Saturday, May 14, 2022

Be your own best advisor

Bad things happen. And short-term problems can seem the most tragic. We catastrophize. I lost all my work when the computer crashed; my car won't start, so I'll never make it to my appointment; spilling that sauce ruined my only decent shirt. Why me? Life is so unfair. 

But when these things happen to other people, we have a different response. Our detachment helps put problems into perspective. We calmly remind our friend that the computer auto-saves; that a bus drives past every 10 minutes; that they have many other shirts. There are very few problems with no solution.

Perhaps it is part of the human condition to judge events more severely when they happen to ourselves rather than to other people. That's why it helps to practice detachment. We should try to remember how we respond when bad events happen to someone else. When you're faced with a difficult event, detach yourself. Imagine that it has happened to your friend. Then, give yourself the advice you would offer that friend. Be calm, and help yourself to put things into perspective. Be your own best advisor.

Friday, April 29, 2022

Fortune is of your own making

Fortuna was the name given to the goddess of fortune. She was depicted as holding a tiller with which she could shift our luck from left to right - from good to bad. This image is useful. It reminds us that many events are beyond our control. We may think our good fortune is of our own making, but the truth is, it often sits well beyond our sphere of influence.

Sometimes it may seem that Fortuna is on our side; working with us to provide everything we need. We secure a good job. We start a romantic relationship. We win the lottery. Things couldn't be better. But then she shifts her rudder, and luck abandons us. We cry out in frustration, "why don't good things happen to me anymore?"

But isn't this a silly question? Whether controlled by the whims of Fortuna or the result of countless other random events, our day-to-day experiences can't always be favorable. Sometimes a more suitable person gets the job. Sometimes people decide to break-up. Sometimes we don't win the lottery. This should be of no surprise.

Still, we can make our own fortune by shifting our focus. Instead of ruminating over events that are beyond our control, we should instead tend to our own good character. Fortuna does whatever she wants. Forget her. Make yourself into the best person you can be. Act honorably and with good intentions. Treat other people well, and you will find that you are more fortunate than ever.

Friday, April 22, 2022

All things end

As summer ends, the colors change and we find ourselves in autumn, awaiting the arrival of winter. The days get shorter, colder, and darker. We feel a sense of loss. If only summer could last forever. Winter is so dreary.

But winter can be a beautiful season. Snow transforms the world, revealing new shapes and colors. We use the term 'winter wonderland' with good reason. Rain can also reveal winter's beauty. Watching the wild weather from a warm, well-lit house gives a cozy sense of security. Why, then, do we lament the end of summer? 

Perhaps it represents the inevitable passing of our own time. With each winter, we witness ourselves age. We sense the loss of better days. And although we know that the cycle of nature will continue for as long as Earth has seasons, our cycle will eventually come to an end. One day the sun will set on our final summer.

This is an uncomfortable thought. But it is unavoidable, and we should always keep it in mind. Doing so will help us see the beauty in the present moment. Rather than grieving over the loss of summer, or anticipating the arrival of a future summer, we should make the most of what we have here and now. Admire the beauty of the moment, and accept that it too, will one day be gone.

[Photo credit: Olivia Silby, 2022]

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Whose opinion matters?

Nervousness, anxiety, embarrassment. We spend so much time with these emotions. They're like unwelcome friends following us through life; getting in the way and bringing us down. But why do we attract such friends? Perhaps because we have a desperate need to be liked; to have the approval of others. We ask ourselves, what if I screw up my presentation? What if my friends don't like my haircut? What if my dinner party falls flat? People will talk. People will judge. People will laugh. People, people, people. 

Who are these people that take such an interest in our small failings? Many of them are in our minds. We imagine what people might be thinking, while in reality they aren't thinking about us at all. Instead, they're thinking about themselves. We need not concern ourselves with their thoughts.

But what of the people who do notice? We place great weight on their thoughts. And yet, if we knew more about them, their respect might not matter to us. They might be nasty people with unsavory opinions about the world. If we knew them, we probably wouldn't like them. We needn't gain the respect of people who we, ourselves, don't respect.

So, whose respect should we seek? Whose opinion really matters? We should look to ourselves for answers to those questions. People will think whatever they want. We have no control over that. But we do have control over the strength of our own character. We should measure ourselves against our own integrity. What matters is our opinion of our own efforts to live a just and honorable life.

Live well. Impress yourself with your efforts and you will likely find that your presentation goes well; you like your haircut; and your dinner party is a success.

Friday, April 8, 2022

Does any of it really matter?

We grow up wanting success. We almost expect it! As we enter adulthood with all the hopes of youth, we set out to live a good life and make a difference to the world. But in reality, life is hard. Earning a living can be a daily struggle. Hours are cut. The rent is due. The car breaks down. With so many bills to pay, it can be difficult to make ends meet. Perhaps we take a second job to help ease the pressure. We may find ourselves walking the streets at night delivering advertising fliers. Low pay, but every dollar helps. 

Busy lives don't offer much time for reflection. But occasionally we may find ourselves with a few spare minutes. Some precious time to ponder the question, does any of this really matter? 

As we come to realize that our vanishingly short lives will soon pass, we may conclude that our mundane activities are insignificant and that nothing we do is of any real value. Indeed, our lives are short. And our accomplishments, great and small, will quickly fade until eventually all evidence that we lived will have disappeared. So, we may be forgiven for thinking that there is little point to it all. That our lives don’t really matter. 

But what is it that we want to leave behind? Large bank accounts? Buildings? Artwork? In focusing on the overt ways in which we might make a difference, we forget the subtle. We may think that delivering fliers is insignificant and makes no real difference; but is this true? Consider that the delivery of a pamphlet at just the right time may result in someone visiting a store, which may lead to a chance encounter with a sales assistant, which could result in her inspiration to take a course and change her life direction. She may end up having a significant impact on society. The flier deliverer will one day be gone and forgotten, but that is true of everyone. We will all be forgotten. However, our activities ripple through time and can make a significant difference to the world. 

So, when we feel insignificant and think our lives don't matter, we must remember that we are part of a massively interconnected chain of cause and effect. Our actions don't exist in isolation. They reverberate around the world and echo through time.

[Image Credit: Olivia Silby, 2022]

Friday, April 1, 2022

People are not perfect

We live in a world of perfectionism. In our daily dealings we expect things to go a certain way, and when our expectations aren't met, we are shocked. We angrily complain. Why was my coffee bitter? Why was the bus driver rude? Why was my doctor running so late? We judge people. The barista must be inept. The bus driver is an asshole. My doctor cares more about long lunches than seeing his patients. 

But what are we forgetting? These people are also struggling through life. Their problems may be more significant than we think. Perhaps the barista's mother had just been taken to hospital. Perhaps the bus driver had recently been given notice of redundancy. Perhaps the doctor's car had broken down. Your moment of inconvenience may be  relatively small on the scale of challenges people have to overcome in their lives.

So, when judging people for their mistakes we should remember that they may be having a difficult day. Life is hard on us all. But we can help each other with patience and understanding.

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Difficult decisions

Life is full of decisions. Sometimes the simplest decisions are the most difficult. Why? Because they often require us to choose between a hard and easy option. Do we have that difficult conversation in person or put it in an email? Do we apologise for that drunken rant or hope it is forgotten? Do we own up to our mistake or hope the problem just goes away?

But, how often has the easy option caused more trouble further down the line? Perhaps it is best to take the difficult road earlier to avoid worsening the situation. And facing up to the challenge may strengthen your character.

When faced with a difficult choice, we should ask ourselves two questions: 

1. is it admirable or shameful to avoid the difficult option?

2. is it admirable or shameful to accept the challenge and take the harder path?

Answering these questions can guide us in the right direction. But it’s not easy. The path of least resistance beckons and is tempting. We must, at all times, ask ourselves, what sort of person do you want to be?

Saturday, March 19, 2022

People do the best they can

People don't deliberately set out to do evil. Sure, people harm each other every day. But this is generally not the result of evil intentions. Rational people don't look themselves in the mirror each day and say, "today I'm going to do evil things for evil reasons". People act for what they think are good reasons. They think their intentions are good, even though hindsight may later reveal that they got it wrong.

So when we are harmed, or simply frustrated by the actions of other people, we need to remind ourselves that they are probably doing the best they can. We all struggle through life, trying to make good decisions. But we aren't perfect. Nobody's perfect. So, we shouldn't be surprised when people make mistakes. Be patient and remember, life is difficult for them too.

Saturday, March 12, 2022

I know that I know nothing

We know so much. Whenever something happens in the world, we have opinions about it. We know where things have gone wrong. We know what is true and what is false. We know who can be trusted and who cannot. And we have solutions to it all. If only they'd listen.

When we have such knowledge, we might think there is not much more to learn. After all, we cannot learn what we already know. But perhaps there is conceit in our claim to knowledge. When we know in our hearts that our opinions are true, and that we have all the answers, we build a wall around ourselves. A wall that blocks other viewpoints. A wall that impedes learning.

Perhaps the key to wisdom is the admission that we don't know as much as we think we do. Real wisdom might sit not in our ability to strongly defend our preconceived opinions, but in our willingness to be proven wrong. This ability is not easily mastered. But if we can see the strength in admitting that our opinions may be wrong, we might find ourselves closer to achieving true wisdom.

- S

Thursday, March 3, 2022

Fact, Fiction - Surviving Social Media

What is fact? What is fiction? With the rise of social media and independent news we find it increasingly difficult to tell the difference. After all, if a report is being presented by an official looking person on an official looking website, we can be forgiven for thinking it is true. 

But often these reports are false. Many invented stories are being presented as fact these days. And it seems that people no longer need to support their claims with evidence. We just need to say "the government is corrupt" or "climate change is fake" or "the virus is not harmful" and it becomes a sort of truth. Not actual truth, of course. But a pseudo truth which is treated as actual truth by people who really want to believe it. My favorite student, Plato, warned against this type of truth relativism.

So, what can we do? How can we guard ourselves from believing false information? A simple question may help. Does our favorite news source ever report the opposite of what we think? If not, we should be wary. Whenever we find ourselves following a news source that only ever presents information that we agree with, we should be highly suspicious. Why? Because a balanced source will present a range of viewpoints and information, some of which we agree with and some of which we do not. A source that tells us only what we already believe is not likely to be balanced.

This requires a level of critical self-reflection that we may find difficult. After all, it is reassuring to have our beliefs confirmed time and time again. But it is a rare person who has nothing but true beliefs. So we need our news sources to challenge us. To present ideas that we might disagree with. To sometimes tell us we’re wrong. Seek balance, and you may find yourself better able to tell the difference between fact and fiction.

- Socrates