Why Laughter Is the Best Medicine For Meaninglessness

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Laughter is a weapon against exisential angst—Photo by Melanie Dretvic on Unsplash

If we widen our scope from our narrow, subjective point of view, to the entirety of our colossal, shadowy universe, this species of ours, with our hairless bodies, opposable thumbs, and mounds of belly-button fluff, might be described with a single, incisive word: inconsequential.

We’re really quite tiny. Puny, in fact. There isn’t much that we can do of consequence in our lifetime—even with the lifetime of every humanbefore the steady march of time crushes us underfoot, when we return to the eternal obscurity of pre-birth. We’re all living on borrowed time, as quick as a cursory snap of the fingers, and then oblivion. Our destiny is one of triviality, authored by the fluctuating nature of the universe, whose brutal indifference lives by only a single, ironclad rule—things must change. The universe doesn’t make exceptions. Whether it’s in the next few hours, or the next few billion years, eventually, our species is highly likely to perish, lost to the eternal darkness of the abyss.

“Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of “world history,” but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die.”

Friedrich Nietzsche

Depressing nihilism? It doesn’t have to be. Our irrelevance can offer us a beautifully light-hearted, devil-may-care attitude. If nothing really matters, and everything we slip and strain for will eventually crumble into dust, what’s to take seriously? Is it really worth spending twelve hours a day chained to your office desk, expression of hardened-stone, assiduously beavering away to climb a career ladder that will be annihilated soon enough? Our mortality affords us the ability to be blasé—a reminder to check our overbearing seriousness in the face of obliteration.

“The life of man is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster.”

David Hume

There’s nothing quite as ridiculous as someone who takes themselves too seriously, as though their bustling ambition is their ace-up-the-sleeve against death, securing their immortality. These are the Donald Trumps of the world—ruthless, lacking in humour, hell-bent on control, and without any sense of their own pointlessness. All ego and no spirit. Can you imagine Trump actually having fun while swanning around the immaculately-kept fairways of his Mar a Lago golf resort? Excessively serious people are all work and no play, even when pretending to play. Though their efforts may help to position them atop a towering hierarchy, their humourless attitudes will wreck their ability to enjoy it. They lack the capacity to see their existence as it really is: hopelessly frivolous.

“Look back over the past, with its changing empires that rose and fell, and you can foresee the future too.”

Marcus Aurelius

Life is hopelessly frivolous for all of us, and appreciation of this fact—contrary though it may seem—can stoke our sense of humour until it becomes a blazing inferno. We can bristle and weep in the face of our impending doom, or laugh raucously in its face, fully aware of how ridiculous, magnificent, and wonderful it all is. Laughter is rebellion against the meaningless of life. A master of living carries a light heart.

When a Zen Buddhist finally attains enlightenment after decades of practice, they say that there’s nothing left for them to do but have a good laugh1. They’ve perceived a fundamental truth—everything that they sought was already within them, and their strivings can be considered as all but meaninglessness. How else to react to this insight? With a serious, hard-boiled expression? Or with laughter?

“I laugh when I think how I once sought paradise as a realm outside of the world of birth. It is right in the world of birth and death that the miraculous truth is revealed. But this is not the laughter of someone who suddenly acquires a great fortune; neither is it the laughter of one who has won a victory. It is, rather, the laughter of one who; after having painfully searched for something for a long time, finds it one morning in the pocket of his coat.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

The word nirvana literally translates to “blow out” or “extinguish”, which is exactly what happens to your absurd seriousness when you realise the insignificance of it all, no longer harbouring delusions of grandeur, but instead viewing your existence as a wave in the ocean, the flap of a starling’s wing—nothing more. As our seriousness wanes, our playfulness and sense of humour increases.

“[Laughter is a] sudden relaxation of strain, so far as occurring through the medium of the breathing and vocal apparatus… the laugh is thus a phenomenon of the same general kind as the sigh of relief.”

John Dewey

The earnest among us harbour an innate desire for control, as though we can shape and mould our world into something concrete and everlasting. The playful perceive the futility of such actions—a belly laugh that destroys all illusion of authority over Mother Nature, as if her defeat were ever possible. Good humour is the ability to sense the uncontrollable complexity of the world—an attitude which when translated into words might say “fuck trying to control that wily nonsense.”  In the frequent moments that we become lost in our lives—teeming with seriousness after having forgotten that it’s all just a game—a knee-slapping, riotous howl of laughter might be the most effective way to put everything into perspective.

“Since everything is but an apparition, having nothing to do with good or bad, acceptance or rejection, one may as well burst out in laughter.”

Longchenpa

Part of a comedian’s job is to draw attention to people who take life too seriously, magnifying their absurdity in comical ways, and transforming gravity into frivolity. There’s no easier target than a stiff, po-faced gentleman with a head full of ambition, whose piss must be taken in the name of tomfoolery. Loftiness is only permitted when sprinkled with humility. Laughter is the razor-sharp weapon that can pierce the fibrous skin of solemnity, which is why someone like Ricky Gervais can get away with pummeling a room full of movie stars, or make light of something as tragic as the holocaust. Humour is like bottled relief—two large teaspoons taken every four hours can lower stress, reduce anxiety and depression, and lower blood pressure2. Comedians may as well be physicians.

“The only thing I can recommend at this stage is a sense of humor, an ability to see things in their ridiculous and absurd dimensions, to laugh at others and at ourselves, a sense of irony regarding everything that calls out for parody in this world.”

Václav Havel

To be humorous is to temporarily abandon reason, which is rendered worthless during moments of laughter—throwing logic out of the window because it’s all so silly and pointless. When the absurdity of our existence smacks us directly in the face, and we fully regard it for the first time, all that we once deemed important—getting rich, being successful, driving a sports car, etc.—can dissipate into nothing, followed by a sublime sense of relief.

“Don’t take life too seriously; nobody ever makes it out alive anyway.”

Van Wilder

A sense of humour is like psychological armour against the tragedy of a meaningless existence—a shining suit of Mithril, with every precious link curved upwards into a smile, poised to charge the enemy with a grin on our faces. The universe has spat us out without our consent, and to make matters worse, demands our dissolution after a few short decades. How better to respond than with unassailable mirth?

A hardy sense of humour is an effective rebellion against our absurd existence—a rightfully judicious decision that can turn our story from one of depressing, all-too-serious tragedy, to mutinous, laugh-out-loud comedy. Laughter has the power to turn us into insurgent gods, and though life will never be able to offer us any concrete meaning, during our times of cackling rebellion, for the briefest of moments, it no longer matters.

“Death smiles at us all; all we can do is smile back.”

Marcus Aurelius

References

1. Alan Watts, The Way of Waking Up
2. The Power of Positivity

Free Will Theories Explained—the Paedophile Who May Not Be Responsible for His Crimes

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Some free will theories have drastic implications for personal responsibility

If a man molests a child because of a tumour in his brain, can we say that he freely chose to do so? Is he responsible for his actions?

This is a true case from the American state of Virginia back in 2000, in which a tumour in a man’s orbitofrontal cortex—an area that regulates social behaviour—created strong paedophilic urges, causing him to molest his stepdaughter. When the tumour was removed after being discovered by doctors, the desires vanished. Some years later the tumour returned, along with his sexual urges towards children. Its removal once again caused the paedophilia to disappear.

This dark situation is a question of free will—should he be held accountable for his actions, given that they were caused by his brain tumour? Was he free to decide not to molest his stepdaughter?

Wikipedia defines free will as “the ability to choose between different possible courses of action unimpeded.” Philosophers have been musing about the existence of free will for centuries, with three major free will theories emerging from their perceptive brains. We’ll consider this situation from each unique philosophical stance.

Hard determinists

“Life calls the tune, we dance.”

John Galsworthy

Hard determinists believe that the tumour, and the man’s crimes, are a result of natural cause and effect for which the man had no control over. The existence of his tumour, and the uncountable number of causal events that happened prior to the point of his misconduct, were not decided by him. In the world of hard determinists, everything is determined—it was his fate to be the host of a disastrous brain tumour, and to subsequently molest his stepdaughter.

Determinists believe that all events are caused by past events, and nothing other than what does occur, can occur. There’s nothing that could have been done to change the man’s path to paedophilia—free will is an illusion and does not exist. We’re nought but puppets of fate.

“There is an unbroken chain of prior occurrences stretching back to the origin of the universe”

Wikipedia on causal determinism
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Photo by Bryan Minear on Unsplash

This position has deeply troubling consequences for personal responsibility—if there’s no free will, are we really responsible for anything? How could a legal system function under such circumstances? Determinism is one of the most concerning of free will theories.

It’s impossible for us to examine every single causal event that occurred up until this moment, and given that we didn’t choose those events, to what degree can we claim to be free? We almost certainly feel free to make decisions, but at the same time, we had no control over the events that led up to the decision.

From this philosophical standpoint, the man who molested his stepdaughter cannot be held accountable for his actions. The tumour doesn’t change anything, because even tumourless paedophiles aren’t in control of their own decisions.

“We are all just cogs in a machine, doing what we were always meant to do, with no actual volition.”

Baron d’Holbach

Libertarianism

“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

Libertarians believe that while the tumour was clearly not chosen as a growth in the man’s brain, he did have the free will to choose whether to molest the child. In this sense, determinism is false to the libertarians—we have the freedom to choose different courses of action, and not giving in to peadophilic urges is one of them.

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Photo by Vladislav Babienko on Unsplash

Libertarians believe in agent causationour powerful ability to affect the causal chain of the universe, though it’s unclear where those decisions actually come from. Claiming that they come from our brains is accurate, but the causal nature of the universe, and all of the classical mechanics science that supports it, would state that something must have caused our brains to make the decision. Libertarians seem to believe that it simply comes from the ether, that the decisions-making brains of humans are somehow exterior to the concept of cause and effect, as though in a vacuum.

Quantum mechanics supports the libertarian argument, with evidence to suggest that the tiniest, quantum-level elements of our universe are not necessarily subject to classical cause and effect. They can even be in two places at the same time. According to scientists, the measurable properties of a sub-atomic particles simply cannot be predicted based on what happened previously. If the tiniest elements in our brains sit outside the rigid realm of cause and effect, then free will can be said to exist.

Compatibilism (soft determinism)

“Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.”

Arthur Schopenhauer

Compatibilists would agree with the libertarians, as they’re also staunch believers in free will. Unlike the libertarians though, they do believe that everything is determined, which seems contradictory—if everything is pre-determined, how can we possibly be free to choose? If the growth of the tumour was determined by forces outside of the man’s control, was he free to decide not to molest his stepdaughter?

This contradiction is reconciled by the compatibilists belief that, even though the man’s actions were caused by the tumour, it was still him who made the decision. He wasn’t coerced by an outside force, and acted according to his own motivation; the tumour, though unwanted, was still a part of him. As such, and in spite of his tragic misfortune, he should be accountable and punished for his actions. In this particular situation, this position might be considered the harshest of the free will theories.

Degree of control – a new approach

Canadian-American philosopher Patricia Churchland believes that free will should be considered from a different angle. The existence of free will doesn’t matter in this situation—whether consciously decided or not, the child was still molested. Instead, Churchland thinks that we should consider how much control we have in any given situation. The greater the control, the greater the responsibility.

In the case of our tumour-driven paedophile, we would have to understand the man’s ability to resist the sexual impulses in his brain. There’s probably many paedophiles alive today who choose not to commit crimes, because their sense of morality dictates that it’s the wrong thing to do.

To what degree is the man’s tumour affecting his ability to resist his urges? For Churchland, reframing the question in this way helps us to understand how responsible the man is for his crimes, and while it’s an undoubtedly difficult thing to measure, regarding the situation from a philosophical position is even fuzzier.

Until our scientific knowledge advances to a point where we can answer these questions confidently, the paedophile’s ultimate responsibility will continue to be debated by philosophers. The tumour caused his nefarious actions, and according to the libertarians and compatibilists, he should be held accountable. This seems terribly unfair, and yet, the mercilessness of hard determinism is equally as cruel—the outcome is the same, after all.

The seemingly contradictory nature of compatibilism, the freedom-certainty of the libertarians, or the rigid idea of determinism offers little guidance for personal responsibility. From a practical perspective, Churchland’s reframing of free will from a position of control allows us to measure responsibility, determine accountability, and decide the consequences for an immoral action.

While it doesn’t answer the intriguing question of whether free will exists, it does fulfill an important concern—the ability to measure how responsible we are for our actions.

Love Your Fate—The Power of Amor Fati

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Love your fate, Daily Stoic Store – Medallion

Much that happens in our lives is beyond our control, to our everlasting dismay. We welcome everything good with a stupid, expectant grin, arms wide open and fingers stretched, ready to greedily receive every deserved delight. If we catch the slightest whiff of something adverse, it’s greeted by a suit of armour and a speedily turned back, regardless of its laughable ineffectiveness. Our nature dictates that we seek positivity and shun negativity, and while this normally makes sense, when it comes to events that are outside of our control, it can pollute our mental health.

There’s so much that we can’t control—our partner’s love for us; a substantial annual pay raise; the train turning up on time. Rallying against these events is as futile as shouting at rainclouds to go away—you have zero control over such situations, so the most sensible thing that you can do is just accept them. Nietzsche, everyone’s favourite moustached-German, tried to encapsulate this in his philosophy with the beautiful Latin phrase amor fati, which translates to “a love of one’s fate,” or “love your fate”. You don’t have to be a believer in fate to benefit from this concept, you simply have to realise that, whether you think that life is predetermined or not, there are some things that you can’t control, and it’s much better for you to accept them instead of fighting them.

“My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendacity in the face of what is necessary—but love it.”

Nietzsche

This philosophy takes a lot of practice. For many of us, the natural reaction to a negative event is to squirm and whine about it, which only serves to make us unhappier. The goal isn’t to magically label everything as good and welcome such things like brain-dead idiots, but rather to recognise that negative events were not chosen by us, and to accept their inevitability. It should be made clear that this is not fatalism, and that we should by no means accept unsavoury events that are within our controlYou obviously shouldn’t accept someone repeatedly sexually harassing you, because there are actions that you can take to prevent this from happening. What you should accept in this situation is the fact that some people are fucking arseholes, and there’s nothing you can do to change what has just occurred. Then do something about it.

“I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who makes things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth! I do not want to wage war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation. And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.”

Nietzsche

Amor fati is a salve for our wounds, which while undesired, are a necessary part of living in a dangerous and often painful world. The inescapable torment that attacks us on occasion can be neutralised by an attitude of stoic acceptance, of absolutely everything that comes our way. Imagine the unyielding contentment that you’d feel if you were able to accept everything that happened to you with grace? When we fight the negative aspects of our existence, we’re behaving like comically impotent life-deniers; we want to block out the bad and only receive the good. The irony is, we only recognise what’s good because of the existence of what’s bad. If you remove everything bad from your life, the good has nothing to contrast with, and just becomes a flat-lined “meh”. To love your fate in the spirit of amor fati is to positively affirm your life, by teaching you that life is more delightful if you have the courage to accept every circumstance, whether it be a lottery-win, or a car-crash.

“Lead me, O Zeus, and thou, O Destiny.
The way that I am bid by you to go:
To follow I am ready. If I choose not,
I make myself a wretch; and still must follow.”

Epictetus

When we recognise that something could not have been otherwise, and learn how to accept it with harmonious dignity, everything that was once dreadfully painful will lose its potency, and we’ll develop an infectious enthusiasm for our lives. The guarded disposition that has tainted our lives will fall away, restored to a receptive, accepting openness. Fate doesn’t discriminate, it throws itself at us without thought or care; a battle without triumph.

“Fate guides the willing, drags the unwilling.”

Cleanthes/Seneca

Let amor fati be the philosophy of your life, and bring uncompromising fate over to your side, as a friend, not a foe.

The trouble with expectations

1_Bf94ilJB38TLbIaxsgoI8QPhoto by Scott Rodgerson on Unsplash

One of humanity’s greatest feats is our ability to predict the future. Like star-emblazoned, crystal-wielding psychics, we can consider the elements of a situation and conjure up a relatively accurate forecast. This propels us towards things that are likely to be rewarding, or retract from what’s damaging, like Homer gently reversing into an immersive hedge. The ability to envision and expect outcomes is one of the main reasons we’re such a successful species. But wonderful as it is, it comes with some pretty big drawbacks.

As much as we’d like to be hocus-pocus prophesiers of the future, our crystal balls aren’t particularly clear. Expected outcomes are often wildly incorrect, and we writhe in pain instead of celebrating success. The problem is that the world is damned complicated – there’s way too many variables for our simple minds to compute in order to make fool-proof, diamond-studded predictions. Constant failure to foresee the future is inevitable, and learning how to accept that is one of the greatest skills you can master.

Holding tightly to expectations can cause much damage in our lives. We become so hypnotically focused on the outcome, acquire such a degree of tunnel vision, that we end up missing much of the experience. Our senses are trained solely on the future, numb to what’s happening here and now, which is the part that really counts. By clinging to desired outcomes, you’re missing out on the adventure itself, like trekking to the dizzying heights of Mount Everest with your eyes closed, and only opening them when you reach the top. This kind of goal-focused behaviour is necessary,  affecting brain processes such as attention, interpretation and memory, but when we become overly attached to the end result, we’re reducing the excitement in our lives, and permeating it with disappointment.

Think of a time that your usually-outstanding partner does something to piss you off. There’s a good chance that your annoyance was caused by an expectation of how they should be behaving. But you can’t control what they do, no matter how satisfying that might be. In fact, knowing how your partner is going to act all the time would be tantamount to standing in the world’s longest post-office queue – boring beyond belief. Much of life’s excitement comes from surprise. Hopefully, the person who you choose to spend your life with has a unique and compelling mind of their own, so they’re always going to do things that don’t meet your expectations.

Exercise regimes are another expectation-clad occurrence. The chimes of Big Ben have hardly stopped reverberating before we’re swearing an oath to develop a body better than Arnie and Dwayne Johnson’s lovechild. The surge of motivation that we feel after our declaration rarely persists into the future, and before you know it we’re slumped across the couch, stuffing an endless amount of cumberland sausages into our fat mouths.

Our daily output at work is also suffused with expectation. No matter how hard we try to create timeless masterpieces, sometimes we end up with uninspiring mediocrity. Failure is just as important as success when trying to improve. Wallowing in the aftermath of an unmet expectation is immature and foolish; you’re clinging onto the unrealistic idea that your foresight is infallible. You can’t always get what you want. Those boozy angels knew what was going on:

“Expectations are premeditated resentments” – Alcoholics Anonymous

Life is much easier if we go with the flow. Instead of balking at an unanticipated, dissatisfying outcome, remind yourself that the future isn’t unreservedly predictable, and that it would be extremely boring if it were. Existence and all that it entails is a weird and wondrous adventure, cannoning down a white-water river in a vessel that can sometimes be controlled, and sometimes not.

“Those who flow as life flows know they need no other force.” ― Lao Tzu

If this blog hasn’t been persuasive enough to convince you to casually shrug off unmet expectations, then maybe the world’s greatest basketball-dunking werewolf can:

“My happiness grows in direct proportion to my acceptance, and in inverse proportion to my expectations.” – Michael J. Fox

The next time things don’t work out the way you expect, leave your dismay at the door, and let go of what you can’t control.

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The dangers of approval

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Approval is something that many of us greedily seek. Whether it’s regarding our looks, work performance, intelligence, or anything else that we suppose to be important, receiving a smile or a compliment from a fellow human kicks our reward system into action, and temporarily brightens our day. Many aspects of our society have approval at their foundation, social media being a particularly potent example. We all know how satisfying it feels to receive a truckload of virtual likes. The conclusion is that our actions are appropriate, even loved, and so we’re encouraged to repeat them.

Companion validation is rooted in evolution. Getting along with the individuals in our group was essential for survival; without it we’d have been cast out, and would have quickly found ourselves in the belly of a sabre-toothed tiger. As a result, approval is ingrained in us. But today’s world is drastically different to the past, and what was crucial for us back then isn’t necessarily what we need now.

Our insatiable appetite for approval can be crippling to our wellbeing. When we consistently look to others for validation, we’re relinquishing control of our own self-esteem, and anchoring it to the whimsies of the crowd. It’s no longer possible to rely on the only person who should be responsible for your prosperity – you. We’re selfish animals to the core; handing the command of your happiness to such creatures will inevitably end in tragedy.

“Compliments cost nothing, yet many pay dear for them.” – Thomas Fuller

An Objective Leader Assessment survey found that 55% of people credit their value to what others think about them. It’s mind-boggling to consider that so many people put their trust in the judgment of others, when it’s their own judgment and values that should be the sole consideration. Are you happy continuing to live your life on somebody else’s terms? We need to extinguish the erroneous assumption that external approval will improve our lives. In fact, the opposite is true. We must retake control of our own destiny.

“Care about people’s approval, and you will always be their prisoner.” – Lao Tzu

“So long as men praise you, you can only be sure that you are not yet on your own true path but on someone else’s.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

How to break away from the herd, and be your own person? It’s all about your values, that inner light of truth; the most honest guide you’ll ever know. They imbue our ultimately meaningless lives with drive and purpose. A core value can be identified with things that just feel right to you. They’re entirely personal, and that’s what makes them so special. If you’re unsure what your values are, this article from MindTools may help. If you’d prefer something more thorough, you might consider reading The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris, a fantastic guide on the principles of ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), which also focuses on finding your values. Whichever you decide, write your values down, so that you can refer back to them.

Once clear on what gives your life meaning, try your absolute hardest to live it. You’ll find that life is a lot smoother when you’re living in synch with what is important to you. Over time, instead of clawing for approval from others, you’ll validate your own successes. Rather than having others approval, you may even be faced with stone-cold disapproval, which can sting our delicate egos.

“There are some values that you should never compromise to stay true to yourself; you should be brave to stand up for what you truly believe in even if you stand alone.” – Roy T. Bennett

Living by your values is tough going, and you’ll mess up constantly. The miracle that is mindfulness can teach you how to ignore that ruthlessly critical voice in your head which tells you to give up. Progress can only begin with awareness; the ability to identify whether you’re doing something for external approval, or something in line with your core purpose. The more you practice this skill, the better your life will become.

It’s important to point out that approval isn’t totally evil. It’s fine to receive praise from people, provided you don’t need it in order to feel worthy. It’s what the Stoics would call a preferred indifferent; nice to have, but ultimately worthless. Similarly, paying someone a genuine, heartfelt compliment is a beautiful thing to do, provided that the praised action doesn’t clash with your own values.

“One concentrated effort I’ve made in the past year has been the regular practice of sending notes of appreciation to strangers — writers, artists, varied creators — whose work has moved me in some way, beamed some light into my day. It’s so wonderfully vitalizing for us ordinary mortals to send and receive such little reminders of one another’s humanity — especially in a culture where it’s easier to be a critic than a celebrator.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Also, if we’re aiming for something and we receive external approval, this can boost our motivation. We just need to be sure that our aim is true, and intrinsically driven.

Fed up with your delicate self-esteem resting in the hands of other people? Take back what’s truly yours, get to know your core values, and start living a more honest and fulfilling life.

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Personal Control Should Be Your Focus

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Stoic philsopher Seneca understood the importance of personal control

Philosophy has a tendency to be dry, complex, and abstract. For a heterosexual male who has little experience of philosophy, reading Nietzsche is tantamount to being faced with Helen of Troy sporting a penis. An unbounded amount of confusion ensues.

Thankfully, there’s an exception. When you consider the company that it keeps, Stoicism is remarkably clear and practical. Its most famous proponents use straightforward language, and simple logic. Many of its core tenets seem desperately needed in today’s society, whose people appear riddled with anxiety and doubt.

One of Stoicism’s main ideas is to let go of what you can’t control. In other words, if something that is outside of your control upsets you, then you’re suffering needlessly. It’s like wailing in self-pity every time the sun rises; howl all you want, it’s still going to rise. This knowledge is so common as to be a cliche, and it’s the very reason that we need to examine the idea more closely, in order to realise its power.

To be more precise, the idea can be broken into three distinct categories:

  1. What’s entirely in your control
  2. What’s partially in your control (the Stoics call these indifferents)
  3. What’s outside of your control.

The vast majority of your efforts should be based on what’s entirely in your personal control, some of your effort might be put into what’s partially in your control (i.e. what you can influence), and no thought at all should be given to what’s outside of your control.

What does this look like in the real world?

Entirely in your personal control

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Viktor Frankl

Viktor Frankl is a psychologist and concentration camp survivor. What he experienced is more horrific than anything we can imagine, and yet he was able to maintain a calm and heroic attitude. He chose not to despair, and was an inspiration to his fellow prisoners.

In a more familiar world, if a colleague says something to intentionally piss you off, what could be worse than reacting negatively? They’ve got the result that they wanted, and you’ve become a little unhappier.

“The best revenge is not to be like your enemy.”

Marcus Aurelius

You certainly can’t control your emotions, but you can control your attitude. And each time that you do, you’re training yourself to be a calmer, happier person. Our habits are what make us.

The values that you choose to live by are just as important. This earth that we’re lucky enough to live on didn’t come with pre-written values. It’s up to each and every one of us to look into our souls and discover which values are important to us, and then to live them as best we can. Existing in this state is the most honest and fulfilling way to be.

Partially in your control

This category might be thought of as “nice to have.” If you can get whatever is in here, good for you. But if you don’t, it has slipped into the “outside of your personal control” category, and so should fail to perturb you. It’s packed with what most people strive for in their lives—being attractive, wealthy, successful, and smart; a person who people gravitate to during parties because they’re so funny and captivating. A person who other people want to be.

To the Stoics, these are welcome, but ultimately inconsequential. If you lose them, you can choose whether to bitch about it, or handle it with cool-headed equanimity. Gas leak blew your French chateau to smithereens? No big deal—it’s already happened and there’s nothing you can do about it now. Wife ran away with a Brad Pitt-looking motherfucker? Screw it, it’s her decision, and her loss. Happen to be a Jew living in Warsaw in the 1940’s? Your luck is awful, but you can still choose your attitude.

Outside of your control

Nothing in this category is worth getting emotional about. Instead of whinging, it’s best to just shut up and accept what’s happening. This includes any negative emotion—being sad, frustrated, or confused. Our first instinct is to escape, and by doing so we often intensify the feelings.

“We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”

Seneca

We must train ourselves as masters of composure; unflappable black belts. Adversity? Hah! We laugh in its ludicrous face.

This training can only occur by encountering problems, and being mindful of yourself. Each problem that comes your way should be considered a blessing; an opportunity to fortify an iron will. Even sufferers of chronic pain can teach themselves to choose their attitude towards their illness. They’re mindful of the pain and experience it fully, but they realise that it’s wholly outside of their personal control, and that puffing themselves up about it only serves to make it more potent.

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“What did he trust in? Not in reputation, or riches, or office, but in his own strength, that is to say, in his judgments about what things are in our power and what are not. For these judgments alone are what make us free, make us immune from hindrance, raise the head of the humiliated, and make them look into the faces of the rich with unaverted eyes, and into the faces of tyrants. And this is what the philosopher could give; but you will not be departing with confidence, will you, but trembling about such trifles as clothes and silver plate? Wretch! Is that how you have wasted your time up until now?”

Epictetus

During a time when surviving were unquestionably harder, the Stoics knew how to live a good life. We’re fortunate to have access to their wisdom. So the next time you’re bristling with rage due to some external event, act as a Stoic would, and let go of what you can’t control.

The folly of impressing others

1_dh1MZwNdUYAvXa7xyTu-wwPhoto by Aiman Zenn on Unsplash

In Western society, a great deal of concern goes into our appearance. The inescapable advertisements that bombard our senses (supposedly up to 5000 a day) are filled with the kinds of celebrities that marketers have decided we want to be like. They’re promoting the idea that if we buy a cologne, we could be as chiseled and perfect as Mr. Depp. The skincare product that costs a day’s salary will almost certainly make you as desirable as the flawless Cheryl Cole.

It’s absurd, of course. The fragrant liquids that we slather onto our faces will not remove the additional chin that we’ve spent years acquiring. We’re being sold an unattainable reality, completely removed from the truth, and it makes us feel like we’re not good enough. Standards of beauty are set by those who want to sell us something, not by people who have our mental health in mind. They’re giving us what we want, and not what we need.

How do we prevent this from affecting our self-esteem, when it’s so ubiquitous? The answer may lie in a 2000-year old philosophy called Stoicism.

The Stoics believed that you shouldn’t worry about anything outside of your control. This includes how people feel about the way you look. While it’s important to fit in (you can’t go around dressed like a chicken and not expect some roadblocks), it’s utterly meaningless to try to impress, because you can’t control people’s reactions to you. If somebody is rude enough to point out that your nose looks like a pickle that has been rejected by the local supermarket, it isn’t the insult that has caused hurt, it’s your judgment of it. Such a comment is merely the words of an idiot to a Stoic, because they have decided to place value only in what they can control: their reaction. It’s reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Hamlet:

“Nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” – Shakespeare

Being able to suspend your judgment in such situations seems superhuman. Even Marcus Aurelius, once Emperor of Rome, and one of the most famous Stoics, struggled every day to adhere to his own philosophy. His Meditations is an insightful and compelling personal diary about his life as a Stoic, and the difficulties he faced.

The idea seems based on solid ground though, despite its demanding nature. Consider how many of your behaviours are influenced by wanting to impress others, and what your life could be like if it were no longer a factor? You could look and act however you wanted (to a certain degree), provided it wasn’t causing others harm. You’d have a more peaceful, less anxious mind. There’d be a great deal more honesty about you. The people who you choose to spend time with would value you for the person that you want to be, not who society thoughtlessly applauds.

The sentiment is echoed by countless others. Michel de Montaigne, a refreshingly forthright French Renaissance philosopher, encourages us to be more like the animals: totally comfortable and ignorant of ourselves, and how we appear to others. Further East, Confucius believed that:

“What the superior man seeks is in himself; what the small man seeks is in others.” – Confucius

So the next time you find yourself engaged in something that is purely to impress, take a moment to realise your mistake, and remember to let go of that which you can’t control.

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