Wednesday, June 15, 2022

It could be worse


Our day-to-day challenges are sometimes overwhelming. As we realize we are losing control of the situation, we throw our hands up and cry, "why me?" This may be a time to pause, remove ourselves, and reflect on what is really going on. Is the situation truly as bad as it seems? Or are we catastrophizing and making it worse in our own minds? Often problems resolve themselves and are quickly forgotten, with or without our panic.

It can be helpful to consider the challenges other people have faced. Challenges which didn't turn out so well. We might ask ourselves how the captain of the Titanic felt when he came to the realization that he had lost control of the situation. Few of us will ever face that sort of challenge. Perhaps we should keep this image in mind when things get chaotic in our own lives. The image of that sinking ship helps us maintain perspective. From there we can approach our own problems with a different frame of mind - an understanding that things could have been much worse.

[Image credit: Public Domain, National Maritime Museum]

Saturday, June 4, 2022

Be Virtuous


Good and bad can happen any day. We may win the lottery. We might be involved in a car accident. We could land our dream job. Our co-workers might gossip behind our back. Positive and negative events all require the same thing. They require us to act admirably and with virtue.

But what are the virtues? There are four Stoic virtues, which originated with Socrates: Courage; Temperance; Justice; Wisdom.

Virtues are practical. They are things we can use to guide our daily actions. When faced with events, we must choose our response. Will I act bravely or cowardly? Will I be selfless or selfish? Will I be just or unjust? Will I be wise or foolish? Asking ourselves these questions can guide us to act well in response to the good and bad events that we encounter every day.

Saturday, May 28, 2022

Fear of the future


Many of our fears and anxieties exist in the imagination. We ruminate over future events that may never come to be. I might be late to work. Inflation might increase my mortgage rate. That small bump might be cancer. We don't know that these events will become reality, but in obsessing over them we limit the joy we find in the present moment.

Should we then ignore the future and focus only on the here and now? This is a tempting solution, but it may leave us unprepared for life's challenges. Perhaps a better solution is to underscore the word "might". There are many possible futures. Some become reality, but most do not. We should prepare for possible futures objectively. If we rehearse these events by somehow removing ourselves, then we can prepare without torturing ourselves with anxiety. Play out future scenarios in the mind as if they are happening to someone else. Doing this requires no fear or suffering.

We know bad things happen. So, we should not be surprised when things go wrong. Preparation can help us deal with bad luck when it occurs. The trick is to avoid fearing things that may never happen.


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


Monday, February 28, 2022

Take time for calm contemplation


It is easy to get caught up in our daily business. Everything seems to be a priority. Everything except time to ourselves. But without time to ourselves, how can we truly contemplate our lives? 

We all want to live wisely. But that means we need time to reflect on our day-to-day activities. Did I act justly to other people? Did I cause any harm? And if so, how can I put things right? True contemplation takes time. 

We need to set aside a few minutes each day for quiet contemplation. Perhaps those few minutes could extend to an hour. An hour free of distraction. An hour of stillness for peaceful thinking. It may be difficult at first, but in time we may begin to relish the stillness in our otherwise active lives. 

Friday, February 25, 2022

Loss can be good


During the pandemic many people have lamented the loss of their normal lives. They ruminate on the things they miss. Given our tendancy to form attachment to material pleasures, this is not surprising. If one derives happiness from eating in restaurants then one will no doubt feel a sense of loss when the restaurants are closed. It may be that the happier person is the one who has detached themself from those material sources of pleasure.

But such detachment is hard. So what can we do to maintain happiness in these difficult times? Perhaps we should focus less on what we have lost and more on what we have gained. Sure, we can't always visit our favorite restaurants, but we now have more time to work in the garden. It may be more difficult to travel abroad, but this affords time to enjoy local walks. Going dancing with friends is less common, but now the evenings can be spent on new hobbies - painting or perhaps poetry. 

Remember also that when something good is lost, painful things might go away too. You might have lost those boozy nights out, but you have also lost the awful hangovers. Losing things can be good.

So, try to remember that loss is not necessarily bad. Thinking about loss in a different way may bring opportunity and gratitude.


Friday, February 18, 2022

Can money buy happiness?


I have dialogued with many people over the years. A recurring theme is the concept of happiness. Yesterday I discussed this very theme with a wonderful young person named Oscar. Oscar argued that the statement "money can't buy happiness" is false. He told me that money can indeed buy happiness. Being as eager to learn as ever, I asked for an example. He responded by listing a range of products he's purchased which made him happy. The reasoning seemed to be as follows: when I purchase X, I am happy; therefore, money can buy happiness.

Still curious, I asked Oscar to show me one of the products he was referring to. He pointed to a lego model prominently displayed on a nearby shelf.

I carefully examined the model and asked, "Can you confirm that this is an example of money buying happiness?"

"Yes." he said.

Perplexed, I continued, "Can you please show me? Can you point to the happiness?"

He was confused by my request, so I elaborated. "You said that this is an example of happiness which you have bought with money. Well, were is it? All I see is a collection of plastic bricks. Can you point to this 'happiness' thing that you've purchased". 

He must have thought I was mad. He explained that the happiness was a feeling he felt while working with the bricks. 

I asked, "Is happiness guaranteed when someone buys bricks?"

He shook his head. "No, of course not."

"Ah", I said, "I understand. So the happiness is not a thing contained in the bricks, it comes from the person using the bricks. In this case, you." 

He agreed. 

I continued, "It seems that money can buy pieces of plastic but not happiness itself. Something more is required for that. Perhaps you could experience the same level of happiness by stacking pebbles or building sandcastles. The happiness is not a property of any of these things. Rather, it is a thing you create for yourself."

He reluctantly agreed to this point and we moved on to discuss other things. The point to be drawn from this is that there are many factors involved in happiness. Money alone is no guarantee of happiness. So we should be realistic with our expectations. Money doesn't really buy happiness.

- Socrates

Saturday, February 5, 2022

Do we really own anything?

Do we really own anything? Is true ownership possible at all? Take a look at your money and possessions and ask yourself, are they really mine? These things are here today and gone tomorrow. Nothing lasts forever. Even our lives are finite - as if temporarily borrowed from the universe. 

If true ownership is impossible, then it seems that pride in one's possessions is misplaced. It also seems that material attachment can lead to loss and despair. So, remind yourself daily that nothing lasts forever. Everything we possess, including our own lives, will eventually return to the universe.

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Don't try to live an extraordinary life


Don't try to live an extraordinary life. You may find yourself disappointed, for not all lives can be extraordinary and such things cannot be planned. Try instead to live a just and honorable life. Treat people with kindness and dignity. Act admirably in all of your dealings. You may find, then, that you have lived a good life - a life of wisdom. And there surely can be no disappointment in living wisely.

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Legacy, Immortality, What really Matters?



Will I be remembered after I'm gone? This is a question many people ask. In the 1984 movie Amadeus, Mozart's rival composer, Salieri, recounts his life long obsession with composing music that will survive beyond his death. As portrayed in the movie, his obsession made him act in shameful ways. He became a dishonorable person. Then, approaching the end of his life, he despairs that Mozart's music has survived while his own music has gradually become extinct. 

When we listen to the great music of Mozart we may marvel at how it has endured through time. As if Mozart is somehow still with us. Perhaps immortality is possible after all. But the truth is, Mozart is gone. He died in 1791. No good nor harm can come to him now. So it is of little use to Mozart that people still listen to his music. It means nothing to him.

What matters then? Perhaps not that you have posthumous fame. You will never know. What matters is how you live your life right now. If you enjoy creating music, do your best - not so that you can benefit from it being remembered for hundreds of years, but because of the impact it has on you and the people of this time. Live a just and admirable life. Make yourself into the best human you can be right now. That is what counts.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Focus on what is within your control

We all feel frustrated from time to time. Those annoying social media posts; those crazy political decisions; the damn weather. Why can't things just go right? Why can't people be nice to eachother? Why can't the government get its act together?

But many of these things are beyond our control. And much of it doesn't actually harm us -- that is, until we form an opinion about it. Then the harm comes when we feel frustrated or angry. We demand that things beyond our control be a certain way and we are shocked when they are not. No wonder we get so upset.

What is the solution? By the gods, I am uncertain. But perhaps a good place to start is to focus on things that are within our control. Focus on your own actions. This is not to say we should ignore wrongs that are committed in the world. But many of those things are distant and are beyond our influence, so cursing and punching walls is pointless. Instead, ask yourself: am I living an honorable and just life?  What can I do to be the best person I can be? From this local level, you may find that you can make the world a slightly better place.

Thursday, January 6, 2022

It's my opinion

During a recent dialogue my interlocutor shut down discussion with the following statement: "this is my opinion and I'm entitled to my opinion". In other words, he was saying that he was as right as possible without needing to actually prove it. Or, put another way, there we was no need to refute his point because he couldn't be wrong about it - because, it was his opinion.

I understand how opinions can't be challenged when they relate to matters of taste such as "in my opinion chocolate is nicer than strawberry". But when statements relate to matters of fact, such as "vaccinations are effective" or "CO2 warms the atmosphere", I believe there is a truth value that can be uncovered through investigation and dialogue. Simply brushing the issue aside by claiming to have an unchallengeable opinion seems to me to leave the issue completely unsettled.

- S