A Stoic Journal #18 – The Best Way to Trash Your Life is to Devise Excuses

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The best way to trash your life is to devise excuses.

I would write this post about the deleterious effect of making excuses, but I’m hungry, yesterday was quite tough, I’m not really feeling it. I’ll do it some other time. Return to sender: Me, The Future. I don’t want to do it now, but in the future I will. In the future, things will be easier. I will be stronger, smarter, and more persevering. In the future I won’t get so bored I want to break a window. I won’t wonder about the point of it, and be unsure what I really could be doing. There won’t be so much imperfection. Sometime in the future. Let me off the hook, give me a break. It’s not a big deal, there’s plenty of time, life is long. Just this once, tomorrow will be different. I would, but I just don’t want to.

In this existence, I have lived by my risks and my graft, and I have died by my excuses.

If someone came to me trying to destroy themselves, their happiness, their character, their present, their prospects, their loved ones, as efficiently as possible, I would advise them to make plenty of excuses. I would advise them to develop a strong, enduring, habit, of making excuses, because these excuses will perfectly protect them from what they dislike and allow them to secure what they like. I would tell them that if you can find an excuse that sounds at all plausible, you should immediately take it to heart and act on it. I would warn them at all costs not to take responsibility for their behaviour or for their contentment. I would remind them that the future is of infinite duration and that there are infinite second chances. And I would insist that they always, always, think of themselves as a victim: a victim of other people, a victim of circumstance, a victim of biology, a victim of their past choices, a victim of the universe, somebody helpless and with no control over their life apart from the decision of who or what to blame.

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A Stoic Journal #18 – Never Mistake Begun for Finished

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Never mistake begun for finished.

I have a long list of entries in a word document for which I plan to create posts in the A Stoic Journal series. When I use an entry, I cross it off the list. I was about to cross it off but I caught myself. I haven’t actually written the post yet and it is very important not to mistake begun for finished.

The beginning can be the hardest aspect of many things in life, like kicking an addiction, setting up a date, or sitting an interview. However, the beginning is often the easiest part in life. At the very least, it is often much easier than finishing. For example, it is very easy to have big dreams and conceive of plans, even very intricate plans, and it is equally easy never to bring those dreams and plans to fruition, or equally easy never to even bother trying to make them real.

Finishing is a phenomenon in its own right. Seeing things through to the end is much, much, more than tacking on 5 or 10 percent to the total. Bringing something to completion transforms a change in quantity (75% done -> 100% done) into a change in quality (not complete -> complete). Try sitting on a chair with 3 legs, or driving a car with 3 wheels. You can live your whole life making 25 percents, 50 percents, and even 75 percents, but finishing something is in another category.

A life of finishes is a different life to a life only of beginnings. So much of our frustration can come from not following through. And our inability to follow through can be a solid indicator for broader problems in our life, indecisiveness, lack of discipline, inability to endure boredom and discomfort, insatiable desire, immaturity. If we get into the habit of finishing things it can help us bring these characteristics more into line. Continue reading

A Stoic Journal #17 – It is OK to Be Frightened

It is OK to be frightened, what matters is how you respond to that fear. Will you swim up the freezing river, or crawl into a secluded corner and slowly die?

Life can be characterised in many different ways. One of the most apt is that life is a battle against fear. Fear is with us from the moment we enter conscious existence till the moment we leave it. If we are water then fear is like the slope of the mountain, we flow around its contours, being nudged and dragged according to the limits the rock imposes on us, taking the path of lesser resistance. (This has nothing to do with the ‘freezing river’ mentioned above).

Let us admit it. Fear is horrible. Of all the things in life we want the least, fear is chief. It is like an invisible force field, best illustrated by popular online videos of pet dogs who won’t walk past cats, stopping at an invisible boundary delineated only by their sense of fear. Humans are no different. Suggest that a friend ask someone on a date and observe their jaw clamp shut unable to speak and their hand seize up unable to operate a phone. We can’t really explain to ourselves why experiencing fear is so horrible, it is just a brute fact due to biological programming. And if we could somehow live a fearless life that was full and without serious compromises, we would do it.

Indeed, we might really hope for that. We might live in wait of that wonderful day when we finally eradicate fear. Of course it sounds silly to state it so clearly, but surely in the back of our minds we all hold out for our fears to clear up like clouds on an overcast day. Yes their greyness hovers above me today, but tomorrow, who knows, it might be clear, and then only blue skies from then on. Continue reading

A Stoic Journal #16 – When You Rest on Laurels They Become Thorns

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When you rest on laurels they become thorns.

This is one of my favourite sayings because it captures a fact at the centre of life, something operative every single day which is so easy to forget, again, and again, and again. I’m trying to remind myself not to become complacent with whatever progress I’ve made, whatever challenges I have faced down, whatever misfortunes have dissipated like rain clouds.

Sometimes life is so difficult you don’t know how you can continue, or you work so hard that the days are long and rough like sheets of sandpaper. Appreciating favourable changes in your external world is important. When the blizzard finally ceases you say ‘my word, it finally stopped … fantastic! Now I don’t have to try so hard just to keep myself warm and dry’. When the sun beams from the centre of the sky you can lie out and bathe in it. You must adapt your mentality and behaviour to present conditions, and not be fixed in some past state which is no longer suitable.

Recognising your achievements is especially important since those pertain to your efforts and guile rather than merely to the caprices of the wider world [1]. Whether a great feat or a smaller challenge, being able to say ‘I did it’ is one of the great wonders of living. Even more so when you have been truly tested to your limits, that experience of perseverance is steadfastly satisfying and provides a confidence anchored in the furthest depths of your being.

That being said, when you finally have something to bask in the temptation is wring every bit of satisfaction from it like a sponge. You remember your accomplishment again and again. You examine every aspect of the experience and the outcome, trying to re-live it. This is understandable. Sometimes, too, it can feel like we haven’t achieved anything or gotten respite in so long. We hanker over past graces. So rather than trying to obtain a reward through present action we retreat into the imagination. Continue reading

A Stoic Journal #15 – Relax, It is Just Life

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Relax, it is just life.

We take ourselves awfully seriously, don’t we? ‘I must work harder’, ‘I’ve got to look better’, ‘I have to send that email, or else …’, ‘I ought to be happier’, ‘I’m not doing enough‘, ‘I need to make my mark’, ‘do they like me? What should I do?’.

We are constantly jostled by imperatives, like squeezing through a crowd on a busy shopping street. Relentlessly we parry our daily demands. We wind ourselves up like the rope in a catapult in order to create enough tension to propel ourselves forwards. And especially when we encounter some disaster or an obstacle which upsets us, we either succumb to ire and dolor or gravely march onward like a soldier surviving aerial bombardment.

I definitely do this. When I wake up I’m instantly winding up my torsion catapult, thinking about what I could be doing to have a good day, to make the most of it. I spend a lot of time and effort trying to figure out how to be a good person. I want to live a good life. I want to be my best. I want to get it right, I don’t want to get it wrong. I don’t want to waste my limited time alive. I ask myself ‘am I living as fully as I could be?’. I am careful to point out to myself when I am not doing what I’m supposed to be doing.

That is all fine and good in a way. But also, I worry myself. I wind up my catapult so tight, it is like I am strangling life. I care so much about life, I think it is so valuable, so meaningful, and so important, that I take it far too seriously. In this entry, I am prompting myself to let that all go, at least for a few breaths, to relax and not take life quite so seriously.

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A Stoic Journal #14 – Follow Through or Be Adrift on a Sea of Chaos

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If you cannot follow through on your own decisions, then you are helplessly adrift on a sea of chaos.

We make hundreds, even thousands, of decisions every day, big and small. Do we follow through on those decisions though? We say ‘today I will quit smoking’ but cave in like the previous 153 times. We say ‘today I won’t just sit at home watching videos’ and waste the day anyway. We say ‘I really need to start sleeping properly’ then stay up till 3am again. We say ‘I’m going to be less selfish’ but end up leaving it ‘for tomorrow’. In this entry, I am trying to shake myself awake from such a slumber.

What is chaos? A total lack of structure and direction. And what creates structure and direction in our lives? Our minds, specifically our rational faculty, our ability to make a decision and then to execute it. Making a decision but not seeing it through till completion is as good as making no decision at all because the result is the same. Therefore, it is our ability to follow through on our decisions which establishes a healthy order in our lives as opposed to chaos.

Living in chaos is like being adrift on a stormy sea. The waves crash over you this way and the other, the gale swirls tempestuously, you want to travel out of the storm but have no means to, instead being dragged about by Poseidon’s fury. You cannot make any progress. You are so absorbed with simply not unceremoniously drowning in a watery vortex that you can make no progress. You keep your head just above water saying ‘I’ll get out of this storm today’ but eventually become so worn out and jaded at what your life has become that, somewhere, you give up trying to persevere. Continue reading

A Stoic Journal #13 – Life Stands in Stark Contrast to Death

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Each day of life stands in sharp relief to death.

You are going to die. Indeed, depending on how you view time, you are already dead. It might be tomorrow, or in one month, or 10 years, or 50 years, or, who knows, in 100 years. But you will die, like every human and every animal and every organism will.

It is good to know this. Imagine if you didn’t know that you would die, you had not heard of death and instead you believed you would live forever. Then, one day, you became seriously ill, and a doctor told you that you would die within the month. Or, one day, you died suddenly without forewarning. What a shock! In your dying moment, you think ‘alas! I thought I had all the time in the world. I would have my very different choices had I known this day was coming! I wouldn’t have been so idle, so passive, so wasteful. And now, nothingness.’

Indeed there are many creatures on this Earth who, while having powerful survival instincts, are incapable of knowing that they will perish. In this regard, humans are spoiled. However, even though we are all gifted this precious knowledge, most of us face death with the same shock and regret, as if we hadn’t known all along. So how can we avoid this? Continue reading

A Stoic Journal #12 – When You See Nothing But Terror

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Stoicism is not just for rainy days and missed appointments, it is for when you want to claw your own eyes out, when you see nothing in your path but terror.

Every single day our efforts and expectations are frustrated. Someone leaves the dirty dishes on the counter, a late bus means you arrive late, you forget your keys, you spill your drink on your new trousers, someone gets snippy with you for no reason, you get stuck in a long and boring conversation, the shop you wanted to buy something at is actually closed, it starts raining and you are not prepared, you realise you missed your doctor’s appointment.

We will experience events like this every single day of our lives. They test our patience, they test our desire to be a benevolent person, they test our desire to press on. We try not to lose our temper, we try to remain focused on the task at hand. Stoicism is profoundly effective to us here. It is raining? So what? What is rain, but falling water? Are you so afraid of water? Is it not a wet head, or wet clothes, or wet skin, which disturbs you, but your belief that being in the rain is bad, a belief you can choose to change?

That being said, these things are trivial. They do not matter in the grand scheme of things and they barely matter in the small scheme of things, regardless of how much we might overreact throughout the day due to ignorance and lack of mental discipline.

We realise this when we are truly struck down by terror, when we are aghast at what our life has become, when we incredulously ask ‘how did I get to this point?’, when we exceed what we ever expected we would have to endure, exceeding even our own pessimistic worldview, when we acquire two heavy burdens as a reward for each burden we throw off, when we disown this unfair world and begin to entertain the delight of exiting. Continue reading

A Stoic Journal #11 – You are Never on Level Ground

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Learn that you are never on level ground.

Whether or not I realise it, I am often waiting for that final resting moment, to settle into equilibrium, like sitting in a car quite effortlessly proceeding by cruise control.

The moment just doesn’t feel ‘right’. What I am experiencing now is an aberration, a deviation from the central line. But soon, I hope and intend, things will be back on track. The boat will reach clear waters and I will stop having to run around the deck adjusting sails and yelling orders at crew, trying so hard to motivate myself.

As Freddie Mercury asked ‘is this the real life?’. Surely, this unbalanced existence is not. It is not a figment of my imagination, but it something is not ‘real’ about it. The real life has yet to come, when I am on level ground.

If I just sort out a few things I will be on level ground. Today I did not get enough sleep, something unexpected and urgent is on my to-do list, and I did not send those emails as planned. I just don’t feel right. Today is not such a real day because I am not on level ground. Once I get onto level ground, I can live properly.  But for now I will live within a different mode, a mode suitable to being off-kilter. I will save another mode for level ground. Continue reading

A Stoic Journal #10 – A Human is a Kernel of Wheat

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A human is like a kernel of wheat. The free soul is encapsulated, hidden, by a shell of comfort. That husk must be ground down and split to release its contents. That grinding is askesis.

I wrote this entry months ago after going for a run with my dog. I have OCD, and without dwelling on the specifics, OCD for me can be like being a prisoner of my own mind, constantly intruded upon by the grotesque and terrifying, and I can find myself wanting to do almost anything to block out those thoughts. I can often want to shrink into a perfectly controlled, perfectly comfortable, bubble. In the period during which I wrote this entry I struggled to leave my house, so going for a run was a significant achievement.

I ran and I suffered the fears grating against me and threatening me as I beat the footpath. But as I ran further, I became emboldened, I realised, once again, how much I enjoy being physically active, and how we ‘more often suffer in imagination than reality’. I was determined to triumph over enfeeblement, attempting what I saw as a private act of quotidian heroism. I felt inspired by this process, and immediately was struck by the metaphor of a kernel of wheat. Grinding the wheat seems like a hassle, and it is arduous, but that is the only way to get to the inside. Continue reading