You Are Not Just Yourself

“Much harm is done by a single case of indulgence or greed,” Seneca wrote in a letter saved in the book Letters From a Stoic, “the familiar friend, if he be luxurious, weakens and softens us imperceptibly; the neighbor, if he be rich, rouses our covetousness; the companion, if he be slanderous, rubs off some of his rust upon us, even though we be spotless and sincere. What then do you think the effect will be on character when the world at large assaults it!”

The way we think about ourselves is that we are conscious actors in control of our behaviors, beliefs, worldviews, and actions. Who we are and what we do is under our control. We decide if we want to engage with people, shut ourselves in our room and read all day, be nice to strangers, gossip about our co-workers, and eat at Taco Bell. The reality however, is that much of who we are and what we do is influenced by the people and situations around us. I was recently listening to Rob Reid’s podcast, After On, and his guest described a study looking at the neighbors of people who win new cars as prizes. The number of people who purchase a new car within a short time period after their neighbor wins a car is larger than you would expect just by chance. People seem to be changing their car buying habits when their neighbor gets lucky and wins a new car.

We are never the version of ourselves that is in control of our decisions and behaviors. How we think about the world and what we see when we look at ourselves, the people around us, and the situations we find ourselves in is influenced by the people around us. As Seneca describes, our friends and neighbors can make us feel certain ways, even if we never wanted to feel the way they make us feel. Situations that seem meaningless, like a neighbor buying a new car, can change the way we feel about ourselves.

This idea can be liberating in the sense that we don’t have to believe that we are fully in control of everything. We don’t have to believe that we operate as a completely independent and objective CEO, rationally making perfect decisions about everything. We can take some pressure off of ourselves.

At the same time, this idea can be frustrating. It says that no matter how much you try, things are going to influence you whether you want them to or not. It means that you may be out of luck if you try to change your behavior or try to see the world in a new way. You may have too many forces pushing on you for you to really get outside of the situation that you find yourself in.

Seneca continues, “You should not copy the bad simply because they are many, nor should you hate the many because they are unlike you. Withdraw into yourself, as far as you can. Associate with those who will make a better man of you. Welcome those whom you yourself can improve. The process is mutual; for men learn while they teach.” The advice Seneca gives as a reaction to our susceptibility to be influenced so heavily by the people and world around ourselves is to build to our self-awareness. Reflect deeply on how we act and behave and think about the ways we wish to act and behave. Find people who can be mentors and guides in living the life you think is meaningful, and then turn around and do what you can to help others, because you will learn more by helping others than just by doing. Recognize that you don’t have it all figured out on your own, and that you won’t always see everything happening around you, but try to build your awareness and try to focus on continual improvement. Not in a flashy way, but in a confident way that is always available for those wish to tap into it.

The Ego and Fairness

I am constantly interested in discussions, arguments, and complaints about fairness. Dictionary.com defines fair as “free from bias, dishonesty, and injustice” but I think we all know “fair” to be more complex than that definition suggests. What I suspect we often mean when we say fair is equitable, which is a far more complex understanding of the world, events, people, and our interactions with all three. Another quick Google search gives us a definition of equitable as fair and impartial (not much help here), but Deborah Stone in her book Policy Paradox identifies nine different dimensions of equity. Things can be equitable by membership, so  that something is equal among a group, but not necessarily equal between groups. Things can be equitable by rank, where different segments within a group receive different treatment, but within a given segment everyone receives something equally. And things can also be equitable based on how they are distributed, with people all having equal chances of obtaining something or with people having equal opportunities to try to obtain something.

 

What got me thinking again about fairness and equity is a quote from Ryan Holiday in his book Ego is the Enemy. He writes “Ego loves this notion, the idea that something is “fair” or not. Psychologists call it narcissistic injury when we take personally totally indifferent and objective events. We do that when our sense of self is fragile and dependent on life going our way all the time. Whether what you’re going through is your fault or your problem doesn’t matter, because it’s yours to deal with right now.” What I take away from this quote is the idea that (1) we spend a lot of our time and energy trying to figure out if we deserve something or not, (2) we feel personally injured or attacked when something we deem to be unfair happens to us, and (3) we often don’t have much control over whether we receive what we deserve or not.

 

I started with a definition of fairness because I think it is important to get to the root of what we mean when we say something is not fair. We want our life outcomes and the things that happen to us to be commensurate (corresponding in size or degree) with the kind of valuable person we see ourselves to be. We want good things to happen to us and other good people, and we want bad things to happen to bad people as if our lives are constantly judged and adjusted by an independent arbiter weighing our live on a balance.

 

However, I introduced Stone’s perspectives on equity to show that fairness is not a simple black and white consideration. Sometimes, equity depends on your position relative to society and the events within society that impact you. Would it be fair for everyone in your office to get an equal sized slice of cake on your birthday? Should you get the biggest slice because its your birthday? Should your boss get the biggest slice because they are the big kahuna and after all, if they had not hired you then you would not be there celebrating your birthday with everyone? Or should Cheryl get a bigger slice of cake since she was technically the company’s founder years ago, even though now she mostly sits in her office half asleep not really doing much? There are a lot of dimensions of equity and fairness that are hard to sort through, especially when our own self-interest is involved.

 

When we begin to complain that something is not fair, we should take a minute to step back and think about the various dimensions of equity and try to understand what aspects of equality are in play. Rather than focusing on whether we think we have been harmed, we should try to better understand the system within which we operate. Going further, we should recognize that we have little to no control over many of the things that happen in our lives. We cannot control a cancer diagnosis (for the most part), we cannot control whether a texting teen rear ends our car, and we don’t always have as much control over our income as we would like to believe. Sitting and constantly questioning why something happened to us, complaining that things are not fair, and arguing that something more fair should have occurred is useless. Often, there are different aspects of equity at play (if a social decision has lead to the outcome we don’t like) or we are trying to ascribe meaning to a random event over which we had little influence or ability to shape and avoid. We can think of what happened to us rationally, and then move on without having to critique the abstract universal balancer that we would like to have watching over our lives and adjusting our scales accordingly.

 

Remaining focused on whether something is fair and complaining that it is not fair will hold back us and our society. To move forward we must accept that fairness and equity are more complex than they feel in the moment, and we must accept that we have less control in our lives than we often believe. We can do our best with the hand we are dealt, and if we do not think that something is equitable, we can examine the ideas laid out by Stone to advocate for a different dimension of equity. Or if we don’t have any control over the event we can bear our situation nobly and move forward without feeling personally injured.

Music, Fear, Culture

Ta-Nehisi Coats discussed growing up in America as a black man in his book Between the World and Me and two of the ideas he continually returned to were fear and not having control of ones body as a black man. Coats described the way that fear made its way into his daily life and manifested in the decisions he made, in the dangers of the places he went, and in the possibility of his future being taken away at any moment. By describing his understanding of the relationship between black people and police he described the possibility of other people using his body to control him. Combined, these forces shaped the culture around Coats as he grew up in ways both implicit and explicit. He never felt truly secure, and he never felt that there was anything physical that he had control over.

 

Born out of this culture, Coats explains, was music and attitudes that other people condemned. Describing his peers and their adaptations to these pressures Coats writes, “I heard the fear in the first music I ever knew,  the music that pumped from boom boxes full of grand boast and bluster. The boys who stood out on Garrision and Liberty up on Park Heights loved this music because it told them, against all evidence and odds, that they were masters of their own lives, their own streets, and their own bodies.”

 

The rap music so frequently reviled by people outside of the black community, when put in context, becomes more than just music with violent and explicit lyrics. It becomes a response to a world that pushes black people to live in fear and to live without control of even their most basic possession, their body. When police go out of their way to stop black people, search their person and property for drugs, and beat or use deadly force at the slightest sign of danger the boastfulness and power inducing feeling of rap music and gangster culture becomes more understandable. We live in a world where very few people are outwardly racist and where most people understand the danger in racist thinking, but nevertheless, racism continues with us thanks to our tribal brain. It exists not in individuals and their actions, but in systems, processes, and policies that appear race neutral but impact different racial groups in different ways. Racism today does not express itself directly, but is supported indirectly by those advantaged groups who do not want to see the status quo change and who hold up merit and colorblindness as evidence of a lack of racism, despite clear disparate outcomes for racial and minority groups.

 

The moment we meet another person we make snap judgements about them, about who we think they are, about whether we think they are like us, and about whether we can trust them. Colin Wright in his book Considerations spends a lot of time looking at these implicit biases and encourages us to become aware of them, and to become aware of times when we are pushing others away from us or withdrawing from situations where we are surrounded by people we deem to be others. Without realizing it we have perpetuated racism through implicit bias and through stories of colorblindness. Studies show that our implicit bias is to see black people as larger and more threatening, and that we will be more likely to expect crime and violence from black people, even if we are well intentioned.

 

Seneca wrote that even the most self-sufficient man could not live without the society of man, but when that society thinks you are a criminal, threatens you, and takes control of your physical body, your existence can never be fulfilled. Coats throughout his book describes the way that black people have their future robbed from them because the society they depend on does not care about their success as much as their punishment and their restriction. None of us actively act to put black people down, to instill fear in the minds of black children, or to control the bodies of black people, but we still have organized ourselves and throughout history have disadvantaged black people in a way that limits the aid and acceptance that society provides. At the same time, we demand that we ourselves are judged on a merit basis and we view our own success as coming from entirely within. We do not see the way in which we rely on the society of man for our existence. Like someone riding a road bike, even with a wind to our back, we still feel wind in our face, making it seem as though we are being pushed back, despite the fact that a strong wind propels us forward. Recognizing and understanding our dependence on society and how our society pushes back against black people can help us understand the culture and attitudes of black people in America today.

The Obstacle is the Way

The final section that I highlighted from Ryan Holiday’s book, The Obstacle is the Way, is a quick passage that sums up the author’s personal philosophy and views of the world. Throughout the book Holiday encourages us to persevere and to find true growth in the challenges we face. He acknowledges the difficulties we will encounter, but helps us understand the ways in which our perspective can turn obstacles into opportunities. Throughout his book I was reminded of a painting that hung on the wall of Coach Kirk Elias’s office at the University of Nevada. Coach E is the women’s cross country coach, and during an internship with the University’s Sports Media department, I spent a lot of time in his office talking running, coaching, and the team. He had a small abstract painting with a person holding a big square object and a caption reading something along the lines of, “here is a large block of whatever is the most difficult for you to carry. Throughout life you will carry it more times than you expect, until it no longer becomes so heavy.” Holiday’s book takes that message and shows us how that heavy block becomes the thing that gives our life direction, not by crushing us, but by helping us develop greater strength.

 

Toward the end of holiday’s book he recaps his writing with the following, “see things for what they are. Do what we can. Endure and bear what we must. What blocked the path now is a path. What once impeded action advances action. The obstacle is the way.”

 

It is so easy to become frustrated by events beyond our control, but changing our focus and perception can help us better approach our challenges. What keeps us up at night can become the thing that defines us by either crushing us, or by giving us a greater foundation to stand upon. Overcoming obstacles does not just put us further along our path, it creates an entirely new path for us. When we shrink from challenges or back away when we see difficulties ahead we limit our growth, but remembering that we will always face obstacles and that we can only grow by facing them nobly allows us to charge forward. Things are always difficult, indeed Abraham Lincoln described life as a trial, but enduring the challenges will help us reach a more meaningful place where we can make a difference in the world as an example for those who follow and run up against the same challenges.

Feeling our Emotions

Ryan Holiday addresses a common misperception of stoicism in his book, The Obstacle is the Way, when he addresses ideas surrounding our emotions and how we handle our emotions. I think people often associate stoicism with a lack of emotion, and will describe people as being stoic when they respond to emotional situations like reactionless statues. I think there is merit to the idea that people who follow stoicism don’t show emotion, but I think it is often taken to the extreme in people’s mind. Not showing wild emotion swings becomes conflated with not having or feeling any emotion at all, and in Holiday’s writing the curtain is pulled back to give us a new view of how we can react to our inner feelings, and to give us new perspective on the thoughts and minds of those we call stoic in turbulent times.

Holiday writes, “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.” Holiday’s quick quote shows that stoics and people who practice stoicism are not simply stones without emotion. Rather than being voids without feelings, Holiday presents an image of someone who is self-aware and capable of managing and controlling their emotions. Stoics have practiced this ability over time, recognizing their feelings, channeling their passion in productive ways, and choosing how they will use their emotions. Often we don’t see these people as having any emotion because we do not see the visible emotional outbursts that are common on television shows and socially encouraged at sporting events.

Holiday takes the idea of feeling emotion a step further in his book. He does not simply explain that people who follow the teachings of Marcus Aurelius and other stoics feel emotions, he explains that people who practice self-awareness and recognize the ways their emotions drive their behaviors experience better outcomes in life than those who allow themselves to be driven by the impulses of their emotional states. Further, Holiday writes that stoics feel their emotions quite strongly, and that they do not ignore their emotions. He encourages his readers to explore and to feel their emotions, but he does so in a way that is constructive and provides us the opportunity to learn and grow from our current state. By using our emotions and being aware of them we can channel our energy into truly productive directions. The failure to recognize and the failure to understand our emotions leaves us in a place of no direction.  When we assume that we should not feel one way or another, and when we strive to be without emotion, we leave a valuable part of ourselves behind.

The One Thing We Control

Perception is a major focus throughout the book The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday. By focusing on how we see the world around us and how we choose to react to the world in which we live, Holiday explains the many ways in which we can adapt and overcome the barriers which impede us along our path. For Holiday, our perception can become either a tool that we use to expand the possibilities around us, or a roadblock preventing us from becoming the best possible version of ourselves. Holiday writes,

 

“We decide what we will make of each and every situation. We decide whether we’ll break or whether we’ll resist. We decide whether we’ll assent or reject. No one can force us to give up or to believe something that is untrue (such as, that a situation is absolutely hopeless or impossible to improve). Our perceptions are the thing that we’re in complete control of.”

 

Reacting automatically and living on autopilot is an easy way to move through life, but it is also a lifestyle that abandons self-control by giving up consciousness in regards to our perceptions. Allowing our lives to be limited by narrow views of what is possible leaves us in a position where our power to change is insignificant. Rather than allowing our mind to see obstacles in new ways, we double down on limitations, and assume that we were never meant to proceed. We accept that our world is finite, and we give control to another person or what we see on television or to forces that seem to operate above us.

 

Holiday encourages us  to regain control over our choices and our perceptions. I don’t think his message is to simply have greater will power or determination in our lives, though that may be part of what he advocates, but ultimately he encourages more thought and expansion of the way we look at any situation.  Life can pull us in many directions and our busy lives may feel like a tornado beyond our control, but through mindfulness and self-reflection, we can begin to recognize the choices we make, and we can begin to recognize how we think about and approach the situations in our life. Changing our perspective and refocusing our thoughts in ways that align with our values will allow us to be more fulfilled. Reaching this point requires the ability to shift our perspectives and to understand the power we have in deciding whether our minds with be fortified and sound, or whether our thoughts will be reactionary and at the discretion of the world around us.

Anger

A pillar of stoicism is the ability to control ones emotions, especially when it comes to negative emotions and states in which we are more likely to harm others. Throughout his book Meditations, Marcus Aurelius, the 2nd century Roman Emperor, reflects on the ideas of anger, contempt, and our thoughts toward other people.  He explains the benefits of calm and collected thought when we are frustrated and feel as though we have been wronged.  Through self-reflection he reminds us of the importance of considering our own actions as if we were in another person’s shoes, and with self-awareness he urges us to think about our actions and how we would like ourselves to behave.

 

Aurelius writes, “Consider how much more pain is brought on us by the anger and vexation caused by such acts than by the acts themselves, at which we are angry and vexed.” When looking at this quote it is easy to think about the importance of not becoming angry, but I think it is more important actually visualize the situation described by aurelius. We can think about how we could have handled situations differently, and we can imagine ways in which we could have been more responsible for ourselves or for others. Keeping this quote in mind and thinking about our conflicts and how we could have mitigated them by controlling our emotions and reactions can help prepare us for future conflicts.

 

Rather than becoming outraged that something negative happened to us, even if that something was an intentional act by another person, we can move forward looking for solutions or ways in which we can use the experience to better ourselves. Aurelius constantly argues for living a life in the present moment, which means recognizing that actions that took place even a second before the present moment no longer impact our current state, particularly in regards to our current actions or decisions.  Stepping back, looking at something that happened, and then deciding that it was not the end of the world will help us make the best decisions as we move forward. If we allow those thoughts, feelings, and emotions to remain, then we give away our self control and let an experience of the past dictate the decisions and actions of our present and future lives.

Forming Opinions

The power of the mind and our ability to control our mind as rational human beings is a central focus of the philosophy of Stoicism.  Being able to look at the world from multiple perspectives and seeing events beyond our singular point of view combine with self-awareness to give us the ability to choose how we will react to the world, as opposed to putting us in a place where we are pushed around by the world.  Marcus Aurelius dives into aspects of this philosophy throughout his book Meditations, leaving us with bits of knowledge that we can use to overcome obstacles and challenges that spring up in our daily lives.

Aurelius’ writes, “that not one of them produces in us an opinion about itself, nor comes to us; but these things remain immovable, and it is we ourselves who produce the judgements about them.” In this quote what the emperor says is that things and events on their own have no impact over our lives and do not somehow force themselves on our brain in a way that changes our thought. It is our observation of things and events and our interpretation that creates an impact on the way we think, and we have the power to change our perspective, change our opinion, and determine whether or not something makes a difference in our lives.  Stoicism takes power away from things, other people, and events, and places it back on the rational faculties of our mind.

Failing to recognize this power, Aurelius would argue, is abandoning our own power and giving it to forces beyond us. It is the act of sacrificing the faculties of our mind and deciding that we do not want to be the ones who are ultimately in charge of our reason and our lives.  When another driver does something that you find annoying or frustrating, allowing yourself to become so angry is a choice, allowing another human being to control your conscious mind.  Becoming overcome with desire for a certain item can take away the power of your mind to control your desires and wishes, and place the control firmly with an inanimate object that does not know or care that you have great desires for it.  Instead, Aurelius’ quote encourages us to recognize the emotions, desires, and impulses of our brain and to work to manage the faculties of our mind so that we are in charge of our thought processes.  By knowing our thoughts and accepting our reactions we can learn about ourselves and begin to decide how we will act and react, and we will become true stewards of our lives.

To Avoid Becoming Frustrated at Things

Marcus Aurelius had a very practical way of looking at the world, and his pragmatism stands out in his book Meditations when he is taking about the ways in which we become frustrated.  Rather than allowing himself to be driven by emotions he was able to slow himself down and think about his thoughts and what should be done.  This aspect of stoicism helped him see the world in a more wholesome manner, and it can help one reduce stress and overcome points of frustration.

 

Aurelius wrote, “It is not right to vex ourselves at things, For they care nought about it,” to remind himself that he should not give anything outside of his mind the power to control his mind. In our world of technology I think this idea fits perfectly into our lives. It is not uncommon for a piece of technology (our computers, TVs, wireless routers, headphones, etc…) to frustrate us.  When we expect our technology to operate seamlessly, we become very disappointed and sometimes irate when things fail.  Allowing ourselves to be overcome with emotion in these situations will not help our devices, and will often lead to worse situations.  What Aurelius would argue is that we should never allow an inanimate object to control our life to the point where it can challenge our emotional wellbeing.

 

When looking at how we should perceive the world around us, Aurelius wrote, “the things which are external to my mind have no relation at  all to my mind.” What he is explaining in this quote is that his mind is its own entity and that it cannot be directly affected by anything outside of our heads.  We choose how we want to allow our mind to react to the world around us because our mind is in control of itself.  When we allow our technology to be the singular thing that brings us joy then we are giving an item control over our brain. When an external event demolishes our emotional state, we are choosing to abandon control of our mind, and we are letting things that do not directly touch our brain to have power over the one thing we absolutely control.

 

Divorcing ourselves from reliance on things outside ourselves (technology, relationships, activities) helps us to regain control of our faculties of mind.  Aurelius would not argue that we should not enjoy the world around us and the point of stoicism is not to avoid any emotional feeling, but we should be able to recognize our thoughts and emotions and adjust our mental framing to be more productive and helpful. We should accept our feelings and understand  them, but we should also have the mental control to shape the actions, decisions, and perspectives of our life. When we give things external to the mind  the power to direct the mind, we give up our independence and become subordinate to things.

What is in Our Control

In his commonplace book, where he recorded his thoughts, ideas, and lessons about the world, Marcus Aurelius wrote that we can approach the world and choose to interpret the world in ways that will either open new doors for us and improve our perspectives, or we can interpret the world in ways that limit our power to influence and shape our lives.  For Aurelius, being able to control your actions and thoughts about the world was paramount as it determined what your experience during your life would be.  He adopted the philosophy of stoicism and his writings show us how he was able to think about the world in more productive manners.  When it comes to thinking about what we control and have direct choices and influence over in our lives he writes,

 

“Show those qualities then which are altogether in thy power: sincerity, gravity, endurance of labor, aversion to pleasure, contentment with thy portion and with few things, benevolence, frankness, no love of superfluity, freedom from trifling magnanimity. Dost though not see how many qualities though art immediately able to exhibit, in which there is no excuse of natural incapacity and unfitness, and yet though still remainest voluntarily below the mark?”

 

It is easy to become caught up in the world or the routines of our daily lives and forget how many choices and decision we have the ability to make in a day. What Aurelius is explaining in the quote above is that we will always be sovereign over our own minds, and we can always choose how we wish to behave and react in certain situations. When we fail to think about how we are interpreting the world, how we are reacting to what others say, and the ways in which we think about our position in the world, then we are forfeiting control of a major part of our selves. We give up the power to shape the direction of our lives.  What Aurelius advocates for is greater acceptance of the power of our minds, and the useful practice of empowering ourselves over the influences that are easy to allow to control our minds.