Lighting Candles

Sometimes, when the early morning running conversation turns too negative too long, one member of the posse reminds everyone else it’s “Better to light a candle than curse the darkness.”

People tilt towards pessimism, which spreads upon contact. Pessimism is a special challenge in the Pacific Northwest in late October because daylight, and Vitamin D, dwindles.

Ancient Stoics knew gratitude didn’t come naturally, so they practiced negative visualization and voluntary deprivation. Negative visualization is taking time to imagine worse case scenarios—no longer having enough healthy food, having one’s bicycle or car stolen, losing one’s home to a natural disaster, losing one’s job or savings, or the unexpected death of a loved one—to better appreciate the impermanence of everything and everyone.

Voluntary deprivation is practicing living without those things we tend to take for granted for the purpose of appreciating them more. Examples include fasting, bike commuting for a month, or traveling solo. Absence always makes the Good Wife and me even fonder of one another.

Since others’ attitudes influence our own, another strategy is to purposely seek out hopeful, creative, funny, positive people, while simultaneously steering clear of permanent pessimists.

Staying active throughout the winter helps keep the candle light burning bright. Invest in the necessary clothing and lighting to stay comfortable and safe. Spend more time outdoors than in the gym. Saturday morning’s run was incredible. It didn’t matter that everything was soaking wet because of dense overnight and early morning fog. The streets, sidewalks, and trails were lined with colorful leaves. God’s carpeting.

The photographer I’m currently shacking up with captured one especially beautiful thread of that carpeting.

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The Essential Dilemma of Human Intimacy

Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, with its discussion of Stoicism, has me thinking about the Newtown parents. Burkeman and the heartbreaking portraits of the dead first graders. With their beautiful, innocent smiles, and future promise.

It’s difficult to imagine anything more difficult to overcome than a parent having to bury their six or seven year old child. Friends of ours watched helplessly for a year as their eight year old son died from leukemia. I tried to empathize, but probably failed to scratch the surface of their heartbreak.

The Newtown parents didn’t have any reason to take a little extra time the fateful morning of the shooting to be especially present and loving. One wonders, how will they survive the shooting? Right now, their sadness is bound to overwhelm ancient Greek wisdom and everyone’s best intentions. The best way to support them is to respect their privacy and make sure our representatives enact meaningful gun control.

But what if we shift things a bit to think about Stoicism and our lives, and the people we’re closest too, and their eventual deaths. And the essential dilemma of human intimacy—the closer and more meaningful the friendship, the greater one’s vulnerability, the greater one’s vulnerability, the more intense the pain upon death.

There is a way to minimize the probability of intense grief, keep friendships superficial. But who wants to compromise the quality of their life that way? So what are we to do? Being intimate and dependent upon others doesn’t mean we’re doomed to debilitating sadness upon each of our close friends’ or family members’ deaths.

The ancient Greeks wrote about the impermanence of everything and encouraged people to reflect on the worst things that could happen to them. The result being greater appreciation for their material well-being, their health, their work, and their family and friends. Taking time to think about worse case scenarios, or negative visualization, also mentally prepares one for inevitable changes in life, including especially sad ones such as the death of a loved one.

The ancient Greeks also emphasized living in the present, an “easier said than done” cliche if not developed more fully. Think about how different birthday celebrations might be if everyone committed to living more in the present. Instead of giving the birthday person gifts (kind of an odd practice if you think about it, “Hey congrats on being born!”), and asking him or her to make a wish for the upcoming year, the party would be a celebration of the previous year. The message being that life is fragile and isn’t it wonderful that we had another year to enjoy the birthday boy’s or girl’s friendship. Each person could reflect on the birthday person’s previous year and share what has been most memorable and what they most appreciate about them. And yes, of course we can keep the cake and ice cream.

My dad died suddenly at age 69. I was 33. I was devastated in part because it wasn’t until my mid 20’s that we started to understand and appreciate one another. I thought we had the luxury of time for our friendship to flourish. But shortly afterwards, I started to think like a Stoic before knowing anything about Stoicism. I realized I could be upset that our friendship didn’t get to mature or I could be thankful that we enjoyed a positive and more personal 5-10 years. I’ve chosen the later. And that decision informs the way I try to live. I want to love boldly, fully appreciate my friends and family, and celebrate each passing year as an undeserved gift.

My hope is that with the passing of time the Newtown parents can make a similar switch from understandable anger at the time they won’t get to spend with their sons and daughters to appreciating the six or seven years they did get with them.

That math and psychology will be tough. Godspeed Newtown parents.

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The Satisfaction Treadmill

I’m a third of the way into William B. Irvine’s excellent book, “A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy”. Irvine “plumbs the wisdom of Stoic philosophy, one of the most popular and successful schools of thought in ancient Rome, and shows how its insight and advice are still remarkably applicable to modern lives.”

The first “Stoic psychological technique” is negative visualization or regularly contemplating the bad things that can happen to us. There are several reasons to practice negative visualization, but the main one is “We humans are unhappy in large part because we are insatiable; after working hard to get what we want, we routinely lose interest in the object of our desire. Rather than feeling satisfied, we feel a bit bored, and in response to this boredom, we go on to form new, even grander desires.”  Psychologists refer to this as hedonic adaptation. We experience hedonic adaptation when we make consumer purchases, in our careers, and in our relationships. Irvine writes, “As a result of the adaptation process, people find themselves on a satisfaction treadmill.

He adds: One key to happiness, then, is to forestall the adaptation process: We need to take steps to prevent ourselves from taking for granted, once we get them, the things we worked so hard to get. And because we have probably failed to take such steps in the past, there are doubtless many things in our life to which we have adapted, things that we once dreamed of having but that we now take for granted, including, perhaps, our spouse, our children, our house, our car, and our job. This means that besides finding a way to forestall the adaptation process, we need to find a way to reverse it. . . . The Stoics thought they had an answer to this question. They recommended that we spend time imagining that we have lost the things we value—that our wife has left us, our car was stolen, or we lost our job. Doing this, the Stoics thought, will make us value our wife, our car, and our job more than we otherwise would.

Irvine goes on to contrast two fathers–one who periodically reflects on his child’s mortality and the second who refuses to entertain such gloomy thoughts. The second father assumes his child will outlive him and that she will always be around for him to enjoy. The first father, he concludes, will almost certainly be more attentive and loving than the second.

So far, I’m down with modern Stoicism. Even though I’m probably more contemplative than the average bear, the notion of a satisfaction treadmill resonants with me. I take things for granted that I know I shouldn’t, especially my health; my family’s health; my material well-being; my work; and a promising future. I experience wake-up calls—the literal phone call of my father’s sudden death tops that list, the death of a neighbor’s child from leukemia, stories of cyclists getting hit and killed, and more subtle nudges like illness, and job loss and home foreclosure stories.

My take-away from the chapter on negative visualization is to be much more intentional about reflecting on the bad things that can, and in many cases ultimately will, happen to me. Stop depending on being surprised by late night emergency phone calls, and instead, make time every day or week to reflect on losing the things I most value—my family’s health, my marriage, my health, our friends, our home.

And, of course, my faithful Pressing Pause readers.