Philosophy is meant to help us live a better life.
We can get lost going down esoteric rabbit holes that weave in and out of different thinkers’ nuanced disagreements about what is right. And that can be fun. But it can also be a self-indulgent waste of time.
A good friend of mine once told me that I was addicted to philosophical bullshit. This was a few years ago, but he’s still probably right on some level. It’s easy to enjoy engaging ideas, regardless of how useful they are.
Part of why stoicism is such a beloved philosophy is because it aims to be the antithesis of philosophical bullshit. It’s about practical action.
Marcus Aurelius berates himself to live his philosophy instead of just thinking pretty ideas.
“Do what nature demands. Get a move on — if you have it in you — and don’t worry whether anyone will give you credit for it. And don’t go expecting Plato’s Republic; be satisfied with even the smallest progress, and treat the outcome of it all as unimportant.”
Trying to do good in the world doesn’t need to be a showy thing.
It also doesn’t have to be complicated. Some situations are genuinely complicated and may require some humming and hawing, but there are also times when we make things seem like they need more rumination than they actually do.
“Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”
Marcus Aurelius was really trying to drive this point home to himself. It’s a point that’s worth reminding ourselves of, fairly often.
We have to remember why we do all this thinking and experimenting and reading and learning. The point is to do good in the world and to be at peace with ourselves.
“The task of philosophy is modest and straightforward.”
We can benefit from acting with intention on an individual level. This is true even if it turns out that there is a God who predetermined everything. It’s also still true even if it turns out that all of life is arbitrary chaos.
Sometimes we feel discouraged when we think of the vastness of existence. It can feel fruitless to continue taking determined actions in the face of this behemoth of uncertainty.
We can start to question whether there’s a point to do anything. This line of questioning can quickly lead us to nihilism. If everything is either uncertain or predetermined, why bother?
Marcus Aurelius grappled with this question. In his journal to himself, Meditations, he contemplates the cycles and flux of the world. Does God determine what happens? Or is it all arbitrary? There’s no way we can know. The conclusion he reaches, about how to respond to our uncertainty about the nature of reality, is, “If it’s God, all is well. If it’s arbitrary, don’t imitate it.”
Marcus Aurelius presents a positive and pragmatic approach, that works in either scenario. It’s possible that life is actually arbitrary. Maybe it’s planned, maybe it’s chaos. But either way, he implores us not to imitate the (potentially) arbitrary nature of being.
But what does that mean?
I think that he’s implying that we must continue to act in line with our intentions, despite the possibility of randomness.
Intention is the opposite of the arbitrary.
What is the alternative to acting with intention?
If we throw up our hands and say that nothing we do matters, life feels pointless.
The pragmatic response is to act with intention — which is, to act in line with our values — despite the uncertainty. We will never objectively know whether or not life is arbitrary, but if we choose to act like it’s not arbitrary we can make the experience of being alive better for all involved.
With intentional action, we can make the world better for ourselves, for our families, and for our communities.
If enough people continue to do that over time, then life will be as good as it can be.
It won’t matter whether or not the true nature of being was random all along.
What matters is what we do with what we’ve got. What matters is whether or not we are living in line with our intentions.
We are capable of nourishing ourselves.
Sometimes, we are the only person we have. Hopefully not for long. But there will be times in our lives when there is no one else to nourish us. There will be times when we are in need of care and there won’t be someone there to take care of us in that very moment.
Luckily, we are capable of nourishing ourselves. We can give ourselves the love and kindness we need. It doesn’t always have to come from without, it can also come from within.
This doesn’t mean we are a rock. Nor are we an island. Existing in a silo forever is incredibly difficult.
But we can learn to nourish ourselves. Better to have it and not to need it. Though I suspect that for most of us, we very often do need it. We need to love ourselves.
This is especially true in the little in-between moments. These moments combine together to make up a lot of our lives.
Nourishing ourselves can take many different shapes.
We can nourish ourselves by actively cultivating parts of our lives that bring us joy. This is especially the case towards things that bring us joy and also don’t make us feel bad afterwards.
We can nourish ourselves by trading our expectations for appreciations. By actively practicing gratitude.
We can even nourish ourselves by nourishing others.
In moments of great pain, we can show ourselves the kindness of accepting our present moment experience.
There are umpteen ways to nourish ourselves.
Nourishing ourselves is always available to us, in every moment, even when we are completely alone. I find it comforting to remember that we always have the ability to help ourselves. At the least, we nourish ourselves each time we take in our next breath.
Some people want to wear masks all the time. Some people don’t want to wear masks at all.
Some people want to get back to work. Others don’t.
But we have the freedom to choose what we are going to do.
Of course, it’s more complicated than that. There’s a huge collective action problem, in either direction, depending on your views.
But our individual dilemmas remain. Our lived experience of this is what we have to contend with in the immediate moment.
So we can choose to be frustrated each time we see someone not wearing a mask (or wearing a mask). Or we can just decide whether or not we’re going to wear a mask and carry on.
It is getting sunny,
but disease is in the air.
I’ve been thinking lately
’bout cutting my own hair.
But hairdresser are open,
or will be open soon.
Though I don’t think I’ll go out yet,
I need to check the moon.
We’re in a rather tricky spot.
We’re being pushed to laugh.
We’re told it’s fine to go outside.
I’m scared there’ll be a gaff.
Perhaps I’m being paranoid.
Perhaps I’m overwhelm’d.
Perhaps it’s time to get back up,
I’m feeling rather whelmed.
It is getting sunny,
And it’s rather hot inside.
But I don’t think I’ll go out yet.
Seems safer now to hide.
We grow stronger when we are nourished by kindness.
When people nourish us, they are helping to support us in both the short-term and the long-term. They are helping us become stronger through their kindness.
We can continue this virtuous cycle by nourishing other people.
Imagine what life would be like if even more people were actively trying to nourish others.
Kindness is an investment in strength.
We can make it a priority to do things that nourish other people. If we each do this, we will make each other stronger, through our acts of kindness.
We can aspire to be reliably sane, despite our fear.
Feeling fear is not weakness. We do not need to suppress our fear.
We can follow the wisdom of Aristotle, and seek the middle point between recklessness and cowardice — courage.
If we can feel the fear, and act with courage, then we can be like a steady oak that others can rely on for shelter and stability during the storm.
We won’t always be able to be oak-like. Sometimes we will need others to be an oak for us.
But if we each strive to be an oak, to be reliably sane, to seek balanced courage despite our fear — then on average we will be able to support ourselves and we will be able to support each other.
We control how we respond. By choosing responses that lead to sanity, we make ourselves more oak-like. We do this one decision at a time — one response at a time.
Trust that others are trying to do the same. Choose to believe that we are all doing the best we can.
Strive to be someone others can rely on. Especially in difficult times, Be reliably sane.
Our physical and mental health are the core of our being.
When they fall apart, we suddenly feel powerless. It’s hard to feel capable when you’re running on empty.
But we’re not actually powerless. Feeling empty is not a permanent and unalterable state. We just need to refuel. We need to get our engines going again.
To do this, we will have to get back up.
Getting back up is difficult, though, when your physical and mental energy is gone.
But what other choice do we have? We need to restart the engine.
CGP Grey illustrates this idea beautifully in this video. I highly recommend it.
The video proposes that we could visualize our physical health and our mental health as the twin elements at the core of our “spaceship”. Near the end of the video, CGP Grey explores the idea that there will be times where despite good habits, we will end up with an empty physical health gauge and an empty mental health gauge. At some point, finding our health gauges running near empty is almost inevitable.
When this happens, we need the courage, and the faith in ourselves (and in life) to get back up. We need to take the smallest possible first step to start rebuilding our physical and mental health.
This is the rediscovery of the unbroken. The engine is still usable.We just need to refuel.
We can also ask for help with this. We don’t have to restart our engine completely on our own. We can reach out to a friend, a family member, or a crisis line. Other people can (and will) help us restart our engine. But we have to ask. The support of others is an invaluable gift that can help encourage us as we restart our engine and begin to refuel.
Even if it feels like our spaceship’s core has stopped spinning, we can always get it spinning forward again. As long as we can breathe another breath, we have another chance to get that core spinning. We have another chance to restart our engine. We have another chance to refuel.
The buddhist notion of right speech is a tool that can help us navigate the process of telling the truth in an ethical way.
The truth is something that most of us value. Even more so in this questionably post-truth era. We want to tell the truth, or at least, not to lie.
But we are confronted by situations where telling the truth seems like it might not be the right thing to do.
One of the easiest example: it’s your birthday and you’re presented with a gift. It’s a god-awful ugly sweater. You know instantly that you’re never going to wear it. But you also know that your friend took the time and effort to go buy this gift for you. Let’s assume it’s not a half-hearted regift of something they knew you wouldn’t like. If your friend gets you a present because they like you and they wanted to make you happy, and the present doesn’t make you happy, how should you react?
Most of us would probably try to seem happy with the gift, and then quietly donate (or regift) it later.
In this example we have practiced right speech. The traditionally “polite” thing to do, is often also what one would do if one were operating through a lens of right speech. But that’s not always the case.
Right speech gives us a more concrete framework than what we can infer from a general deference to politeness.
The buddhist tradition of right speech (along with several other traditions) suggests that we ask ourselves a few filtering questions when we are deciding whether or not to express something. These three questions are the ones that seem to be used most frequently:
- Is it true?
- Is it necessary?
- Is it kind?
If we can answer yes to all three questions, then we can express our thought with confidence that we are probably doing something good.
If we can only answer yes to two out of three of those questions, then we might want to consider not expressing our thought. Perhaps we ought to express our thought anyways — context dependent. But we have reason to pause and think further.
If we can only answer yes to the first question — if something is true, but not necessary and not kind — then we should probably defer to not expressing our thought.
This is a high-barrier of filtering and questioning to do on every thought that we are considering expressing. Perhaps it is too much of a burden. It depends on the context, and on our relationships with the people we are considering expressing something to, and on other incalculable elements of interpersonal calculus.
These filtering questions are also subject to the wishy-washy-ness of our own subjectivity. Maybe we’re an extremely disagreeable person and believe that many things are necessary to say, while others might believe that much of what we have to say was not quite necessary to say.
But we can still benefit from keeping these three questions of right speech in mind as a reference point, for moments in which we are genuinely torn about whether or not to express something. It’s not the be-all and end-all of communication decision-making, but it is a pragmatic micro-level tool to help us navigate tricky interpersonal territory.
We want to tell the truth, but we want to do so in a way that makes things better, not worse. We also don’t want to be disingenuous. We want to feel as though our outer existence is congruent with our inner life.
Practicing right speech can help us navigate the deceptively complicated process of trying to tell the truth while also trying to be kind.
The experience of being alive feels beautiful when we are doing what we intend to do in any given moment.
If we’re playing on our phone and that’s what we intend to be doing in that moment, it feels like pure and lovely leisure.
But if we’re playing on our phone and we intend to be studying or working in that moment — there’s dissonance. We’re at war with ourselves.
I was reminded of this recently, by one of my favourite Youtubers, Ali Abdaal. He described the way in which he feels aligned when, “at any given time of the day, I am doing what I want to be doing.”
We feel a lot better when we are doing what we intend to do.
That doesn’t mean that life feels better with non-stop leisure. Life feels better if we’re doing what we feel like we ought to be doing in any given moment.
So, if we feel like we ought to work, and we’re working, it feels great. But if we feel like we ought to work, and we’re not — it doesn’t feel so great.
The opposite is true as well — if we feel like we ought to be relaxing, but we can’t stop thinking of work… it’s a bad time. But when we’re fully relaxing, and not thinking about work in the back of our minds, the joy of the relaxation can feel like utter bliss.
In moments where we feel an internal tension, we can consider checking in with ourselves. We can ask ourselves whether or not we’re doing what we intend to be doing in any given moment. And if we’re not doing what we intend to be doing, without beating ourselves up, we can gently adjust towards doing what we intend to do in that moment.
That doesn’t mean that we can always do exactly what we want to do. What we want to do isn’t the same thing as what we intend to do. We may not want to work, but we may still intend to work anyways, because the future exist.
Most of us don’t have the privilege to spend our days doing the things that we truly want to do in every single moment. But most of us do have several hours a day of discretionary time. During those hours of the day, especially, we can make the most out of the time that we truly control by adjusting towards doing what we actually intend to do.
By keeping this framing in mind, we can spend more of our time doing what we actually want to do — what we intend to do.
What we intend do, with the time that we control, is up to us.