Sunday, January 3, 2016

Big Picture Blinders

Don't be like this guy...
Happy New Year to you and yours, NIP!
            I sincerely hope that 2016 is off to a great start and that you’ve been reflecting on what you’d like to accomplish in the coming year. For me personally, the last two weeks of our winter break from school has been truly wonderful. And I mean that in the most literal sense possible. Full of wonder, a lot of which I hope to explain in this letter. Unlike the hectic, stressful winter break Erin and I had last year, this one has been the exact opposite. Other than having to venture out on the holidays themselves, we’ve done little more than sleep in each day, go for walks together, watch movies and/or football on the couch, and—for me especially—take time each day to read, be still, and deeply contemplate life and how to best live it.

            I am a reflective person by nature and to some degree always have been. Since becoming a mentor, however, this innate tendency has only grown. It could be partly due to the job, which encourages reflection through both the changing nature of my role as an educator, as well as encouraging those whom I serve to think about their practice as teachers in an effort to improve their craft. It could also be due to the milestone birthday I passed back in August when I turned 40, a momentous occasion that all but forced me to think about what I have accomplished thus far in my lifetime and, more importantly, who I have become and am in the process of becoming. Regardless of the impetus for this ever-increasing amount of thinking about life in which I have been engaged as of late, I realize that it is making a profound difference in me personally and professionally.

            What I am sure of at this point, though, is that while I can’t pinpoint the origin, the budding bromance I have been sharing with a long dead Roman philosopher named Seneca is certainly nurturing and accelerating the change for the better. Since reading William Irvine’s The Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy during Thanksgiving week, I promised myself that I would spend 2016 reading only primary source philosophy books or poetry. I’ve spent far too many years away from such works in my headlong pursuit of knowledge over the last five years, and I desperately needed to change course with my reading habits (if only for a year or two). Seneca was at the top of the list because I had never read any of his works and he was the Stoic who was showcased the most throughout Irvine’s book. So for the past week I’ve been reading Seneca’s Dialogues and Essays, all the while having an enlightening conversation between myself and Seneca with my marginalia as the mediator as I eagerly read tracts such as “On the Happy Life,” “On the Tranquility of the Mind,” and “On the Shortness of Life” each day.

            I have learned so much about myself and the human condition in the last week alone, and I feel humbled and in awe of so much. Seneca’s words reached me in a way that an author hasn’t in a long time. All of it makes so much sense and has resonated with me in an uncanny way. The best way I can describe it would be to stumble upon an answer that you’ve known all along yet couldn’t verbalize, let alone the question that preceded that unutterable answer. All I can really tell you, NIP, is that Seneca plucked a note that has continued to reverberate within me, and I hope to share that positive change with others.

            Nearly every page in Seneca’s essays is brimming with everyday, practical wisdom (phronesis, the ancient Greeks would have called it). I’ve enjoyed underlining passages and writing comments and questions next to them, all the while thinking about what it means to be alive, to be a human being and all the wonder that it entails. Though he died in 65 CE and most of these works come from the previous 15 years prior to his demise, Seneca is enjoyable reading because he was an insightful and incisive proto-psychologist. He discusses issues that I would have thought were only problems of modernity and development, certainly not of ancient Rome. But more than anything else reading his words made me realize that people are people and, more often than not, we are our own worst enemies.

            There are so many quotes and passages that I would love to share with you, NIP, but this one stands out the most because it encapsulates an idea that could change your life for the better:

The conditions under which we are born would be favorable if only we did not abandon them. Nature’s intention was that we should need no great equipment for living in happiness: every one of us is capable of making himself happy. Little importance is to be attached to external things, and they cannot possess great influence in either direction.

Seneca effectively illustrates that our satisfaction with life is largely up to us as individuals, and it begins with a disciplined mind. Though Seneca does not call it as such, the Roman Stoics used a technique that I’ve since come to call “reverse pessimism.” When something goes wrong or we don’t like a particular outcome, think of how it could have been even worse. By calling to mind how things can be worse, this reverse psychological trick has the effect of helping us realize all the good in our lives. What’s more important is that this idea is to be used in conjunction with the realization that every aspect of life is ephemeral, transient, and in a constant state of coming into being and passing away. Ideally, the consummation of this line of thinking brings about a profound sense of gratitude for the simple pleasures of life that we so often neglect to the detriment of our own well-being.

            Stop for a few minutes and think about the sum total of your life up to this point, NIP. But before you do, consider the following: if you’re reading this and understand it, you’ve received an education at some point; you know English and are accessing this letter via the internet, which then stands to reason that you live in a developed country that has high levels of access to technology; you have the free time to even read such an electronic epistle, rather than working as a day-laborer in a field in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Now take that moment to pause and reflect on your life…

I’m quite sure your life, like all lives, has had its share of ups and downs. But I’d also venture to guess that most of those negative things you’ve experienced are what we could classify as F.W.P (First World Problems). Ultimately, what you will realize is that all that matters about life is intact. Did you wake up this morning? Are you breathing? You clearly have eyes that can see to read this—and thereby take in all the wonderful sights such as the sun rising and setting, the flight of birds, the flowers gently bending on the bough as they blow in the breeze—and even if you were blind to all such visual delights, you have other senses that indicate you are alive. The opposite of this condition means you would experience none of these marvels. There is an inherent magnanimity in life insofar as it is always conferring blessings while we are alive.

            So what’s the real problem with the way most of us live day to day? It’s what I’ve dubbed our Big Picture Blinders. Just like a horse wears blinders to keep its vision straight ahead and focused on only what lies in front of it, more often than not we are wearing blinders to the big picture of our lives. We get caught up in the trivial details of life that don’t matter in the long run, and waste energy needlessly by enmeshing ourselves in petty drama and other various forms of negativity when we could be celebrating living life to the fullest. Instead, we should use the Stoic technique of reverse pessimism to realize how our small misfortunes could indeed be much worse, which ultimately confers the benefit of helping us focus on the all the good we take for granted. In the end, this type of constant introspection fosters a disciplined mind that steadies the vicissitudes of life and helps us mitigate seeming calamity with a sense of calm. Every individual has the capacity to cultivate this mindset and remove the big picture blinders. Even on our worst days, we can always take stock of all the good in our personal lives to counterbalance whatever we perceive as negative, which, ultimately, makes us the arbiters of our outlook on life. We are all mortal, we have all been given only a relatively short amount of time to enjoy all that this awesome life entails. Focus on the good in your life and take nothing for granted, and you will undoubtedly discover that happiness is within your reach at any moment.

Take off those big picture blinders, NIP.

- Ryan

P.S. – Because I can’t help not including at least a few more Seneca gems, I’ve typed out several more that have a direct bearing on this letter and what I was trying to convey in my own words:

            “Your duty is not to complain about what has been taken away but to be thankful for what you have been given.”

            “If we were given the choice whether it is preferable to be happy for a short time or never to be happy, it is better for us to have blessings that will depart than to have none at all…it is hardly a man’s lot to be given blessings which are both great and long-lasting, and only the happiness that comes slowly continues and accompanies us to the end.”

            “It is true that our mortal nature makes us desire nothing so much as what we have lost: our longing for what we have lost makes us less than fair towards what is left.”
            “The happy man, therefore, possesses sound judgment; the happy man is satisfied with his present situation, no matter what it is, and eyes his fortune with contentment; the happy man is the one who permits reason to evaluate every condition of his existence.”

            “But it is a narrow mind that takes delight in earthly (i.e. man-made in this context) things: it should be directed rather to things above that everywhere appear the same and everywhere have the same splendor. One should reflect on this point as well, that true blessings are obscured from us by these earthly things owing to values that are misguided and wrongly held.”  

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