What makes a situation good or bad? In his book, The Obstacle is the Way, Ryan Holiday follows the stoic logic of Marcus Aurelius to explain that our perceptions and opinions are how we determine whether any given situation is good or bad. How we decide to interpret any event shapes our actions, and we can move in directions that will be either beneficial or detrimental for us and our community, but it is always our choice based on our interpretations of the world around us. Holiday writes, “In fact, if we have our wits fully about us, we can step back and remember that situations, by themselves, cannot be good or bad. This is something — a judgment — that we, as humans beings, bring to them with our perceptions.”
It is obvious that the most horrific human experiences and sufferings in our species’ history are bad situations, but when we look at the daily experiences of our lives, we rarely face any challenges or obstacles that are inherently bad. We will face points of incredible bad luck and experience stretches of good luck, but it is ultimately our decision and perception that determines what we think of our luck. A flat tire when we are already late for work could be a very bad situation, but if we can take hold of our emotions then we can recognize that the tire on our car has no direct contact with the faculties of our mind, and therefore has no direct control over our thoughts. Allowing a random situation to take hold of our mind and shape our perception is an act of abandoning what makes us human. If instead we ask ourselves how we have truly been harmed, and if we recognize that our lives are truly never made better or worse by nearly any situation, then we can grow and adapt.
When Holiday writes of using obstacles to find our direction, he is writing about building the ability in our mind to recognize that it is our reactions to obstacles that shapes the path of our lives. Obstacles present opportunities to grow, but in the moment it is never easy or encouraging to have our path obstructed by challenges. However, self-awareness and reflection on our thoughts can help us see the best ways to move forward. When we choose not to become angry and dejected over situations, we give our minds the power to be creative and resilient. Through greater perspective we recognize that nothing truly changes our lives besides our own mindset.