Be Calm Ahead of Your Obstacle

In Letters From a Stoic Seneca writes, “There are more things … likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.” Our minds work really hard to keep us safe, keep us in important positions, and keep us connected so that we can succeed and so that our children and grandchildren can enjoy a high status life. Our minds are trying to help us navigate an uncertain future, but sometimes our minds go too far and we become paralyzed with a fear that is worse than the outcome we want to avoid.

 

Seneca continues, “What I advice you to do is not to be unhappy before the crisis comes; since it may be that the dangers before which you paled as if they were threatening you, will never come upon you; they certainly have not come yet.”

 

We can live our lives worrying about what will go wrong five minutes from now, five days from now, or five years from now, but we never truly know what is around the corner. Sometimes we set artificial deadlines on ourselves and sometimes those deadlines are forced upon us, but that doesn’t mean we need to live every moment of our lives up to that deadline in fear of what will happen if we don’t achieve what we intended by that date. The fear that we feel can be useful in pushing us to get stuff done and avoid procrastination, but when we notice that we can’t sleep at night because we are worried of the negative consequences of what may happen if that bad thing we fear occurs, then it is time for us to step back and refocus on our present moment. I find that it is helpful for me to look at the fears that I have and recognize that in the present moment I am fine, and to recognize that the status quo will most likely continue if I miss the deadline or if the bad thing does happen. There are plenty of things to fear, and we should build a capacity to see that we will still be able to move on with life even if some of our worst fears come true.

 

Ultimately, we know we are going to have obstacles and setbacks in our lives, but that does not mean we need to live every moment in fear of what bad thing is around the corner. We can live conservatively and save money and resources to confidently weather such challenges, but we do not need to allow negative things in our lives to cause us trauma before they have occurred. Preparing ourselves ahead of time will help mitigate the fear, but learning to accept that bad things will happen and learning to enjoy the present moment are the only ways we can truly escape from the fear of what lies ahead.

Our Perceptions of the World

In a diary entry dated 04/08/1931 in Fernando Pessoa’s posthumously published book The Book of Disquiet, Pessoa writes, “For us everything lies in our concept of the world; changing our concept of the world means changing our world, that is, the world itself, since it will never be anything other than how we perceive it.” There are many things in this world that make assumptions about, and we never truly know if our assumptions are correct. But what information we take in, and how we use that information and interpret it, shapes the world we construct and the assumptions we attach to the world.

 

I really like this quote, especially at this time, because I have been thinking about consciousness after having listened to a few podcast episodes from Rob Reid’s show, After On. Reid has had a few guests on his show who have talked about consciousness and the challenges in fully understanding what is happening in our brains. We don’t know exactly where consciousness comes from and whether it is within the brain or something that sits on top of the brain. We don’t know what it is that allows our brain matter and nervous system to become conscious and we don’t know where consciousness stops, whether it ends with dogs and ferrets or if it continues all the way down to bees, ants, or plants.

 

Beyond questions of consciousness, we have questions about the information that our body is able to take in and process. We also have questions about what information we actually become aware of with all the the information that is available for us to perceive. We know that we can’t smell as well as a dog, we can’t hear the same frequencies as a bat, and we can’t sense the earth’s magnetic field the way a bird does. Bees can see a greater range of the light spectrum than we can see, but we at least have eyes which can see much better than starfish which can only pick up on whether it is light above them or not. For each animal, including humans, the range of possible senses and information that can be taken in is called the umwelt. A German word to describe the experiences of the world for that animal.

 

All this brings me back to Pessoa’s quote. From a pure physics level, it is easy to see that our thinking and understanding of the world is limited by the physics of the universe and by the information we can take in form our surroundings. The world we see and know, in some sense, is not the whole world. Pessoa is correct to say that our world is defined by the way we perceive it.

 

But what Pessoa meant in his quote was not so much about physics and the limitations of the human body to sense and experience the world. How we think about the world constructs the reality we live within. The narratives and stories we come up with describe ourselves, define the society we live in, and explain what we do are the things that make up our reality. We can be wrong about these perceptions, like when we hear someone near-by laugh and assume they are laughing about us. We should be aware of the thoughts and narratives we create about the world and we should be willing to question them. We should work to have the most clear picture of the world possible, always understanding that there is more happening than we can ever know, and always remembering that how we perceive the world will determine the reality we see in front of us.

Balance and Dimensionality

In our society we like to talk about balance. Everyone seems to be on a quest to find the perfect balance between work, family life, and personal interests and hobbies. We talk about a work-life balance as if there is some absolutely perfect way for us to do all the things we want to do and to live a full life. This is an idea that I gave up long ago because it doesn’t really fit with the reality of the world we live in.

 

Instead of balance I like to think about packing a suitcase and leaning toward one item or another. We have a limited amount of time in a given day, and we must give priority to things we think are the most important. We must decide what we are for sure packing in our suitcase, and what things we are leaving out. Once we have identified those things that are the most important and valuable to us, we end up leaning heavily into one thing or another. We may lean heavily into our career, leaving little time or space for a significant other or for exercise. We may lean heavily into our family, making us less likely to put in extra hours on the job. Or we may live for a hobby and rearrange our lives to provide for more time and opportunity to focus on our personal interests.

 

A short section in Colin Wright’s book Becoming Who We Need To Be brought these thoughts of balance back to my mind. He writes, “There’s nothing inherently unhealthy about working long hours, or working hard on something you care about or think will benefit you in the long term. It only becomes potentially harmful when, in doing so, you neglect other aspects of your life that require attention. When you start to lose density and become less three-dimensional.” What Wright is saying is that there is no correct way to pack your suitcase, as long as you do it intentionally.

 

In the same way that we would be very thoughtful about everything we pack for a week long trip to Hawaii, we should be very thoughtful about what we decide to include in our lives on a daily and weekly basis. If we are going to put in extra hours at work then we should be thoughtful about how we spend the rest of our time so that we don’t just operate as a zombie and ignore family, friends, or our own health. We should recognize that we won’t ever be perfectly balanced if we chose to focus heavily on one thing, but we can at least be intentional with how we use the rest of our time. If we don’t, then we will find that our suitcase has haphazardly filled itself with things we don’t really need, like Facebook, Game of Thrones, and late night trips to Wendy’s. If we think about what we want to pack into our suitcase of life, we can make sure our lives are still dimensional and interesting, even if we are spending a majority of our time and focus on a single thing. We can give up activities that simply distract us in favor of activities that help us be more thoughtful, healthy, or engaged with our loved ones. We don’t have to completely cut out Facebook or TV, but we should be intentional about how much time those activities receive. Going through life on autopilot or trying to find a perfect balance will ultimately end up with us in a frustrated spot as we can’t seem to do everything we want and can’t seem to make our lives fulfilling.

Returning to Self Sufficiency

I’m not sure what it is that makes us want to do things on our own and show that we are independent and strong. Perhaps we have a drive to escape from the dependence of our families and parents to show that we are no longer helpless children, and that we can survive independent from the structures that raised us. I’d imagine some of us have this feeling more strongly than others, something that our ancestors might have needed from some members of society when we lived in small tribes. At that time, for humanity to survive and grow, we needed brave individuals who could venture out on their own to find new resources.

 

I’m a middle child, and perhaps for me, part of my feeling of independence comes from my upbringing as a middle child, receiving less attention than my older sister and younger brother. I feel a strong pull to show that I can do things on my own, that I don’t need to rely on help from others to complete an assignment at work, to hike a new trail, or to find my way in a new city. But the reality for me, and for all of us who feel a strong drive toward independence, is that we are hopelessly, hilariously dependent on others for everything we do. But this dependence on others and on society does not mean that we cannot still be self-sufficient.  Recognizing that we can be both dependent on others and self-sufficient can take away a lot of stress and help us have more healthy relationships with the people around us.

 

In Letters From a Stoic Seneca writes, “As long as he is allowed to order his affairs according to his judgment, he is self-sufficient-and marries a wife; he is self-sufficient-and brings up children; he is self-sufficient-and yet could not live if he had to live without the society of man.” We cannot necessarily order all of our affairs as we would like, but we can always do our best to order the thoughts within our mind in a way that will allow us to be self-sufficient. Even at our best and our most independent moment, we still rely on the structures around us and we dependent on our society to allow us to be self-sufficient.

 

It is important to recognize how much we rely and depend on others, and it is also important to think about what it means to be self-sufficient and independent at any given time. When we lived in small tribes, we were still dependent on others to bring offspring into the world and raise them to continue humanity. As humans evolved, our levels of dependence have changed and today we depend on our society for everything from keeping our homes warm, to having clean water, to being entertained on the weekends. Seneca’s quote tells us that it is ok to rely on others in this way, but that we should learn to be independent of a sense of need of many of the things we come to rely on. Without being distant and disengaged, we should take full advantage of the society we rely on, and yet understand that our relationship with the thing could change, and we could still survive without at least some aspect. Enjoy what you have, but don’t be reliant on it for complete happiness.

Pessoa on Politicians

Fernando Pessoa was a Portugese writer in the 1930’s. I’m not sure if he was really involved with politics at all, but in his book The Book of Disquiet he had a short passage that I think describes politicians well. He writes,

 

“The government of the world begins in ourselves. It is not  the sincere who govern the world but neither is it the insincere. It is governed by those who manufacture in themselves a real sincerity by artificial and automatic means; that sincerity constitutes their strength and it is that which shines out over the less false sincerity of the others. A marked talent for self-deception is the statesman’s foremost quality. Only poets and philosophers have a practical vision of  the world since only to them is given the gift of having no illusions. to see clearly is to be unable to act.”

 

This post is not one to say negative things about politicians. Instead, it is a reflection on how humans behave. I want to focus in on the stories we tell ourselves and how we view reality. I think Pessoa is correct in his assessment of politicians. Sincere is defined, by a quick Google search, as “free from pretense or deceit, genuine feelings.” Politicians have many things on their mind at any given time and it is likely that they are never truly influenced by solely their own genuine feelings. But it is probably not fair to say that they never have true and meaningful feelings or beliefs. They likely try to hide any true selfish motivations, even from themselves, in an attempt to have pure motives for their decisions. But  they are not completely deceitful (in general) and insincere. They are humans, trying to do what they think is right, popular, and will bring good outcomes for society and for themselves personally. Their lives are a story, and they are constantly trying to write a good ending.

 

If you think about it, the assessment Pessoa makes of politicians is really just an assessment of humans in general. We all live like politicians, trying to craft a story that seems genuine and sincere about our lives and who we are, even if our actions, decisions, and behaviors are partially self-serving. The politician is just an easy example of how humans behave in ways that appear contradictory. We should recognize that men are not angles, but we are (in most instances) not complete devils either. We have moments of genuine sincerity, but we are also capable of boundless deception. If we are careful and look at the world very clearly, we can see this play out in our politicians and in ourselves.

An Idea of Inner Moral Views

In Letters From a Stoic, Seneca writes, “The Supreme Good calls for no practical aids from outside; it is developed at home, and arises entirely within itself. If the good seeks any portion of itself from without, it begins to be subject to the play of fortune.”

 

Seneca seems to be suggesting that we can turn inward and recognize a sort of moral philosophy entirely introspectively. What is good and what we should do can be reasoned on our own, without requiring the input of other people and society. Individually, Seneca suggests, moral ethics, values, and a good life are possible.

 

The views that Seneca puts forward remind me an idea I have had for a while. The idea is that we should individually live in a way that embraces free will. We should live as though what we are going to do will shape the world in a meaningful way and deliver us to the future we want. But when we look at society, we should approach others as if they do not have free will and are limited by their experiences and surroundings in what they can truly accomplish. This pushes us to do our best and achieve great things, but without putting us in a place where we feel better than others and where we don’t put people down because they did not manage to achieve the same level of success as us. In a similar way, we should live our lives believing that we can develop our independent moral values and structures and be a good person without relying on others to tell us we are good, but when we look out at society we should try to work with other people to develop a clear definition and picture of what we think is good, moral, and just. We should view society as operating as though each person is dependent on others and incapable of individually changing the world without collective action. I’m still working through these two contradictory views of self versus world, and while they conflict, they seem to be able to create a narrative that is functional for us.

 

I feel that Seneca’s quote argues for deontological ethics, the idea that we have a duty to do things that are good entirely on their own. I usually take a more teleological view of ethics, which can be defined more as a form of ends justify the means type ethics. I see a deontological view of ethics as being easier to stand on its own without need of justification where teleological ethics is more utilitarian and consequentialist, holding that are actions cannot be deemed to be good solely based on whether we feel they are right, but are tied in some way to the fortune of the outcome that they produce.

 

Perhaps we should live as though our moral philosophy is deontological, telling ourselves that we are going to adopt a set of beliefs and habits that are morally good on their own, simply for their own sake. But we should in reality be living a more teleologial life. We should think about the consequences of going to the gym, of being nice to others, and of making smart donations to Givewell.org recommended charities. We can put on a deontological face, but be almost entirely teleological behind the mask, doing the best to maximize the good we actually achieve while telling others that we engage in good actions simply because the actions are good all on their own. This is again the kind of contradictory split I mentioned above, viewing how we should act in one light, and viewing the way we think about society in an entirely different light. I know it doesn’t make sense to combine and put together into a larger view, but for me it does create a situation where my thoughts and actions align in a way that makes me more empathetic to society and more responsible for my own decisions.

Self Sufficient

Ever since Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler’s book The Elephant in the Brain came out I have been seeing the world, especially the world of politics, through a Hansonian framework. Our big evolutionary drive is to ensure that our genes are passed on to the next generation and for a social species that evolved in groups and communities, that means that we try to obtain ever greater status to ensure that we can pass more of our genes to future generations and then ensure that our progeny are successful, have supportive allies, and can further pass along their genes.

 

This mental framework has made me particularly sensitive to people’s attempts to improve their status in the eyes of others. I am in my late 20’s and I have a lot of friends on social media who seem concerned with telling people that they are self-sufficient. Many of my friends seem to want everyone to know that they have worked hard for the thing that they have, and have not had to rely on hand-outs from either government or from their parents. There seems to be this urge to let everyone know how capable we can be, and I suspect that what my friends are really doing is signaling their skills and abilities and attempting to increase their social status by suggesting that they have good judgment, an industrious nature, and have achieved their level of wealth through their own abilities.

 

Self-sufficiency in this view is all about how valuable one appears. Politically it is expedient to say that everyone should be self-sufficient, that we should all be able to provide for ourselves without relying on the assistance of others. My fear, however, is that self-sufficiency is really just acting on the central themes identified by Hanson and Simler. If we have achieved a certain level of success, we will look even better if we can tell other people that we became successful on our own, without help from others. We will look impressive if we have achieved something difficult that other people can’t seem to do without lots of help and advantages from birth. The typical idea of self-sufficiency, it appears, is really not about being self-sufficient, but about making ourselves look good to boost our social status.

 

Seneca offers us an alternative idea regarding self-sufficiency in Letters from a Stoic. In one of his letters he writes, “The wise man is self-sufficient. This phrase, my dear Lucilius, is incorrectly explained by many; for they withdraw the wise man from the world, and force him to dwell within his own skin. But we must mark with care what this sentence signifies and how far it applies; the wise man is sufficient unto himself for a happy existence, but not for mere existence. For he needs many helps toward mere existence; but for a happy existence he needs only a sound and upright soul, one that despises fortune.”

 

My social media friends, talking about their own self-sufficiency in purchasing a home, landscaping a yard, or getting through college are not thinking of self-sufficiency in terms of happiness. Nor are they recognizing just what they need from others in order to be able to do something sufficiently on their own. None of my friends are subsistence farmers, cultivating all the food that they consume. None of my friends walked out of a box into the world to discover how to act and succeed in our society – they all had good luck in the form of parents or teachers or friends or mentors to give them advice and serve as models for success. And all of my friends relied on public infrastructure, roads, water systems, telecommunications networks to build their own success. There was a certain amount of hard work, good decision making, and avoiding harmful vices or wasteful uses of resources that undoubtedly contributed to the success of my self-sufficient friends, but every one of them benefited enormously from a huge number of factors that came before them and that they had no part of.

 

As Seneca writes, our happiness and our responses to the world are the only things where we can expect to find true self-sufficiency. For the rest of the world, unless we want to survive by subsistence farming with no help from others, we will never be entirely self-sufficient, at least, not in the way we seem to imply on social media.

Thinking About Our Friendships

I am always saddened by how challenging adult friendships can be. Once you begin working 40 hours a week, have to deal with a commute, and have a household to look over, keeping up with friends and getting out to do things with friends becomes nearly impossible. I enjoy being able to own a home, but unfortunately, like many suburban residents I have a lengthy commute to work, get home and park in my garage, and generally don’t see a lot of friends or even neighbors during the week. I try not to be on my phone at work, and when I get home I start cooking and generally don’t message or call anyone.

 

In this busy work-life world, it can become easy to start seeing friends the way we see our impersonal relationships with ATM machines, paddle boards, and the grocery store. If it is convenient and if I get something in return from our friendship, I’ll reach out and try to schedule something for the weekend. If you can help me and if being friends with you is likely to pay off, then we can say hi to each other and maybe hangout for a BBQ sometime.

 

Trying to cram friendship into our suburban lifestyle in this way, however, doesn’t work and we won’t be satisfied with our friendships if we approach friendship with this type of utility maximization. Friendship and deep relationships are about more than just convenience or borrowing a leaf blower. Seneca writes, “He who begins to be your friend because it pays will also cease because it pays.” Many of our friendships end-up being just cordial relationships when times are easy.

 

This can leave us without support when we face real challenges and emergencies. It can leave us feeling isolated and depressed and provide us with fewer opportunities to socialize and connect with people in a meaningful way. I truly think this is one of the greatest challenges we face and I see even small things, like starting a club or community group, as a huge step toward changing the relationships we have. We need to see people not as friendship ATMs,  but as real individuals who have the same challenges, fears, and capacity for enjoyment and interest in the world as we do. By seeing a little more of ourselves in others we can start to see the importance of having meaningful connections with people and we can start working to better connect with the people around us.

On Our Relationship With Things

I have written quite a bit about minimalism in the way that The Minimalists approach the idea of having less stuff. The more things you have, the more time you have to spend organizing, maintaining, and working with your stuff. It takes time to earn enough money to make purchases, to afford the storage space for items, and to fix parts of things that break, or to keep them clean and up to date. Once we have lots of things, we have to think about where we are going put them, we have to move them around if we need something else at any given time, and we need to pack them up and move them if we ever need to move where we live in the future, and we may have to pay to have someone else store them for us.

 

Despite the difficulties that can come from having lots of stuff, it is hard to get out of the mindset that says you should buy more things and always try to acquire bigger and better things. Sometimes, we need some clear thinking to help us remember what is important and what is not when it comes to our stuff. Seneca writes, “understand that a man is sheltered just as well by a thatch as by a roof of gold. Despise everything that useless toil creates as an ornament and an object of beauty. And reflect that nothing except the soul is worthy of wonder; for to the soul, if it be great, naught is great.”

 

In Seneca’s quote we find the idea that what makes us great people, what makes us interesting, and what drives us in interesting and meaningful ways comes from within us. It is our mindset, our worldview, and our goals that determine what value we see and pursue in the world. Effort to obtain lots of things and to have impressive shiny stuff for showing off amount to nothing more than useless toil. The time we spend working so that we can have the bigger and better thing is time that is effectively wasted.

 

The more we feel compelled to have a newer and more expensive car, the more we feel we need a bigger house which will bring a bigger mortgage payment, and the more we feel that we need expensive things in general, the more we will have to work and potentially spend our time doing things we don’t enjoy. We make a trade off, our time (and sometimes our well being, stress, anxiety, and healthy) in exchange for a thing that we think will make us impressive. Sometimes we obtain so many of those things that we end up in a continual cycle of anxiety and stress from the work that we take something more important away from our lives. We risk a point where the things we own occupy all our mental energy and it is fair to question whether we own our stuff or whether it owns us. We may find that life can be more simple and all our needs can be provided without the material possessions we seek, which gives us back time and energy to focus on things that we enjoy and that interest us.

Staying Humble Out of the Spotlight

“I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.” Seneca wrote in one of his letters captured in the book Letters From a Stoic. This quote was at the heart of yesterday’s post, but it is only one part of a larger post that I want to write about. Yesterday I discussed the way that we can have a big impact on a small group of people. I wrote about our desires to speak to the masses and how we change our conversations and communication styles when we try to write for infinite audiences as opposed to writing for a committed few. Today’s post is more about reflection and avoiding the spotlight to remain humble and honest with oneself.

 

Seneca continues, “Lay these words to heart, Lucilius, that you may scorn the pleasure which comes from the applause of the majority. Many men praise you; but have you any reason for being pleased with yourself, if you are a person whom the many can understand? Your good qualities should face inwards.”

 

Our society rewards those who can do rare and challenging work. If you have a unique ability to produce a painting that appeals to everyone and captures the moment, then you may be rewarded by selling your art at a high price. If you can out-run everyone else on the planet, you may be rewarded with some cash, a shiny medal, and a new shoe deal. And if you can write clearly and express your thoughts and ideas so well that everyone can understand them and learn from them, then you may be able to sell your words and ideas in a mass publication. We are all about rewarding hard work that most people cannot do. This is not a bad thing, but just part of how we evolved.

 

What can be a bad thing, however, is taking the fact that we can do something difficult and socially rewarded and then holding ourselves above others. Notoriety, skill, and wealth do not mean we are actually different from those who sleep in the streets. We are all human, and we should strive to find a commonality between us and others such that we find the same value in ourselves as we do in those that we might naturally want to scorn and look down upon. The best qualities are those that help us do great work for our own satisfaction and to align ourselves with values that expand human creativity, dignity, respect, and well being for all. Seeking attention and glory is dangerous because it creates a world that is entirely about us, often at the detriment of another.

 

We can strive for great work and if we receive wealth, attention, and applause we can enjoy and appreciate it, but we should not seek these things out for their own sake. They should be byproducts of our great work, and we should always be somewhat distrustful of them. Looking inward, we can appreciate our success without the need for applause from the outside.