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.

Compassion and Awareness

I remember reading Meditations by Marcus Aurelius and highlighting a segment where Aurelius encouraged us not to judge others because we have the same propensity for negativity and mistakes as anyone around us, and often times it is not our will alone that stops us from behaving in the same way as those that we judge. Often we refrain from the activities we judge others for because we are afraid of losing status or reputation. Often it is because we had learned a hard lesson and someone else showed us why we should behave differently, and sometimes we behave differently simply because we have different life circumstances which allow us to avoid the behavior we criticize in others. No matter why we don’t behave the same way as those we judge, it is not because we are somehow superior to the other person, but just responding to different cues.

 

The idea from Aurelius helps me remember that life is hard and everyone (including myself) is under pressure, challenged, and limited by our own circumstances and struggles. Remembering this allows me to give myself and others a break. Aurelius has helped me recognize where I could improve or where I want to maintain positive habits in my own life, while simultaneously remembering how easy it can be to end up in the same place as another person that I would otherwise criticize.

 

This idea came back to me in Thich Nhat Hanh’s book The Miracle of Mindfulness. The author writes about the benefits of meditation and of living a life that is constantly mindful and builds self-awareness into every step of the day. Keeping the mind open and cognizant of ones surroundings and experience helps one get beyond the ego, the stories we tell ourselves about success and happiness, and beyond our constant struggle to signal our virtues and value.

 

Hanh argues that mindfulness and self-awareness ultimately lead to more compassion for the people around us and for ourselves. He writes, “When your mind is liberated your heart floods with compassion: compassion for yourself, for having undergone countless sufferings because you were not yet able to relieve yourself of false views, hatred, ignorance, anger; and compassion for others because they do not yet see and so are still imprisoned by false views, hatred, and ignorance and continue to create suffering for themselves and for others.” Self-awareness and a more objective view and understanding of the world helps our minds to be more free and open to the experiences of the world. This allows us to step back and be more content with who we are and with the lives we live, ultimately allowing us to have more compassion for the people around us. When we better know and understand ourselves, we gain more insight into the lives and struggles of others and we can better appreciate and respect their humanity and the obstacles that we all face.

Tolerate Ignorance

In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius writes about how we should think about those around us to become more benevolent in our thoughts and actions. Specifically, while writing about the way we think of and speak of others who are not as educated as us, he introduces an idea of compassion that is not seen very often in our society today.  When we think about those around us we often paint a negative image of those who have different points of view or seem to have very limited knowledge regarding a particular subject.  We enjoy laughing at others and we enjoy putting them down (usually not to their face). Aurelius writes that he learned a key skill from Sextus, “to tolerate ignorant persons, and those who form opinions without consideration.”  This skill that Aurelius learned translated into the way he thought about others and the jumbled beliefs that arise from a lack of true study of any given subject.

 

Aurelius truly believed that everyone was acting in a way that made the most sense to them. He saw everyone as doing the best that they could to disentangle the world and understand it better, even if that meant that they were relying on faulty reasoning or were guided by misinformation.  His argument is that we should not shame others for holding beliefs that we do not agree with or that we see as counterfactual.  By tolerating ignorance we avoid falling into rage and anger and we do not elevate ourselves beyond others.  When we understand that others are trying to focus their lives in a way that seems the most logical to them, then we understand why they may be ignorant in the ways that they are. Building this perspective also helps us to see that we are not any better than others and that we have our own fields where we are misinformed and ignorant of the true functioning of the world.

 

In our world today we share videos making fun of people that are uneducated, misinformed, or are acting in ways that seem primitive to us.  When we do this we are subconsciously grouping ourselves and reverting back to a tribal mentality. We belong to a camp of more sophisticated people, while the people who we find ignorant belong to a camp of primitive savages. We may get a laugh, but we are not recognizing the value of others while we are asserting our own superiority.  Often times we attack the individuals we laugh at for being misinformed or ignorant rather than asking ourselves how they came to hold the beliefs that they have cultivated.  When we can shift our focus through a practice of tolerance and understanding, we can create safer institutions for sharing positive information, build better connections between ourselves and the portions of society we do not agree with, and help everyone progress in a more meaningful manner.

Beyond Our Surface

Writer Steven Stern sent a letter to James Harmon for Harmon to include in his book, Take My Advice.  Stern ends his letter to Harmon with the following quote, “it’s been some solace to me, as I hope it may be to you, to remember that we are at least more than meets the eye.” Stern reaches this point after discussing our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents who came to the united states with oftentimes very diverse and unique backgrounds.  In Stern’s words, no matter what we are now, and where we find ourselves, we are all full of backstories and histories that were handed down from our family. His main point is to remember that we are not the social projection of ourselves that society may recognize us as on the surface.

 

Stern’s idea can be very powerful, and for me, it reaches a greater strength when I turn it around and think of other people.  I think that Stern’s viewpoint is an excellent and in many ways necessary first step for us to develop a greater understanding of other people.  In my life, self awareness has helped me reflect on who I am, what parts of myself and my personality I choose to share with the world, and what parts of me are recognized by others even if I do not think the parts that others always recognize are keystone pieces of what makes me the person I am.  Understanding how I fit in these types of societal relationships has allowed me to expand that vision and apply it to other people.

 

Each day that we get out of the house we have an opportunity to see another person and practice this mindset.  It is very easy to look at people and apply general stereotypes and judge them based on their outward appearance.  Taking Stern’s perspective and understanding that we are all more than we appear, allows us to pause before accepting those judgements. Ultimately, it affords us a moment to truly think about the other person.  Seeing the world through their eyes, with the pressures that society has placed on them and how those pressures combine with the advantages or disadvantages of their upbringing can help us greater understand why others act the way they do.  I have found that the more I practice these exercises the more compassionate I become towards other people, especially those less fortunate than me.  I do not chastise myself for the judgmental thoughts that I have towards other people, and I try hard to be aware of those feelings rather than simply ignoring those feelings or pretending they do not exist.  Accepting that when I see other people my first reaction is to judge them as someone I would or would not trust allows me to understand how I am treating them.  I can then take steps to understand my negative (or positive) feelings, and act in a way that treats the other with dignity and equality.

A limited Perspective

“Our single perspective is so limited.” I highlighted this quote from Allison Vesterfelt’s book Packing Light back on January 10th. To me this quote speaks about how many different people there are on the planet with different backgrounds, experiences, advantages, and disadvantages. All of these people with all of their different histories create billions of different perspectives. This quote speaks to me because it is to easy for us to ignore others and fall into our own routine in our own bubble of a world and begin to feel as if we know everything and have it all figured out.

It is so hard at times to imagine the stress that other people are under, and how it shapes the way they see the world and their every day actions. I have always been a relatively fit individual, and lately for me I have begun to understand just how difficult it is to stay healthy, especially when one is working and has to take care of a family. In the past, my single perspective drew me to criticize out of shape people, but as I have worked at seeing other’s lives from their own perspectives and not just my own, I see how difficult it is to be active and exercise regularly.

I like this quote because it can extend to so many additional areas. I would call the situation above “using new perspectives to reduce body image bias” but new perspectives can also open doors and soften our attitudes towards people in thousands of other ways. Other examples from my life that I have recently been searching for new perspectives to help me be a more compassionate person include areas of religion and spirituality, wealth status versus immigration status, and even lighter areas such as arts and hobbies. By trying to approach each of these areas from new perspectives I become more engaging with people who view the world differently than I do, and this gives me a chance to learn. One positive and unexpected benefit is that it helps me to become a more interesting person. I can hold more conversations with people because I have taken the opportunity to step into their field of interest, either with them for the first time or with someone else previously, and can share my perspective while learning about theirs.