“We spend much of our day anticipating, and trying to avoid, the emotional pains we inflict on ourselves,” writes Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. “How seriously should we take these intangible outcomes, the self-administered punishments (and occasional rewards) that we experience as we score our lives?”
Kahneman’s point is that emotions such as regret greatly influence the decisions we make. We are so afraid of loss that we go out of our way to minimize risk, to the point where we may be limiting ourselves so much that we experience costs that are actually greater than the potential loss we wanted to avoid. Kahneman is pointing to something that stoic thinkers, dating back to Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, addressed – our ability to be captured by our emotions and effectively held hostage by fears of the future and pain from the past.
In Letters from a Stoic
, Seneca writes
, “Why, indeed, is it necessary to summon trouble – which must be endured soon enough when it has once arrived, or to anticipate trouble and ruin the present through fear of the future? It is foolish to be unhappy now because you may be unhappy at some future time.”
I think Kahneman would agree with Seneca’s mindset. In his book, Kahneman write that we should accept some level of risk and some level of regret in our lives. We know we will face regret if we experience some type of failure. We can prepare for regret and accept it without having to ruin our lives by taking every possible precaution to try to avoid the potential for failure, pain, and loss. It is inevitable that we are going to lose loved ones and have unfortunate accidents. We can’t prepare and shield ourselves from every danger, unless we want to completely withdrawal from all that makes us human.
Ryan Holiday wrote
about the importance of feeling and accepting our emotions in his book The Obstacle is the Way
. He wrote, “Real strength lies in the control or, as Nassim Taleb put it, the domestication of one’s emotions, not in pretending they don’t exist.”
Kahneman would also agree with Holiday and Taleb. Econs, the term Kahneman and other economists use to refer to theoretical humans who act purely rationally, are not pulled by emotions and cognitive biases. However, Econs are not human. We experience emotions when investments don’t pan out, when bets go the wrong way, and when we face multiple choices and are unsure if we truly made the best decision. We have to live with our emotions and the weight of failure or poor investments. Somehow, we have to work with these emotions and learn to continue even though we know things can go wrong. Holiday would suggest that we must be present, but acknowledge that things wont always go well and learn to recognize and express emotions in a healthy way when things don’t go well.
Kahneman continues, “Perhaps the most useful is to be explicit about the anticipation of regret. If you can remember when things go badly that you considered the possibility of regret carefully before deciding, you are less likely to experience less of it.” In this way, our emotions can be tools to help us make more thoughtful decisions, rather than anchors we are tethered to and hopelessly unable to escape. A thoughtful consideration of emotions, a return to the present moment, and acceptance of the different emotions we may feel after a decision are all helpful in allowing us to live and exist with some level of risk, some level of uncertainty, and some less of loss. These are ideas that stoic thinkers wrote about frequently, and they show up for Kahneman when he considers how we should live with our mental biases and cognitive errors.
In Letters From a Stoic, Seneca writes, “give over hoping that you can skim, by means of epitomes, the wisdom of distinguished men. Look into their wisdom as a whole; study it as a whole. They are working out a plan and weaving together, line upon line, a masterpiece, from which nothing can be taken away without injury to the whole.”
I really like this quote and the idea that Seneca presents. He is saying that simple quotes and sayings are insufficient if we hope to actually build knowledge and construct a concrete mental framework for thinking about life. There are many inspirational quotes from famous and influential people, but reading them in isolation is often inadequate for developing a real philosophy of life.
This is an idea that I agree with. I actively try to avoid individual quotes, even though I present quotes from books, writers, and thinkers on this blog. My hope is that diving deeper into the meaning for an interesting quote and exploring the ideas it represents will help the quote be more valuable and meaningful for me and anyone else. I try to present some context and how a quote may or may not relate to different aspects of life or perspectives on the world. Based on Seneca’s quote, I suspect he would approve of this approach. What he would not approve of is simple quotes in isolation, or layered over background sunrises.
Individual quotes in isolation become trite, and trying to attach undue meaning to an individual quote or phrase can be harmful, especially when it is taken out of context or applied in an overly broad way. Quotes can only truly be helpful when we consider them within the larger body of work of the individual or culture from which they originate.
Seneca’s writing is less valuable on its own than when it is considered alongside other stoic thinkers such as Marcus Aurelius or modern day writers who have a similar focus like Colin Wright or Ryan Holiday. Deep study is what helps us truly understand the world and develop a better understanding of how ideas relate to the world around us. Deep study is necessary if we want to develop our own framework for the world – an amalgamation of quotes from across the web won’t do.
Marcus Aurelius guided his life with rational thought and reason developed from self-awareness and deep reflection of the world around him. As the Roman Emperor he recorded his thoughts in a journal that would be published as the book Meditations, giving us a chance to see the world through the eyes of a stoic focused on better understanding himself and his place in the world. The advice he left himself is advice we can still use today. His recommendations surrounding the actions and decisions we make is simple, but can have powerful impacts in our lives.
“First, do nothing inconsiderately, nor without a purpose. Second, Make thy acts refer to nothing else than to a social end.” Aurelius explains in this brief section that our actions should be well thought out, intentional, and meant to in one way provide a societal benefit. Actions that we make in a rash manner or actions that only benefit ourselves are not going to help us grow and improve, and they will not better those around us.
When Aurelius uses the word inconsiderately, he refers to the idea of thoughtfully thinking through our actions. He is not just advising us to avoid actions that are not nice for other people, but rather he is encouraging us not to act without first thinking deeply. Building this into our lives today could mean something along the lines of thinking about why we want to eat a bag of chips before we grab one, whether we will just walk past an empty water bottle in the street, or if we will spend our time watching television or doing something more productive. His encouragement to be considerate equates to us being more thoughtful and less impulsive in our actions, and to us spending more time finding ways to help others.
Continuing with this quote and the Emperor’s idea that all of our actions should be done with a purpose and toward a social end, we begin to reshape our purpose on this planet. Our actions should be performed with the greatest focus and intent, and the end result should benefit not just ourselves, but our entire society. When we look for ways to help out everyone and not just ourselves it becomes easier to put a full effort into our work. If our work is incomplete or poorly executed, it is not just us but society that suffers. Aurelius’ advice is to think about the actions and decisions we are making at any moment, reflect to see how our actions could be more beneficial for society, and to execute on our actions.
In Meditations Marcus Aurelius explains his philosophy of the world that would later come to be understood as an approach to stoicism. He shows us the benefits of deep thought and reflection, and guides us through a process of self-awareness to help us control our actions and thoughts in the face of adversity, success, or and everyday occurrences. One of his suggestions which resonated with me was a short sentence about justice and fairness, “The best way of avenging thyself is not to become like the wrong doer.” In this simple sentence Aurelius shows us the importance of acting on our own with integrity, and of acting with a clear focus to avoid worsening ourselves through our reactions to being harmed.
The quote also reminds me of California Congresswoman Barbara Lee’s dissent against the use of military force in Afghanistan in 2001 in which she quoted a member of the clergy who spoke at a 9/11 memorial service the morning of her vote. Representative Lee encouraged her fellow members of congress to be less volatile and more tempered in their response to the terror attacks on September 11th, 2001 and she ended her speech by saying, “As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore.” Her quote ties in with Aurelius by focusing on standing tall in the face of adversity and not allowing ourselves to be continually harmed by a single instance of evil. As I have written in the past
, Aurelius built his stoic mindset through self-reflection and control, striving to “be like the promontory against which the waves continually break, but it stands firm and tames he fury of the water around it.” By choosing how we will react to the negative we have the power to improve ourselves and our fortunes, or we have the ability to abandon our will and allow ourselves to devolve to the same evil which we seek to overcome.
If we wish to become better people then we must understand that revenge is not something that we best achieve through violence or the destruction of the other, but rather through deeper understanding, communication, and mutual respect for the other. We can surpass our base reaction and become better than that which tries to harm us by remembering what President Lincoln said, “Have I not destroyed an enemy when I make him a friend?”
Chris Kraus wrote a letter for James Harmon to include in his book, Take My Advice. In her letter Kraus writes about being called “an obsessive” and she shares the story of a French poet Antonin Artuad whose poetry was rejected by a revered French magazine editor. She sets up his story to explain what it means to be obsessed by something, and how writing helps us build our dialog and communication skills. One section of her writing that I particularly liked was a short sentence that brought back my focus of awareness and exploration, “Nothing exists without a source.” Writes Kraus, “It is important to Contextualize everything.”
I do believe that sometimes in our lives we can become too caught up in trying to understand the deeper meaning, the hidden thoughts that lead to action, or any ulterior motive behind another persons words or actions, but in general, I think we often view the world through a superficial lens. In our romantic relationships we evaluate every word, text message, phone call, and winky face sent to us as if we were hired crime scene detectives, at least when we first start dating, but we quickly begin to make assumptions about our loved one and return to a comfortable place where we quit looking for the deeper meaning that influenced our actions and those of our companion.
In her letter, Kraus used Artuad’s life story to show that we can find deeper meaning in the world when we work to better understand the context of the world around that which we focus on. In order to truly understand something we must know where it came from, what influenced its origin, and what purpose it was supposed to serve. By taking a microscope to a situation we can make better judgements and begin to see the multiple perspectives surrounding a single event. The better we become at this the more we will be able to connect with others, and the more patience and compassion we can develop for those who deserve it.