us and everyone else. We can try to make the world a better place for other individuals to interact within, even if they are not interacting with us directly, and even if we don’t directly see a benefit to ourselves. The reason to live in this world is because it is a more accurate reflection of the reality we live within. Our brain will only ever perceive so much, and rather than making up stories about what it means, we can live in a world where we try to continually develop a more objective understanding of what we see and experience, so that we can do the most good.

 

Pessoa closes in writing, “Seeing myself frees me from myself. I almost smile, not because I understand myself, but because, having become other, I am no longer able to understand myself.”