Minimize End-of-Life Regrets

Writing faculty at my university get to choose their own seminar themes. When I chose “The Art of Living” for my first year writing seminar a few years ago, I wasn’t sure how it would go. Was I crazy to think that eighteen and nineteen year olds might find Epicurus, Seneca, and Stoicism almost as interesting as me?

I knew very few of their K-12 teachers had asked them to think about what they most want out of life. And psychologists say they have a sense of immortality. Why bother with how to live if you’re going to live forever?

One month in, I’m happy to report, they’re actively engaging with the reading material (primarily William Irvine’s The Guide to the Good Life and Roman Krznaric’s The Wonderbox) and one another. I love how comfortable they are disagreeing with our authors and one another. My greatest challenge is staying out of their way.

Some have experienced loss—one’s mother died a few years ago from breast cancer, another’s from a heart attack, and still another travelled to Winnipeg last week to attend her aunt’s funeral.

The first unit was on “philosophies of life”. More specifically, I asked the students to agree or disagree with Irvine’s thesis that to avoid major end-of-life regrets, everyone needs to have a grand goal of living and specific strategies to achieve the goal. Irvine argues most people have regrets at the end of their life because their primary pursuits—wealth, social status, and pleasure—are in the end, unfulfilling. His grand goal of living is to maximize tranquility and joy by reviving Stoicism for the modern era. Few people experience much tranquility, Irvine argues, because materialism, social status, and pleasure conspire against it.

The larger question we’ve grappled with is how intentional should we be in our day-to-day lives? What role, if any, should spontaneity and serendipity play? What’s the right balance?

The students fell evenly across the “intentionality/spontaneity” continuum, some quite certain that people need life goals, and associated philosophies with specific strategies for achieving them. Others pushed back saying, “Are you kidding? How can anyone expect people with our limited life experience to put forward grand goals for living let alone specific strategies for achieving them?” They thoughtfully argued that life would present unforeseen struggles and opportunities. For example, one said she never would’ve have fallen in love with French if she had been correctly placed in the middle or high school Spanish class for which she had actually registered.

When some of them argued for intentionality, I couldn’t help but think they’d have to recalibrate their specific goals and strategies (for example, to have a large loving family) if and when they commit to a life a partner with their somewhat different visions of the future.

What about your life? According to Irvine, your life is most likely an argument for spontaneity because our culture offers us an “endless stream of distractions” that keeps us from clearly identifying, and planning how to accomplish, what we most want out of life.

Be less distracted this week, and thanks, as always, for reading.

Stoicism, Minimalism, and Dried Mangos

Happy Thanksgiving. Extra credit points if you’ve been reading me over the years and remember this is my favorite holiday.

As I age, my wants and needs are shifting. I want less. Which is cool because there’s less need to make and stash mad money.

Maybe it’s all the Stoicism and minimalism I read, think and occasionally write about. I used to think I needed a big house on the water, a nice car, and silk underwear (not really, I just like the way that rounded out the sentence).

At the same time, I am not quite Seneca. I haven’t self actualized or achieved an otherworldly Stoic or minimalist form of enlightenment. I want perfect health. I want to grow the blog readership without posting pictures of bikini-clad snowboarders*. I want an even nicer small to medium-sized house, preferably on water. I want a nicer car. I’m in the process of building a nicer road bike. I want a mini iPad, but I’m waiting until the retina version comes out next year sometime. When I browse Sunset Magazine, I want a personal chef to cook different vegetarian meals for me every day. I want a weekly massage for the rest of my live long days and a steady supply of dried mangos and oatmeal chocolate chip cookies from the hippy food co-op.

Which leaves my needs, which again I’m happy to report, keep shrinking. I need my wife and daughters to be happy and healthy, I need friends to workout with, I need a bathtub of really hot water coupled with good reading material most every night, and I need clean sheets and a comfy bed. And an amendment to the last pgraph. In light of the last three or four days, I need a steady supply of dried mangos.

Thanks as always for reading.

* Six months ago or so I wrote a post titled “Education Slowdown” based on a Wall Street Journal article about how some young people are avoiding college because of the costs. One character in the story was snowboarding nearly half the year. I wrote maybe there are some fringe benefits to his lifestyle and attached a picture of two scantily clad young women on snowboards. Gradually it captured the attention of horny young men (or old men, or young women, or old women) all over the world. I was crushed that people were way more interested in bikinis than my amazing insights into better schools, families, and communities. Initially, I was caught up in the rise in readership and mindlessly road the fleshy wave. Then the artificially inflated readership stats started to gnaw a bit. So, with a brief apology to the Snow Queens, I deleted the pic from the post. Since the deleted post was still Google’s 13th highest ranked link under “snowboard” and “snowboarder”, the bikini-lovers kept coming. So I pulled the plug on the whole post and single-handedly caused a spike in global sexual repression.

Brief Insanity, Compliments of Alaska Airlines

Previously I’ve written about one of my favorite reads of 2011—William B. Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. Irvine has a sub-section titled, “Anger—on overcoming anti-joy”. Here are my notes from that sub-section, mostly excerpts I wanted to remember:

Anger is another negative emotion that can destroy our tranquility. Seneca referred to it as “brief insanity” and said, “No plague has cost the human race more. A waste of precious time.” Punishment should be “an expression not of anger but of caution.” Calm correction; not retribution, but instruction (160). Need to fight our tendency to believe the worst about others and to overreact to little things. The more we eschew comfort and harden ourselves, the more likely we are to not get angry (161-2). Best counter is humor, choosing to think of the bad things that happen to us as being funny rather than outrageous (162).

We should contemplate the impermanence of the world around us.  When angered by something we should pause to consider its cosmic (in)significance. Also, remember our behavior also angers others. Seneca, “We must agree to go easy on one another. We should force ourselves to relax our face, soften our voice, and slow our pace of walking, then our anger will have dissipated.” (163). When unsuccessful at controlling our anger we should apologize, which has a calming effect on us and lessens the chance we’ll make the same mistake in the future (164). Seneca, “make yourself a person to be loved by all while you live and missed when you have made your departure.” (165).

This is the story of my recent epic failure at applying these insights. We were flying from Seattle to Santa Barbara to visit the in-laws for five days. My father-in-law was nice enough to drive an hour and a half to pick us up. Right before our Alaska Airlines plane was supposed to board we learned the gate had been changed. By the time we got to the new gate, discussed whether we needed to check in, and learned the “plane had been downsized,” we were what the airlines refer to as “shit-out-of-luck”. Our seats no longer existed and the flight was way overbooked. In years past airlines would offer more and more coin until enough people agreed to give up their seats. In the new economy, Alaska stops at 3 bills, and then says to their shit-out-of-luck flyers, “Sorry.”

Doesn’t matter that your father-in-law has already left to pick you up or that you paid Pujols-type money for the tickets. Agent, “We’ll fly you to L.A. and bus you to Santa Barbara.” To which Seneca would have said, “Wonderful, I love Los Angeles and the bus ride promises to be scenic.” But in a major setback to my pratice of Stoicism, I succumbed to “brief insanity” and said, “You’re kidding right?!!! You have to get more people off the plane!” “Sir, I can’t physically remove people.” “I’m not asking you to physically remove anyone, you have to offer them more incentives.” “We don’t do that.”

That initial exchange was first base in what turned into an inside-the-park anti-joy homerun. I didn’t swear, but got progressively more heated as I rounded second and was waved into third by the agent’s total lack of empathy. I told her I knew she wasn’t to blame for the last minute plane change, but her employer was and it was their policies that were so aggravating. Agent, “Sir, you’re not the only one ‘shit-out-of-luck’ (paraphrasing).” Turning to the twenty somethings behind me who were probably texting friends, “At Alaska gate. Out of a seat. Old dude has totally snapped, quite entertaining. LOL,” I said, “I can’t help it if I’m not as passive as everyone else.”

Finally, completely fed up with me, she said I should go to the Alaska customer service desk. Three hours later, four travel vouchers safely tucked away in the iPad case, we were on our way to Burbank. A high-speed “life flashing before your eyes” Supper Shuttle trip later, we were in Santa Barbara a mere five hours behind schedule.

In hindsight, given Alaska Airline’s short-sighted, bottom-line, customer-be-damned business practices, I don’t regret acting a fool. I do though regret two things. I regret my fellow customers rolled over probably assuring that Alaska will disrupt more travelers plans, and I regret I didn’t seek out the agent after returning from the customer service center. I would have apologized for taking my anger out on her instead of the spreadsheet reading Alaska Airlines execs who probably make ten to a hundred times more than her.

Stoic Insights on Materialism

Stoics knew, in Irvine’s words, that luxurious living only whets one’s appetite for even more luxury. Exhibit A, the GalPal and I need hotel upgrades now. Consequently, they practiced poverty or voluntary discomfort—whether fasting, sleeping on the ground, or purposely not dressing warmly for cold weather—to harden themselves against misfortunes that might befall them in the future. They did this to extend their comfort zone, reduce their anxiety about future possible discomforts, and better appreciate what they already had. They also sometimes gave up pleasurable experiences because they knew pleasure seekers lose some self-control and end up serving multiple masters. Having written about this exact thing before reading Irvine means I’m well suited to modern-day Stoicism.

Even ancient Stoics knew that maintaining luxuries takes a lot of time. Musonius argued that luxurious living must be completely avoided, but Seneca said it was okay to acquire wealth as long as one doesn’t harm others to obtain it. He also argued it was acceptable to enjoy wealth as long as one was careful not to cling to it. Most Stoic teachers advocated simultaneously enjoying and being indifferent to the things wealth makes possible. Seneca and Marcus thought it was possible to live in a palace without being corrupted. Similarly, Buddha said, “He that cleaves to wealth had better cast it away than allow his heart to be poisoned by it, but he who does not cleave to wealth, and possessing riches, uses them rightly, will be a blessing unto his fellows.”

Seneca said “life’s necessities are cheap and easily accessible” and “the man who adapts himself to his slender means and makes himself wealthy on a little sum, is the truly rich man.” Socrates said “we should eat to live, not live to eat” and dress to protect our bodies and not impress others. We should favor simple housing and furnishings too.

Seneca, Marcus, and Buddha would have supported the non-consumerist, simple living, social justice orientation of the Occupy Wall Streeters. On the other hand, they would have rejected their knee-jerk antipathy towards the well-to-do.

Living Peacefully and Joyfully

During Sunday night’s Skype session with Nineteen I learned she’d been on a nice walk with KN, the uber-nice mother of one of her best friends, who was visiting Midwest leafy liberal arts college for Parents’ Weekend. On that walk KN revealed that she has read three books that I’ve recommended. Cool dat. Note to self: Make a batch of “I read PressingPause.com” t-shirts to give to subscribers and loyal readers. No doubt a future status symbol*.

I have another book recommendation for KN. I don’t read books consistently enough, as a result I don’t get through all that many, as a result, I choose what I read carefully. I don’t know if I’ve ever chosen as well as in 2011. The ten month long hot streak continues with A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine (2009). So good I read it twice, the second time taking nine pages of notes since I plan on using it in a future writing seminar.

Irvine says the public’s preconceived notions about Stoicism are wrong. Stoics were fully engaged in life and worked to make the world a better place. The goal of the Stoics was not to banish emotion from life but to banish negative emotions like anger, anxiety, grief, and envy. Musonius Rufus (Is there a better jazz/funk name?) said that “a cheerful disposition and secure joy” will automatically follow those who live in accordance with Stoic principles. Would be Stoics, Irvine writes, will take to heart the Stoic claim that many of the things we desire—most notably, fame and fortune—are not worth pursuing. Instead they will turn their attention to the pursuit of tranquility and virtue.

The word “tranquility” is hardly ever used in conversation today, probably because few of us experience much of it, but it’s the central concept of the book. Irvine says “Tranquility is a state marked by the absence of negative emotions such as grief, anxiety, and fear, and the presence of positive emotions—in particular joy.” On a scale of one to ten, what’s your tranquility quotient?

The bulk of the book is about how to practice Stoicism. Irvine does a great job of adapting the Ancient Roman philosophy to modern times. He acknowledges that people should choose a philosophy of life that fits their personality and that Stoicism won’t be for everyone. He points out that in some significant ways Stoicism and Christianity overlap; consequently, they can be complementary.

For Irvine the greatest problem is that few people have any coherent philosophy of life. As a result, they succumb to mindless consumerism; consequently, at the end of the road they often regret that they’ve squandered their time. What is your philosophy of life? To what degree does it shape your day-to-day actions?

The body of the book is a description of five Stoic psychological techniques and Stoic advice on ten topics such as dealing with other people, anger, old age, and dying. Probably best read with a significant other or a small group of friends who you can discuss it with.

* Any graphic artists out there interested in creating a PressingPause logo? If so, please email me (see the “contact” tab at upper right).