Don’t Run Out To Meet Your Suffering

I’m not sure what it is about American culture today, but we seem to be really good at worrying about almost everything. We fear lots of uncertainties and spend a lot of time uptight about things that might go wrong. While a  certain level of worry is ok, being what encourages us to use calendars, set reminders, and buy life insurance, we often slip into continual dread and fear that everything is going to crash.

 

“How often has the unexpected happened!” Writes Seneca in Letters from a Stoic, “How often has the expected never come to pass! And even though it is ordained to be, what does it avail to run out to meet your suffering?”

 

The first line of the quote above is where many of us seem  to live our lives, at least when we are dealing with fear and anxiety. We worry about the wrongs that could happen and about the misfortune that could strike at any moment. Ruminating in this state has the power to push us into depression, ruin our health, and deteriorate our relationships, potentially even bringing about the terrible outcomes we originally feared.

 

But that is not all of Seneca’s quote. What we believe is certain to happen often isn’t. What we predict won’t always come to pass, and while sometimes that may be a huge negative, there is no reason to live within that negativity before it has reached us. We shouldn’t run forward and live with what we fear will happen, or live with the fear the something we terrible will unexpectedly happen before it has. Don’t run out to meet your suffering.

 

Seneca continues, “Even bad fortune is fickle. Perhaps it will come, perhaps not; in the meantime it is not. So look forward to better things.” 

 

All we have in life is the current moment. We can generally anticipate the range of things that will happen in the next moment of our lives and we can build smart plans for the future, but we live in the here and now, not in the past and not in the future our minds are planning. The good that we hope for may play out, but things may also go poorly. If we constantly live ahead of our current moment, we will be distraught by the possible bad things that could happen. Seneca encourages us to remember that the good and the bad might not come, and that as a response we should lean toward being hopeful and use the current moment to try to shape a positive future. Don’t be stuck ruminating over the negative what-ifs of the future and ultimately ruin where you are right now.

Considering Death

I’m only in my late 20’s, and while I recognize that one day I will die, I am still in the somewhat invincible feeling stage of life. It is easy to think that life will always continue on as it has, and thinking about death and a world existing without my conscious thought is not pleasant. However, I believe that remembering our impermanence on this planet is important if we want to use our time to meaningfully contribute to a world that is better when we leave than when we arrived. Despite being young, I still try to consider death.

 

This is a notion that is common among stoic thinkers today and was presented in writing by Stoic thinkers like Marcus Aurelius and Seneca a couple thousand years ago. By reflecting regularly on their own mortality, these stoic thinkers were able to develop clear senses of the importance of their lives and the actions they took. They could be more considerate in how they lived and how they approached each day.

 

In Letters from a Stoic Seneca writes, “death, however, should be looked in the face by young and old alike. We are not summoned according to our rating on the censor’s list. Moreover, no one is so old that it would be improper for him to hope for another day of existence.”

 

Planning is important in our lives, but not as important as ensuring that in the present moment we are making the most out of the faculties available to us. In any given moment, we could fall victim to tragedy, and while the universe itself may not care and while the world will continue to spin, stoics argue that we should live in a way that will make our absence noticed. That is not to say we should strive for fame, glory, or riches, but that we should strive to live in a way where we make meaningful contributions to the world to help it become a better place for ourselves and for others.

 

Seneca continues, “every day ought to be regulated as if it closed the series, as if it rounded out and completed our existence.” Each day, and any given moment of a day, can be useful and meaningful. If we think about ourselves as always having a chance to do good later, we won’t make the most of each day. If instead we think about how we can be complete in the moment, we can begin to shift our choices and design our lives in ways in which we make an impact in all that we do.

 

Focusing on death changes the way we approach each day and changes the way we design our lives. It helps us to think about our contributions to the world, and to build habits that help us become the best possible versions of ourselves. Remembering and acknowledging our mortality allows us to grow and get things done today that we might not achieve if we did not consider the possibility of our time on this planet being so short. We shouldn’t fixate solely on death and our mortality, but remember that our time is bound, and that if we want to live meaningfully, we have to live accordingly in each moment.

Helping Others and Getting Beyond Selfishness

The selfish mind wants everything for itself. It pursues pleasures, seeks more material goods, more food, more attention, and more recognition for its own gain. Happiness, the selfish mind tells itself, is having more and enjoying more. Easy leisure is the number one desire, especially when combined with plush and fancy material possessions that signal our success and value to others.

 

The selfish mind errors. Happiness and real pleasure do not come from simple material possessions. Happiness comes from our interactions with others, particularly when we do something for others that makes them better off, not when we do something that only makes ourselves better off.

 

Seneca recognized this in Rome during the first century. In Letters from a Stoic he writes, “Happy is he man who can make others better, not merely when he is in their company, but even when he is in their thoughts!”

 

We are social creatures who evolved and grew to take over the planet in groups. We started out in small social tribes, and from there have built massive metropolises. We survive and are dominant because of our social nature, and within that social nature we have evolved to be altruistic toward at least our closest family members and friends. Individually we are vulnerable and limited, but when we come together, we can quite literally move mountains.

 

Cultures across the planet vary in the degree to which they recognize the importance of our social connectedness. Some cultures hold self sacrifices for the greater good at the heart of society, and some cultures hold the family unit as central, while only really recognizing social cohesion on special holidays. Nevertheless, anyplace we look we can see that selfish accumulation does not lead to happiness the way that helping others does.

 

It is interesting that we can derive so much happiness from helping other people and trying to be a role model and someone that brings out the best in others. We seem to get a stronger, more deep, and more lasting sense of happiness and accomplishment when we know that we are doing something meaningful for other people rather than when we just pursue our own self-interest. For two thousand years, and surely before Seneca wrote them down, his words have remained true, and we would benefit in the United States if we remembered to do as much for others as we try to do for ourselves.

The Case for Doubting Oneself

Our actions always make more sense to us than they do to others. To us, what we do and why we do the things we do fit in with an internal narrative that is always running through our head and playing out in our lives. We understand the world in a way that is logically coherent based on our experiences and perceptions of the world.

 

The problem for each of us, however, is that our experiences, perspectives, and perceptions are woefully inadequate to actually understand the way the world operates. In Letters from a Stoic, Seneca includes a short piece that explains how we should think about our thinking given these inadequacies of our mind:

 

“Crates, they say, … noticed a young man walking by himself, and asked him what he was doing all alone. I am communing with myself, replied the youth. Pray be careful, then, said Crates, and take good heed; you are communing with a bad man!”

 

The point here is not that the youth is actually a bad person, but it is that the narrative and story within our own heads is misleading. It makes judgments and assumptions based on limited, often biased information and creates stories that it claims to be true. We are tricked into believing the falsehoods of our own mind, and if we give our mind too much trust, it can lead us astray.  The advice from Crates conveyed by Seneca is to recognize that our minds are not wholly trustworthy, and to be careful when we are consumed by our own thoughts.

 

In my own life, I have found it to be helpful, but at times almost paralyzing to recognize how little information my mind actually has when it is making decisions and reaching conclusions. I find that I often doubt why I feel a certain way about another person or an event, and that I often pause to consider the information my mind is acting on before I do something, even when my actions or the outcomes are trivial. Occasionally this puts me in a place where I feel that I cannot take action, because I cannot entirely support my reason for doing or believing (or wanting to believe) something. On the whole, however, I feel that it does make me a more considerate person. I recognize times when I want to be outraged at something, just to signal to others how virtuous of a person I am that something outrages me. I often find that I want to complain about others, just to raise my own status, and I try my best to pull back from those urges. These are positive notes stemming from my self-awareness induced hesitation, but my hesitation also leads to situations where I am not as outspoken or decisive as I should be. As an example, I should probably be more outspoken about the importance of climate change legislation or science in general. I am not as willing to take a visible stand in an effort to say that, regardless of policy or party/identity, the behavior and language of our president is unbecoming of the nation’s chief executive and unacceptable in our public discourse (ever here is another example of me hesitating to be as direct as I think I should be).

 

A recognition that the mind cannot possibly observe, analyze, and act on every piece of information available is powerful in being a more thoughtful and considerate person, but it can be paralyzing in negative ways. When we pause to think while others impulsively act, we give away some of the power we gain through self-awareness. The bombastic who dominate conversation through impulsive outbursts have an advantage in controlling the narrative when we hesitate to be more thoughtful in our discourse. We would all rather be the rationally calm individual in our lives, but it feels that the ignorantly loud person will always dominate the conversation when we choose this approach. I think we should nevertheless strive for greater self-awareness and calmness in our thinking, and as a society we need to do a better job of recognizing the importance of these skills, so we can be better at socially rewarding individuals who can control their impulses.

Enjoy What is Inside You

A couple years back I bought a bright green GPS sports watch. I do a lot of running and I like having a nice watch for my workouts, but the watch was a bit more flashy than what I really needed to purchase, and if I am honest with myself, I really don’t need a GPS watch at all if I want to be healthy and enjoy exercising.

 

What the watch reminds me now, is how often we look at things outside of ourselves to define who we are and to make us happy. We look to others to validate who we are and purchases like my watch help us tell others what we want them to see in us. Rather than being content with an activity on our own, we want people to be aware of us doing the activity and we want all kinds of rewards for what we do and who we are.

 

In Letters From a Stoic Seneca writes, “rejoice only in that which comes from your own store. And what do I mean by ‘from your own store’? I mean from your very self, that which is the best part of you.”

 

Senecas advice is for us to work toward being happy in our own skin, with our own decisions, without needing something external to make us who we are and without needing someone external to approve of who we are. When we cherish designer sunglasses, brag about the functions of our new GPS watch, or take our neighbors on a ride along in our new car, we are using something outside of us to amplify a part of us that we want others to see. Simultaneously we are not satisfied by just ourselves and need something else to display our value. We are not satisfied with our actions and decisions in isolation, and need someone outside of ourselves to applaud us.

 

If we can be more confident in who we are without needing the validation of others, we can have a more steady and stable life. We can enjoy the times we spend with others and enjoy the things we have, but we won’t feel as though we need to define ourselves by things external to us. Those things can become compliments and we can enjoy a few simple things without a constant need for more and better stuff.

Present in Mind and Body

In Letters From a Stoic Seneca writes, “You must be not only present in the body, but watchful in mind, if you would avail yourself of the fleeting opportunity.” I am always surprised by how hard it is to actually be present at any given moment. Our minds think far faster than we can talk or do any physical activity. From what I remember from a psychology class in college, our minds can think somewhere around 400 words per minute. We talk at about 200 words per minute when talking quickly and our pulse is much closer to about 60-ish beats per minute when just sitting around relaxed (just off memory so double check those numbers if you are really curious). Our brains are seriously quick, and that gives the mind extra time to jump around outside of our body and outside of our current setting.

 

I started reading the first Harry Potter book as a little break from non-fiction and one of the surprising things about the book is how quickly I detach from the present moment. Throughout the series, which I am now reading as quickly as possible it seems, I have found myself completely unaware of my physical surroundings and I have noticed my mind continually wanders away from the present in a day-dream. I will admit that I have enjoyed the books and the time that has flown by while reading them, but I do find it a little concerning how quickly my mind will jump out of my body into the story and steal away 10 minutes, an hour, or an entire evening in story, absent of the present moment and the things that my mind originally intended to do.

 

Seneca’s quote is about opportunity, and this morning I am reading it more as a quote about intention and doing meaningful things that we want to do. A good quick example to illustrate my thoughts comes from the world of sports. When we really train for something in a serious manner, we know that we have to put in deliberate practice. If we are just trying to stay fit then it is fine to hit the gym with our music, listen to a podcast while lifting weights, or lose ourselves in our thoughts or music while jogging comfortably. However, if we want to train to be a great martial artist, if we want to train to make a free throw when the game is on the line, and if we really want to stick that ski jump landing, then we need to focus on our physical body and what we need to do to perfectly execute our desired sports performance. If we are not also mentally present, then we miss the opportunity to apply ourselves in a serious way.

 

Presence is a sense of awareness of where we are, of the time, and of the opportunities in front of us. This is what the Harry Potter series, while I have enjoyed it, has stolen from me. I am physically present and where I need to be, but my mind has been running at 400 words per minute through a fictional world and magical fantasy. I think it is great to read fiction and get some story exposure in our minds, but we should remember the opportunities we miss if we can’t bring ourselves back to a mental presence. We need to be aware of our physical situation and also our mental situation if we really want to make the most out of the time we have on our planet.

Carelessness

“The most disgraceful kind of loss, however, is that due to carelessness,” Seneca wrote in a letter to his friend Lucilius almost 2,000 years ago. Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic is a collection of short passages written from Seneca to Lucilius full of interesting reflections on life. His quick quote about carelessness seems to be as fitting as can be for our times today.

 

We live in a time where great possibilities are open to most of us. On a given weekend we can volunteer our time for a meaningful cause, go snowboarding, go to the beach, visit family, or work on an art project, or try to finally get the garage cleaned. Often, however, we might find ourselves in a position where our time slips past us, and our weekends are lost to Netflix and squandered on meaningless activities. I often look forward to the promises of the weekend on Friday with excitement, but end up looking around my place on Sunday night reflecting on everything I planned to do but never managed to get to. We don’t need to pack every minute of our free time with interesting, fun, and engaging activities, but what I feel on some Sunday nights, is the pain of a loss due to carelessness.

 

Much more seriously, our world faces very extreme consequences from global warming as we continue to put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We face dangerous consequences from the  bioaccumulation of plastics in fish and wildlife species that eat our garbage. Millions of people in the deserts of the United States rely on water sources that are becoming depleted, yet water waste from leaks and unwise water usage persist. Our world faces various ecological crises that result more or less from our own carelessness. Just as I feel terrible some Sunday nights about the way I wasted my time during the weekend, we will look back at where we are today and feel extreme regret for the carelessness with which we wasted resources and allowed our planet to degrade.

 

Solving my problem on Sunday nights is not impossible. It just requires that I be more considerate about my time. It requires that I think about what I am doing and why I am doing it to ask myself if there are other things I should be doing and if I am going to look back and be glad that I spent my time engaging with any given activity. With some planning going into the weekend, I can be successful in engaging with the world in a meaningful way on my days away from the office. The same is true for our climate crisis. If we ask ourselves what we are doing and how our actions contribute to the overall sustainability of our planet, we can start to make small changes to live better on our planet. We won’t individually make much of a difference, but collectively we will start to make changes and we can all contribute to a consciousness about the importance of using our resources wisely. That mindset will eventually translate into smart decisions globally to help us mitigate our impact on the way things are going and prevent us from a disgraceful loss of a habitable planet due to our own carelessness.

Evaluating What Really Matters

I really wish that the work week was not 40 hours long. I really believe we could be just as productive working 6 hour days rather than 8 hour days, and I think that we could use our extra time to build meaningful social capital in our societies and lives. (As an aside, I do recognize that a shorter work day would really just mean our cities would sprawl more and we would live further from work and spend more time commuting for work). Where we are right now, is in a weird position where we have allowed our work to consume almost all of what we do for reasons we don’t like. We work 8 hours a day and 40 hours a week because we want more and we want things that don’t really matter so that we can impress people we don’t really care about. We are focusing on things that are not that important and giving up large amounts of our lives to pursue these meaningless things.

 

In Letters From a Stoic, Seneca writes, “it is easy to escape, if only you will despise the rearwards of business. We are held back and kept from escaping by thoughts like these: What then? Shall I leave behind me these great prospects? Shall I depart at the very time of harvest? Shall I have no slaves at my side? No retinue for my litter? No crowd in my reception room?” It is hard to look at the opportunity for material gain and turn it down in favor of enjoying time. It is hard to draw back when we see an avenue for promotion, a way to work more to earn more, or a chance to gain more status and prestige. Often however, we hate the time we spend working and we put ourselves in situations that are dangerous to our health (even if you are not going into a mine, going into an office that spikes your blood pressure every day is unhealthy).

 

“Hence men leave such advantages as these with reluctance,” Seneca writes, “they love the reward of their hardships, but curse the hardships themselves.”

 

I recognize how important hard work is. I understand that without everyone working together to get stuff done, society does not advance, we don’t grow and prosper, and we don’t have any way to enjoy our leisure time. But I think we may be at a point where we are no longer working to enjoy our leisure time. We are not seeing our levels of work decline as we become more prosperous, we see the opposite. Productivity growth is slow, but the hours we spend working are increasing. This suggests we are putting ourselves in places we don’t want to be, not really working that hard when we are there (because we hate it) and then getting rewards we don’t even have time to be happy with.

 

I think we should step back and reconsider the things that really matter. We should find ways to pull back from work we hate and dislike. We should find ways to give people time and should encourage people to use that new time in a way that brings communities together with shared purposes and prospects. Rather than selfishly working for ourselves, we should spend more time engaged in a community and working together for others.

Wasting Ourselves on Work

I have some ideas about work that are pretty far out there for an American. In the United States, we prize work so highly that we put up with all kinds of BS in order to make more money, show our worth, and earn particular titles. It is true that we need to work and earn money to live comfortable lives, but the extent to which we chase money and status is far beyond what is really necessary for us to be comfortable and this pushes the work we do in strange ways. We elevate the importance of our careers and often judge ourselves and others first by the jobs we have. When we meet a new person, one of the first questions we ask is, “what do you do?” meaning, what is your job. We don’t ask what someone likes to do for fun, what hobbies someone has, or where someone last vacation. Instead we ask about their job so that we can compare ourselves to them and get a feel for the kind of person we are speaking to.

 

In Letters from a Stoic, Seneca writes, “A good man will not waste himself upon mean and discreditable work or be busy merely for the sake of being busy.” We are going to spend about 80,000 hours of our life working. The time we spend earning money can be time that we spend engaging with something just for the purpose of earning a living, but it can also be time we spend trying to make the world a better place. We can push for ever greater responsibility in our job, ever higher salaries, and more impressive titles, but we don’t need to. Seneca would argue that to the extent possible for each of us, we should try to do the most meaningful work with the time, skills, and abilities that each of us have. This can be a daunting and paralyzing thought today, which is unfortunate, but it is something that many of us can consider as we move forward.

 

At some point I think most of us set out to make a difference and to do something more on the noble side of work. However, we often settle into careers we don’t really like, work in settings and for bosses we don’t enjoy, and push ourselves in our careers at the expense of our family, happiness, time, and sometimes sanity. At a certain point, once we have a high enough salary, I think our goals and motivations shift from doing meaningful work and making enough for comfortable living to trying to impress others and show how valuable we are. This is equivalent of being busy for the sake of being busy, or worse, being busy for the purpose of impressing other people.

 

We won’t all have the ability to do the most meaningful work on earth, and I understand how scary it can be to step away from a good paying yet boring or meaningless career to take on something meaningful but low paying and unstable. I know that as our income rises our satisfaction with life will also rise, yet we should be considerate and aware of our trade-offs in search of more money, and we should be honest with ourselves about our motivations for the work we do. When we can, we should try to make a difference and do the best with our skills, time, and ability and avoid having a career or trying to climb a ladder just to show off to those around us.

Preparing for Challenges

In November of 2018 I wrote a post about planning for resiliency. Michael Bungay Stanier described the importance of planning for failure, looking ahead and anticipating obstacles, and thinking through the ways we could recover from a drastic blow to our plans. It is not easy, but preparing ourselves for hard times will make it more likely that we can successfully manage setbacks when they occur.

 

This idea seems pretty clear and while we all familiar with saving for a rainy day, there has been relatively little focus in our society on preparing ourselves for other non-financial hardships. Interestingly, the idea from Michael Bungay Stanier is not as new as I thought when I first encountered it. In Letters From a Stoic Seneca wrote, “It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress, and it is while fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence.”

 

Stoic philosophy advises us to take advantage of the times when things are going well so that we can ready ourselves for times when it all falls apart. Rather than simply relaxing and enjoying our comforts, stoicism suggests that we pause, evaluate what is truly needed to live a good life, and consider how we would move on if all our comforts were suddenly stripped from us. It asks us what could go wrong and forces us to think about how we would still move forward, a skill that is hard and gloomy, but has a lot of upside.

 

I don’t think we need to overwhelmingly focus on death, loss, and hardship. We can still enjoy our comforts and our pleasures, but at least once every day we should stop to consider what things we have, how we live our life, and what is truly important for us. By doing this, we can enjoy our hobbies, relationships, and comforts more fully. By recognizing that things could fall apart we can better appreciate what we have now. Additionally, seeing the potential obstacles before they arrive allows us to be better prepared to overcome them when we must rise to the occasion. We don’t have to be on guard at all moments nor do we need to constantly look over our shoulder for danger, but we should be prepared to work for what is important or move in the direction we want when something shows up to block our path. We will be more successful and sound if we have been considerate and acted accordingly along the way.