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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Stop Trying to Control Things Outside of Your Control

William Irvine, in A Guide to the Good Life, explains we’re susceptible to negative emotions like anger, fear, grief, anxiety, and envy because of our evolutionary programming. Each of those negative emotions increased our earliest ancestors’ odds of survival, so overtime, they became engrained in us. For example, early humans who weren’t afraid of lions were less likely to survive long enough to pass on their genes. Similarly, those that didn’t worry incessantly about having enough to eat were less likely to survive long enough to pass on their genes.

Irvine explains the good news. Since we can reason, we can understand our evolutionary predicament and take conscious steps to at least partially escape it. For example, the pain associated with a loss of social status isn’t just useless, it’s counterproductive. We need to learn to “misuse” our intellect to override the evolutionary programming that makes us susceptible to negative emotions.

In short, Stoics pursue tranquility. The major impediment to tranquility is our evolutionary programming. Tranquility and inner joy is achieved by “misusing our reasoning ability” via repeated practice at using specific Stoic psychological techniques.

For example, we must overcome our evolutionary tendency to worry by determining which things we can’t control. Irvine labels this the “trichotomy of control.” Once we identify those things we have no control over, we can use our reasoning ability to eradicate our anxieties related to those things. Doing that improves one’s chances of gaining tranquility. To better understand the trichotomy of control, take a piece of paper, and using a ruler or folding it, make three columns. Label the first “absolutely no control”, the second, “total control”, and the third “some control”. It’s easy to quibble with “absolutely” and “total”, but work with me.

Here are some possible items for each column just to get your wheels turning. No control—the weather, the eventual death of loved ones, our own gradual physical decline, and how fast a competitor might show up at your next race. Total control—to eat nutritious food, to exercise daily, to get adequate sleep, to marry or not, to have children or not, to vote or not, to wear boxers or briefs. Some control—to shape your children’s values, to reduce your commute, to make your work environment more pleasant, to protect the environment.

It doesn’t take long into this exercise to realize the lines between the columns should probably be dotted since there’s often blurring. Not as fancy sounding, but a continuum of control would be better than Irvine’s “trichotomy”. The whole point is to learn to let go of everything that makes up the “no control” anxiety-producing end of the chart or continuum. Accept the fact that if you live in the Pacific Northwest it’s going to be overcast for seven or eight months of the year. And there’s going to be an incessant light rain for those seven or eight months. I originally wrote, “incessant, annoying light rain,” but that’s the exact point. Only things we have some or a lot of control over should have the potential to annoy us.

One last example of learning to let go of those things beyond one’s control. One night last week I asked Seventeen what she was swimming in the meet the next day. “The 50 and 100 free I think.” Internal dialogue. “What?! That’s what the beginners swim. That’s embarrassing for a fourth-year co-captain.” Actual response, “Really?!”

Parenting fail. She could feel my disappointment. In a bathtub (too much information too late alert) partially filled with very warm water, I replayed our brief exchange in my mind. I realized I could give in to negative emotions and be frustrated that she doesn’t approach high school athletics they way I did or the way I think others should or I could recognize that she’s an independent young adult who can choose not to train until the season and who thinks of athletics first and foremost as another way of having fun with friends.

It doesn’t matter whether she swims a slow 50 or a fast 500. Positive parenting rests upon unconditional love. Post bath I attempted a recovery. “I’m really looking forward to watching you swim the 50 and 100 tomorrow afternoon.” “Good!” she said in a way that communicated forgiveness. All was well with Seventeen. And the world.

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).