“You don’t want to go down there, man”, my roommate Kyle said, as if some grotesque crime had happened.
“It’s like a lake”
“Everything is ruined.”
As I’m writing this, everything is frozen outside. My car: camouflaged as a mound of snow. This crazy weather and snow reminds me about an experience I had around this time last year when a water pipe froze and burst through a wall in my room, leaving everything an icy, bloated, soaking, annoying mess. The pipe burst while I was at work, and it wasn’t until hours later that my roommate found out and shut off the water. Kyle, the roommate I mentioned above, literally stopped in the doorway urging me to brace myself for the news. I went downstairs to my room in the basement and found a gaping hole in my wall where the surge of water punched through, still seeping through the plaster and trickling down the wall, the way blood trickles out of a gunshot would that has yet to clot. It looked like the aftermath of a sprinkler having run strong for a few hours. Everything was drenched and waterlogged; colorful ink bleeding down the covers of my records, and all my books flimsy and warped, pages stuck together. My rugs had absorbed so much water that they turned into sponges. My bed, by some miracle, was one of the only things that was actually dry.
“A lot of my stuff is ruined”, I thought, standing ankle-deep in water, trying to decide where to focus my clean-up efforts.
“But these are just things”.
Like Tyler Durden said, cliché as it may be at this point: It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.
So it goes.
After several hours of mopping up cold water with towels, mops, and raggedy t-shirts, and layering books out to dry by the crackling fireplace, the ordeal was over. Rather than fester in self-pity, freaking out about an unfortunate situation, I accepted it, cleaned up the mess, and moved on.
“There is nothing either good or bad,” Shakespeare said, “but thinking makes it so.” Adversity is a normal part of life. Bad things will happen to you and that doesn’t mean it’s good or right, just that it is, for better or worse, normal. If you acknowledge that adversity is a natural part of the human experience, then all you have to do is act accordingly when obstacles arise. A long time ago, Marcus Aurelius said “if you are pained by external things, it is not they that disturb you, but your own judgment of them. And it is in your power to wipe out that judgment now”.
My initial feelings of panic and dread were quelled only when I consciously meditated on two important things:
The First Thing
Sometimes bad things happen that are out of your control, but how you react is up to you– act accordingly.
During certain times in history, you weren’t considered fully human unless you were able to master your thoughts and feelings. In Confucian China, ancient Sparta, Republican Rome, in the early Pilgrim settlements of New England, and among the British upper classes of the Victorian era, people were held responsible for keeping a tight rein on their emotions. Anyone who indulged in self-pity and let instinct rather than reflection dictate actions, forfeited the right to be accepted as a member of the community.
You can’t control everything in life, but you can control:
[*] Your emotions
[*] Your judgments
[*] Your creativity
[*] Your attitude
[*] Your perspective
[*] Your desires
[*] Your decisions
[*] Your determination
This idea — to feel the troubles, but overcome them — is the main tenet of stoic philosophy. Practicing stoicism doesn’t mean you have to live like an emotionless robot, never experiencing deep feelings of joy or sadness, but it’s to first reflect, and then act rationally.
Marcus Aurelius believed any obstacle could be overcome by following a simple three-step process:
First, see clearly
Next, act accordingly
Finally, endure and accept the world as it is
The Second Thing
Most material possessions aren’t integral to my survival – I will probably be just fine without them, and I should remind myself of this often.
The Quality of American Life survey that was published over two decades ago concluded that a person’s financial situation is one of the least important factors affecting overall satisfaction with life.
You’ve heard this before that things don’t make us happy.
Adam Smith knew this. He believed that the potential for ruthless ambition and the quest for material wealth is corroding our souls; that there is an undeniable emptiness that characterizes excessive materialism. Smith knew that happiness and inner tranquility came from within, that external conditions and pursuing wealth and material possessions with the hope of finding happiness was a futile endeavor. King Midas learned this lesson the hard way. Determined to become the richest, and therefore the happiest, man in the world, he made a deal with the gods who granted his wish that everything he touched would turn into gold. All the food and wine that touched his lips turned to gold before he could swallow them, and he died surrounded by golden plates and golden cups.
In stark contrast to Midas’ hedonism, the stoic philosopher Seneca ardently believed that to be truly happy and free in life, you should “regard [material wealth] as being on the point of vanishing”. Seneca was one of the most wealthy men in the world, considered to be a living god in ancient Rome. Despite all of his wealth and prestige, Seneca believed it was important to cultivate a poverty mindset. Once a month he would leave his quarters, wrapped in coarse raggedy clothing, and wander the streets as a homeless person, eating only the plainest food he could scavenge. He did this to remind himself that even though he lives a life of fortune right now, it could all come crashing down at any moment, and to cultivate a relationship with poverty is to prepare for difficult times of hardship and scarcity.
As I get older I try to live with less, shedding as much junk as I can bear to live without, which is quite a lot, as it turns out. I value my water-logged book collection and the ideas they contain, my notebooks, and the records I had to replace, a few sentimental items, but beyond that, it’s just the essentials that I need. After the pipe burst in my room I learned that the less stuff I have, the happier I am and the more clear my thinking is. It’s as simple as that. I also learned that unfortunate things happen to everyone and we should feel the troubles we’re faced with, but overcome them with action and grace.
Accept them and move on.