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.

The Torment of the Past and Future

Our brains and the way we think about the world are basically our real world super power. We are able to predict what is going to happen five minutes from now, five hours from now, and five days from now. We can remember loads of information from our past and synthesize that information in new situations to draw new conclusions. We are able to intuitively recognize what other people are thinking and to deduce how they felt in past situations or how they will feel in future situations. Our brains do incredible work to help us move through the universe and our species would not be here today without our brains’ super powers.

 

But as great as these super powers are, they can also lead us astray and cause real problems in our lives. Ruminating on things we do not like from our past or on our fears for the  future can be life ruining. We can become embarrassed, scarred, and find ourselves in so much pain from our past that we cannot enjoy our present. Similarly, we can become paralyzed with fear, disillusioned with possibilities, and stuck thinking about negative things may happen in the future, causing us to forget our present moment. In Letters from a Stoic Seneca writes, “But the chief cause of both of these ills is that we do not adapt ourselves to the present, but send our thoughts a long way ahead. And so foresight, the noblest blessings of the human race, becomes perverted. Beasts avoid the dangers which they see, and when they have escaped them are free from care; but we men torment ourselves of that which is to come as well as over that which is past.”

 

To a much greater extent than many of us do, we should probably seek out psychological services to help us better order our thoughts. Stoicism has helped me with remembering the present and has given me tools to use to avoid ruminating on the future or past. Combining psychological services with a stoic toolkit can be very helpful in a world where happiness is presented in a way that doesn’t actually reflect the things that will make us happy. We want to plan ahead and strive for a healthy life where our needs are provided for, but if we become so focused on needing out life to have a particular type of car, or so focused on what might happen if we are not able to pay certain bills, then we can ruin our health and our current lives. And if we cannot let go of the past, if we cannot look at what has happened in our life and say, “that sucked, but here is what I can learn moving forward,” then we will constantly be haunted by ghosts. Learning to be present is not just about breathing exercises and comfortable pillows. Being present is about recognizing when our minds have jumped ahead or when our minds are stuck in the past and learning to refocus the mind on the current moment, the only time where we can take any action to improve things.

Longing for Impossible Things

I currently have Fernando Pessoa’s book The Book of Disquiet (translated by Margaret Jull Costa) on my headboard for a little bit of reading before bed. The book was not published during Pessoa’s lifetime, but was compiled and published after his death. It is a collection of Pessoa’s inner thoughts existing as diary entries, reflections on his life, disjointed feelings, and a set of observations about the world. The book includes incredibly written and translated passages like the following:

 

“The most painful feelings, the most piercing emotions are also the most absurd ones – the longing for impossible things precisely because they are impossible, the nostalgia for what never was, the desire for what might have been, one’s bitterness that one is not someone else, or one’s dissatisfaction with the very existence of the world.”

 

Pessoa is incredibly honest with himself through his writing and he seems to be able to interrogate every emotion and every thought he has. He is so good at it that it painfully tears him apart as he is unable to distinguish between himself, the natural world, the stories he creates of how it all ties together, and his unending awareness of everything inside and outside of himself.

 

His quote above stands out to me because I find such incredible inspiration and power in dreaming of large and almost unattainable things. At the same time, giant and ambitious goals terrify me, and leave me almost paralyzed, too afraid to take action but afraid not to dream. I constantly dream of things could have been different, of the steps and actions I could have taken to truly be on a path toward the greatness I desire, and dissatisfaction seems to lurk around every corner if I look for it. But like Pessoa, I recognize how vain and fruitless this way of thinking can be. There is a fine balance in life between believing in the potential of the future, and being paralyzed between the danger, fear, and monotony of every day life. Understanding how absurd our thinking is and recognizing the fallacies of our stories seems like a way to navigate between our ambitious goals and our defeating self doubt.

 

Greater awareness of who we are and the stories we tell ourselves can help us understand if our goals meaningful enough to make great sacrifices for. Recognizing how our narrative drives us gives us the ability to push back against our self doubt and allows us to craft a new framework that is not as limiting for who we are and who we want to be. We can even get outside the story of our goals and see what small actions we can take to begin to make progress toward our goals, defeating the paralysis we may feel. The recognition of the power of our inner narrative is the one thing that Pessoa seemed to be missing, and it also seems like the one thing that could have helped to change his fear and paralysis.

Pretending We Know Everything

A few years back I was in a health policy and administration class at the University of Nevada, and a recent graduate was presenting a lecture. At one point in her lecture, she talked about stepping into a role at a local hospital and working with a leader at the hospital who openly admitted to her that they were hesitant to work closely with doctors at the hospital because they did not want to be in a position where they were not the smartest person in the room. It is rare that someone opens up like this to any of us, but when someone does open up like this, we can use it as a moment to reflect on what ways we share the same insecurities, fears, habits, or ideas that we try to hide from everyone. In this case, a successful lead executive felt smart and successful, but didn’t want to be around brilliant doctors who may suspect that they were an impostor, someone who was not as smart as they wanted everyone to believe, and as a result not as competent as their job required.

 

It is easy to understand why this person may have been so afraid of not being seen as the smartest person in the room, but it is dangerous for anyone to believe they are smarter than they are, that they already know it all, and to actively avoid situations where they may encounter something they are not familiar with and don’t understand. Ryan Holiday addresses this issue in his book, Ego is the Enemy, when he writes, “With accomplishment comes a growing pressure to pretend that we know more than we do. To pretend we already know everything. Scientia infla (knowledge puffs up). That’s the worry and the risk-thinking that we’re set and secure, when in reality understanding and mastery is a fluid, continual process.”

 

Our egos want to preserve a picture of us that presents us in the best possible light. As a result, the more success we achieve, the more likely we are to try to restrict ourselves to our own areas of expertise. Stepping beyond our comfort level, applying ourselves in new and unfamiliar terrains, and taking new chances creates the fearful possibility for the canvass of our perfect life to be torn in half. Rather than striving for more, we try to entrench what we have and protect the perfect presentation of ourselves.

 

What Holiday continues to write about in his book is that this mindset of self preservation ultimately becomes our ruin. The ego which wants to puff itself up and believe that it knows everything  puts us in a place where we can be surpassed and where we fail to grow and adapt to changes around us. Rather than helping us maintain our success, the ego actively helps other people and an evolving world sap success away from us.

 

What is worse, our ego likely makes us blind to the process. We vindicate our existing knowledge, habits, and self preservation by lying to ourselves about how smart and competent we are. We tell ourselves we already know what we need, we already figured out how to be the best, and we start to believe those lies and tell everyone what we think we already know. Somewhere, deep down, we may know that we are faking it, but we try to hide that from everyone (including ourselves) and make sure we are only in situations where we are the smartest person in the room. We tell ourselves we are great and create a dreamland around us that preserves the ego while sacrificing progress, growth, and sustained excellence. If we truly want to achieve those things in the long run, we must be aware of this tendency and its destructive power and actively move beyond this mindset.

The Narration Inside Our Heads

We spend so much time inside our heads, thinking about ourselves and what we are doing, feeling, and thinking, that it is easy to imagine that everyone is watching us and thinking about us. We get so caught up in our thoughts about ourselves that we forget that other people probably aren’t paying any attention to us. Most people are probably thinking of themselves the way we are thinking about ourselves. This is a phenomenon that psychologist David Elkind refers to as the Imaginary Audience and author Ryan Holiday writes about it in his book Ego is the Enemy.

 

We constantly have a narrative about the world playing inside our head. We tell ourselves amazing things about who we are, emphasizing the positive traits we see and like in ourselves and comparing ourselves to others in a way that makes us look amazing. At the same time, however, we are likely to have a piece of ourselves that is overly self-critical, telling ourselves that we are not good enough, that we need to prove that we belong, and scaring us into believing that one mistake will reveal to the world that we are not actually as amazing as we make it look. In his book Holiday describes this phenomenon with a quote from the novelist Anne Lamott who describes this part of our ego as if it were a radio station playing in our head 24/7.

 

What is helpful from Holiday’s writing is how he breaks down what is really talking place in a tangled mess inside our mind. Describing all of these thoughts and complex emotions he writes, “Anyone-particularly the ambitious-can fall prey to this narration, good and bad. It is natural for any young, ambitious person (or simply someone whose ambition is young) to get excited and swept up by their thoughts and feelings. Especially in a world that tells us to keep and promote a “personal brand.” We’re required to tell stories in order to sell our work and our talents, and after enough time, forget where the line that separates our fictions from reality.”

 

Our ego buys into the narrative that runs in our mind without question. It loves the thoughts of greatness that we tell ourselves about who we are, but it is constantly acting in fear of losing those stories. Becoming more self-aware and learning that we do not need to constantly build our ego allows us to begin to step back and see the narration inside our heads for what it really is, an incomplete perspective and view of our place in the world. If we can recognize that the stories we tell ourselves are just stories, then we open up the possibilities for us to engage with the world on our own terms, without fear, without a need for self validation, and without the need to be someone that we think will impress everyone else. This allows us to take the small steps and actions that make us feel good and help us to actually accomplish things that matter and make a difference in the world.

The Present Moment Is the Most Important Thing In Your Life

Throughout my life I have been very lucky to not suffer from severe anxiety or depression, but I have gone through bouts of despair and periods where I have felt unhappy and a bit anxious. One of things that has helped me during these times is focusing in on the present moment and trying to be fully aware of where I am at right now and what I am doing right now. Zeroing in on the present helps pull my mind out of the story it tells itself about who I am, what I am worth, how successful my past has been, and what I must do in the future to be a great person. In the present moment, the only thing that matters is what we are currently engaged in and what we are doing right now. Besides the immediate present moment, nothing else truly impacts our life.

 

In his book The Miracle of Mindfulness, author Thich Nhat Hanh describes the importance of mindfulness and the value the present moment brings to us when we actually focus on it. Working on our focus and paying attention to the present moment, whatever we are doing, is a form of meditation. I have always thought of meditation as sitting still and quiet,  focusing on my breath or expanding my awareness of all things around me, but Hanh describes a way for us to meditate in any action by focusing on the present moment and being fully immersed with a singular focus on the task, job, or thing in front of us. He writes,

 

“When you are washing the dishes, washing the dishes must be the most important thing in your life. Just as when you’re drinking tea, drinking tea must be the most important thing in your life. … Each act must be carried out in mindfulness. Each act is a rite, a ceremony.”

 

When we focus on the present moment and what is in front of us right now, everything else begins to recede because our mind only has space for one thing. This practice can help reduce our fears, worries, and the stories and pressures we put on our selves. I do not suggest that everyone who suffers from depression or anxiety can fix their problems  by meditation and mindfulness, but in my life, becoming absorbed in the present moment, recognizing that what I am doing right now is all that I truly have and all that truly matters has helped me overcome these challenges. I try my best to recognize that what has happened in the past is gone, and cannot be changed by what I am doing now, so I should focus on my current activity and be entirely present and immersed with what I am doing. Likewise, I cannot control what will happen in the future, but I can know that by doing my best with what I have now, I can prepare myself for what is to come. The present moment takes away the stories we tell about what our actions mean, because we can always fully experience the present and engage with the present, no matter what has happened to us or what will happen to us in the future. This may not solve all problems with anxiety or depression, but techniques of mindfulness have helped me recover from my own low points.

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.

Communities of Fear

Our nation today faces challenges of concentrated poverty and dangerous neighborhoods that lead to stress, fear, and trauma for the families and children living within them. Senator Cory Booker looks at what life is like for people in these neighborhoods and how it impacts our nation’s well being in his book United. Booker served as mayor of Newark, New Jersey and shares a story about a concerned mother whose child was dealing with trauma and symptoms similar to post traumatic stress disorder after experiencing a gun fight in an impoverished neighborhood in Newark. Focusing on the dangers that these neighborhoods produce and the mental trauma facing those living in such neighborhoods, Booker writes,

“When fear becomes the norm, it stalks your life relentlessly, lurking and casting shadows over your daily routine. Fear changes you. Fear changes us. My parents worried about me, but they never had to deal with an ever present fear that violence could erupt at any moment and consume their child in an instant, affecting him or her in ways that no hug or loving assurance could heal.”

The fear that Booker describes is a result of concentrated poverty and unsafe neighborhoods. Our society has decided that the best way to organize people’s living spaces is to segregate individuals and families based on income. Honest concerns for property values and natural desires to be surrounded by similar people and nice things has pushed societies to split regions and housing based on income, creating wealthy neighborhoods and neighborhoods of intense poverty. The fear that Booker describes in the quote above is the result of living in a situation where poor people are pushed together and in some ways ignored. Regarding the trauma present in these neighborhoods Booker writes, “This is not normal, but somehow we behave as if it is. We accept it. If anything we think it is ‘their’ problem.”

I don’t have a perfect solution to end housing problems and neighborhood violence, but I think that Booker demonstrates that concentrated poverty and the problems it creates are unfairly faced by those with the fewest resources to overcome such challenges. Society often turns a blind eye to the ghettos we have designed to house our poor, and fail to see the choices society has made in establishing neighborhoods in the way we have. The fear and trauma that so many face makes it nearly impossible to overcome the obstacles present in such communities.

In Your 20s

I am currently 25 years-old and I have been working to find a solid path forward in my life. I feel that I have a lot of opportunity, but that I am being asked  to choose a path that somehow limits the direction I can travel. In his book, United, Senator Cory Booker sums up many of the feelings I have about my current point in life. He writes, “Your twenties are a decade without clear paths, as if you have been walking for a good while on a well-lit road and now it ends at a dark forest; there are hundreds of directions you could  take, none of them obviously right. Like many, I fond myself standing and staring, hoping for a sign.”
Booker describes the insecurities he felt as he went through law school and thought about the possibilities of his future. He described the challenges that he and his other classmates faced in preparing themselves for the next steps after college, especially when the next steps were not clear. It is reassuring to read Booker’s story and see that many people face the same challenges and insecurities that I go through. I am back in school after graduating with a degree in Spanish and Political Science, and I am pursuing a Masters in Public Administration at the University of Nevada. Despite a good job and the opportunity to pursue further education, feelings of insecurities and a pressure to have a clear plan still well up inside me.
The quote from Booker and his honesty about his fears helps me recognize that my doubts and worries are baseless. I am reminded of a quote from Colin Wright, “the fear of accidentally working too hard to get someplace we don’t want to be can be paralyzing, but it’s an irrational fear.” The message from Booker is to keep moving and be actively engaged in the world, and when we remember the quote from Wright, we see that we can let go of our fears of not ending up where we want to be. That type of fear is not based on the reality of our experiences, and is therefore, irrational. The important thing to remember during periods of doubt is that we are not alone in feeling insecure, and that our actions will ultimately open new doors if we have the courage to push forward through the forest of unclear choices.

Presence During Tough Times

Author Ryan Holiday wrote about the ways in which we can take the challenges and struggles in our lives and turn them into opportunities for us to grow, learn, and become more complete human beings in his book The Obstacle is the Way. Holiday’s message is always relevant and important for anyone, regardless of your situation. He offers strategies and ways of thinking based on stoic philosophy, but he does so in a way that recognizes our humanity and recognizes that though simple in theory, his recommendations are challenging in real life. What his book gives us is a new perspective on struggles and a practice that overtime can help us succeed when we face obstacles and frustrations.

 

One of the key ideas from his book is our ability to focus on the present moment and to reshape the way in which we interpret events around us. Often times we tear ourselves apart in fear of the unknown future and regret of our past. Holiday encourages us to stay in the present moment and to truly understand our current situation to better handle the mistakes we have made and to better navigate the uncertainty of what is ahead. Holiday writes, “You can take the trouble you’re dealing with and use it as an opportunity to focus on the present moment. To ignore the totality of your situation and learn to be content with what happens, as it happens. To have no “way”  that the future needs to be to confirm your predictions, because you didn’t make any.”

 

In this quote Holiday reminds us that each struggle and each moment of frustration, fear, and doubt can be a tool for us to use to change our perspective. We may be working hard to have life be a certain way, and our obstacles can help us analyze our current situation, recognize that all we have control over is our own thoughts, and let go of the anxiety that builds when we try to force our lives to be a certain way. The act of presence during tough times helps us see the positives and keeps us from letting our mind connect current troubles to past challenges or future fears. Staying present in these difficult moments helps us learn how to be present in every moment, and helps us recognize that all we ever have is the current time.