All Is Fluid – The Daily Stoic – Part 12 of 366

The universe is change. Life is opinion.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.3.4b

When our hair grows long we cut it. If our nails grow long we cut them. When our cells die they are replaced by new ones. The skin on your body is entirely different than the skin you had 27 days ago.

Are you still the same person? Or are you a new one? Strictly speaking the matter that makes up who you are is entirely new. And yet I think most would all agree we are still the same person; these molecular changes do not change who we are.

But what about your thoughts and memories? Those are constantly changing. What about your job? That is likely to change several times throughout your life. Where you live? Where you live now is probably different than where you grew up or went to college. How much do these things define who you, your family, and your friends are? How much do these things inform how you think and act?

The book notes that, “Our understanding of what something is is just a snapshot — an ephemeral opinion.” This is exactly right. How you view something today is based on so many different variables it is impossible to list them all. How you think about something tomorrow could be drastically different than how you thought about it today if something changes.

And it will. It always will. Change is the only constant.

It follows then that the more fluid and malleable you are in your thoughts, actions, and opinions, the smoother your journey through life will be. Being rigid should never be a point of pride as it shows a refusal to acknowledge the weight of the universe, and that is a losing battle.

Actors In A Play – The Daily Stoic – Part 11 of 366

Remember that you are an actor in a play, playing a character according to the will of the playwright — if a short play, then it’s short; if long, long. If he wishes you to play the beggar, play even that role well, just as you would if it were a cripple, a honcho, or an everyday person. For this is your duty, to perform well the character assigned you. That selection belongs to another.”

Epictetus, Enchiridion, 17

Play the hand you are dealt, and play it well. It is the only hand you get. This is the lesson the Epictetus is trying to impart. The book goes on to mention that accepting and fulfilling our part is not at odds with ambition which is not obvious at first glance. After all, if we are assigned a part then why try rising above our station? If we must play the beggar then how are we not locked into such a poor life?

There are many stories where the mighty fall, and there are many stories where the less fortunate rise. You may be assigned a part when you enter the story, but the story itself is not yet written. The question really is this: what do you want your story to be? If someone tells your tale, what will they say?

In order to change your story you must first accept and understand the role you have been tasked to play. You cannot change where the story starts or where it has already been, but once you are in control then your story will go wherever you wish.

How To Be Powerful – The Daily Stoic – Part 10 of 366

Don’t trust in your reputation, money, or position, but in the strength that is yours — namely, your judgements about the things that you control and don’t control. For this alone is what makes us free and unfettered, that picks us up by the neck from the depths and lifts us eye to eye with the rich and powerful.

Epictetus, Discourses, 3.26.34-35

The book talks about a story in which a philosopher stands eye to eye with Alexander the Great, unwilling to move out of the way of him and his army. When asked what he has accomplished compared to Alexander, he replies, “I have conquered the need to conquer the world.”

Reputation, money, position, fame, and so on can all be stripped away. They are things conferred unto us by other people and society. All humans desire these things to varying degrees. Unfortunately, they are not entirely within our realm of control.

This too is a hard lesson. Money truly seems very important, and when you don’t have enough life is indeed miserable. It is understandable why most people make such concessions to obtain it, even if they must do so at the expense of their individual freedoms. But I do think many (including myself) put perhaps too high a premium on it.

It doesn’t always feel like it, but you can always earn more money. It is worth making sure that you are not trading too much in return for it, both in terms of time, stress, and moral authority.

This is a timely and relevant passage. I don’t normally think of myself a kingdom builder, but I am more that than many I know. It has taken more deliberate action than I expected in passing the baton and handing over the keys to things I have spent five or more years building. Letting go is not easy for me. And yet I know that for the next cycle to begin I must learn to accept these things and cherish the chance to create an opportunities for others around me while I get out of the way.

A Higher Power – The Daily Stoic – Part 8 of 366

This is the very thing which makes up the virtue of the happy person and a well-flowing life — when the affairs of life are in every way tuned to the harmony between the individual divine spirit and the will of the director of the universe.

Chrysippus, Quoted in Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, 7.1.88

For this quote the book talks about addicts struggling in a 12 step program where step 2 is acknowledge a higher power. At first glance this feels like a religious platitude, and it is not necessarily helpful to the nonreligious. But the point really has nothing to do with religion at all. The fundamental idea is to accept that the world does not revolve around us. It is much too big for that. We are not at the center, and we are not in control. We are simply along for the ride of life. As the book says, “As soon as you can attune your spirit to that idea, the easier and happier your life will be, because you will have given up the most potent addiction of all: control.” What a great way to phrase it — “attune your spirit to that idea.” How you think about and understand the world and your relationship to it is entirely within your control, and yet this is something that most people spend very little time thinking about.

I am not a religious man, and I have not been for a very long time. But I also figured out long ago that not being religious does not mean you cannot be spiritual. In the Neil DeGrasse Tyson interview with TIME magazine he is asked about the The Most Astounding Fact, and this helped me more concretely frame and explain my spiritual views ever since. You do not need to believe in a god to see the beauty and feel kinship with the Universe at large. In so many ways we are just a brief jumble of particles that have coalesced in a way for the Universe to view and experience itself. Our atoms will return on their journey before too long, and we should treasure the time given to us to experience this cosmic adventure.

When considering the big picture, we are not in control. We are along for the ride.

The Cycle

At the end of 2018 I wrote a post called What Do You Want? where I detailed achieving a goal I focused almost solely on for five years, and how that left me feeling… well, just feeling. Lots of feels. And ultimately I wasn’t sure what to do next other than keep going.

Since then it seems life was happy to keep me preoccupied with other things. New projects and challenges at work, a country in turmoil, a long distance relationship, adopting a cute senior pup, a global pandemic, and the loss of my father. And so I went, goal-less, for the past few years; just riding with the currents of life and unsure where exactly I wanted to go.

Honestly, while this was a departure from how I normally operate, it was kind of freeing to not have the yearly summit where I harshly analyze my progress and work diligently on course corrections. If ever there was a time to give myself grace, it would seem 2019 and 2020 were it. Now emerging from both the chaos and unstructured years, I do find myself slowly returning to things I once held dear.

I have always been an active learner, but it has grown more passive over time. I have generally felt over the years that work has left little bandwidth to want to program and experiment outside of it, yet I am seemingly happy to watch any number of Youtube videos on business, programming, and the like. Putting in more effort than that seemed a challenging ask even though all of the years I spent programming before work were chock full of experiments.

The same is true for gaming. It used to be that if I was not at work or school then I would normally be playing games. And yet, for some reason, even that had become a challenging ask. Challenging to the point where even the thought of playing some games gave me anxiety. I turned myself invisible on Steam and on the Blizzard client, and my game libraries collected dust.

Looking back I think this is enitrely due to life events and not changing interests on my part. It turns out the middle years are messy even without a wife and kids. Careers, buying houses, aging parents, and paying more attention to the country and local community start to take up time and mind share in a way they don’t when you are young.

Some of these stressful situations finally resolving seem to have introduced a light at the end of the current tunnel. Now I have a bunch of things I want to program for fun, including some products with financial potential. I have books to read, research to do, blogs to write, places to go with my pup, and even games to play.

I am finally ready for the cycle to start again.

Following The Doctor’s Orders – The Daily Stoic – Part 6 of 366

Just as we commonly hear people say the doctor prescribed someone particular riding exercises, or ice baths, or walking without shoes, we should in the same way say that nature prescribed someone to be diseased, or disabled, or to suffer any kind of impairment. In the case of the doctor, prescribed means something ordered to help aid someone’s healing. But in the case of nature, it means that what happens to each of us is ordered to help aid our destiny.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 5.8

Doctor’s orders. Somehow this simple phrase does carry enough weight to get people to accept unpleasant things. There is the promise that in following through with the unpleasant course of action we will find ourselves in a better place. And yet we often don’t apply this same thinking to fate or destiny.

Again, as in part 5, this one is harder for me to swallow. It implies that there is a destiny for each and every soul, and while I agree that each creature in this universe will follow a path to an eventual conclusion, that conclusion may not be one we readily desire and accept.

Many people are dealt an unfair and uncaring hand by the universe. Should you accept and welcome a destiny where you are permanently disabled and nearly die in a car crash in your 40s? That is what happened to my father. Although he survived, he lived another 20 years of declining health and ability, and he gradually watched as the world he was leaving to his kids seemingly became worse at every turn.

Perhaps the stoics would say that his destiny was in fact to have a family and be lucky enough to watch his kids grow up — a gift this universe did not grant my mother — and that this is enough. Framed in this light I can accept what Marcus says. I generally think being a good parent is by far the most important thing most humans will do with their lives.

It took me what feels like a long time, but I have come to appreciate my life experiences even though my younger years were extremely challenging and frequently consisted of loss and hardship. These experiences have indeed helped me become who I am today, and I know I would not be where I am without them. They have made me more grateful for what I have, and they have motivated me to stay on my purpose in a way that seems very uncommon amongst my peers.

I am still amazed at how insights into life from 1800 years ago are still incredibly poignant today.

We Were Made For Each Other – The Daily Stoic – Part 1 of 366

You’ll more quickly find an earthly thing kept from the earth than you will a person cut off from other human beings.

— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 9.9.3

As the book notes, Marcus Aurelius and his fellow philosophers did not yet know about Newtonian physics, but it is still an apt analogy: the human need to be with other humans is more powerful than the law of gravity.

We are social creatures, for better or worse. As an introvert it took me many years to come to grips with this fact. Oh how tempting it is to cut out all others and just live a life of the mind! All day focused on solving your problems, reading, writing, and so on. And yet, as someone who has done this, I can say it does eventually wear on you and cause problems. You simply cannot overcome millions of years of evolution and your very own biology. I myself realized after many years that I’m not nearly as introverted as I thought, and I became much happier when I found a better balance between “me” time and “we” time.

Some parting thoughts on this concept:

  • The greatest things ever built were made by teams of people, not individuals. If you want to achieve great things, you must strive to work and learn from great people.
  • Invite that weird guy or girl you work with to lunch. It will be good for both of you.
  • It is not easy to care for someone else, but it is also not easy to be cared for.
  • As a general rule, be pro-people and pro-inclusion. Our society seems to have lost this concept along the way, but it is the only way we will survive.

The Daily Stoic – Part 0 of 366

My life has been crazy. Like, really crazy. I would go into further details, but it is a long story (well, many long stories) that can wait until another day. The important takeaway is simply this: life is hard, stressful, unfair, and unpredictable. This isn’t unique to me, or to anyone else, so eventually I started to wonder: how the hell did people deal with the chaos of life over the past two thousand years?

I feel like it took me a long while to arrive at this thought considering people have been dealing with the stress of every day life since… well, literally as long as we have existed. While we have new modern problems, it turns out that many of the problems in our lives are not that different from those who lived thousands of years ago. Love, grief, wealth, happiness, success; a lot of time and energy has been spent thinking about these things over the course of human existence.

Now I know what you are thinking: didn’t you take philosophy in school? The answer is yes, and I enjoyed it. However, it never felt useful or practical. My goal when asking the question above was to find a framework that can help me deal with some of the bullshit life throws my way, and to help me de-stress my life. Researching how great people in history dealt with their problems led me back to something that was always on my “learn about this eventually” list: stoicism.

I’m not going to dive into the virtues of stoicism here, but I would highly recommend The Obstacle is the Way as a crash course that will get your feet wet and point you in the direction of what to read next. The main thing I will note here is simply this: stoicism is a timeless, battle tested, and, most importantly, practical mental framework about living a good life.

My goal with this long series of posts is to think about and practice these concepts regularly so they do not become stale, fuzzy, or worse, forgotten. Thankfully this is precisely what The Daily Stoic prescribes: read one specific stoic proverb or thought every day, and then articulate my thoughts and reactions. There is one for each and every day, so this will be a year long journey and thus very long series of posts.

Let’s get started.

(Also, as a brief aside, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, considered a god by his people and the most powerful man on the planet during his lifetime, took the time to write in a journal about virtue and how he could become a better person. This writing survives to this day, and you would be crazy not to read it.)