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” 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).

Redefining the Good Life

Wednesday, August 17th, 8a.m. Looking out my home office window at blue sky and the Black Hills. One of the best starts to a day imaginable.

5:45a trail run with the boys. 49 degrees. Semi-dark on the first loop, then dawn for reals, and a second foot-loose and fancy-free one. Can’t remember much of what we talked about–Danos b-day, the Seattle tunnel vote, Black Swan, Rick Perry wanting to use drones on the border, the eleventh grade 6’5″, 270 lb defensive tackle at Tumwater HS.

Near the end, I decided to treat the labradude to a pre-breakfast trip to the lake. He LOVES fetching in the water, but in the late afternoon he has to contend with fishing lines and swimmers. His walking partner has been at camp so he’s under-exercised. Off we went, ring tucked in the back of my shorts, three-quarters of a mile downhill to the lake.

Perfect. No-one in sight. Unleash him, pop the ring in his mouth, and he Usain Bolts it to the lake’s edge. A razor thin layer of wispy fog rests listlessly three-four feet above the water. Seventh or eighth throw goes a little farther than normal and he can’t pick it out, so he just kind of paces the shoreline, perplexed. Gradually, it drifts farther offshore. Now it’s in the low 50’s and my sweat has dried, but what can I do but strip down to the running shorts and retrieve it myself. We swim after it side-by-side, my head down, his up (note to self: become world famous by teaching Mdawg to swim with his head in the water, breathing to the side).

Shirt, sweatshirt, socks, shoes back on, I prep for the final throw, the one where once he’s got it I book up the gravel road, knowing he’ll close the gap in a blink of the eye. He’s paying such good attention, he gets to run home without the leash. Buries me on the last hill, ring still in his mouth. I pry it loose and he fetches the paper. Towel him off and he charges in the house to find his momma.

Even though I’m probably less materialistic than average, I’m still susceptible to the fallacy that our consumer culture is based upon: If I just owned x and y and z, I’d be tons happier. My x, y, and z shift over time, but are often a nice car, a house on the lake or sound, and/or a new bicycle.

Lots of research shows a positive correlation between individuals’ and countries’ economic security and happiness or what is sometimes referred to as “subjective well-being”. But there’s a tipping point, a point of diminishing returns where more economic security doesn’t lead to any more happiness. Maybe the simplest way to put it is members of the (shrinking) middle class evaluate their life situations more positively than members of the lower, but upper classers don’t report much if any more satisfaction than middle classers.

Found a nice house with amazing views of the sound a few months ago and got real close to making an offer. It’s about eight miles out of town, eleven from the start and end of our regular weekday morning runs. We still may end up moving into that hood, but that will mean a twenty-two mile roundtrip every Saturday to reconnect with the boys. That will also mean a different kind of start to the weekdays. Running with just my thoughts. Yikes.

Sure I could make new running friends, but the boys and I run at the exact same pace, their conservative politics are a constant source of entertainment, no one can bust balls as well, and now we have a history that can’t be replicated.

This morning I was reminded that it’s friendships, community, and nature that bring the greatest joy. And good health. No question about it, take my friends, my doggie, and my lake away and replace them with a nice new car, house, and bike and I won’t be nearly as happy. The only question is how long will this insight stick?