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Living like you’re old

There’s a saying that you should live each day as if it were your last, which is supposed to help you fully enjoy each moment. I’ve been recently thinking about another way of looking at it: living each day as if yesterday was your last. What do I mean by this? Well, let me explain how I got around to thinking about this in the first place.

I am a bit of a pessimist when planning, which is perhaps a little surprising to people who know me in person because I’m generally cheerful and positive. I think it’s precisely because I think about risks and safety nets that I can easily focus on the bright side. Now, thinking about what can go wrong often leads to dealing with ultimate consequences. (I can’t be the only one who routinely thinks about death before biking in city traffic, am I? But I bike anyway.)

From time to time, I reassure myself that hey, life so far has been pretty darn awesome, actually, so even if it were abruptly cut off or made significantly more challenging, things are on the whole pretty good. I might not have worked on things of lasting significance (and what could really be significant, anyway, in a universe probably heading towards heat death in gazillions of years?) and there may be more awesomeness ahead of me, but even after the thirty years I’ve been around so far, people have told me that some of my thoughts have been useful, and I’m happy with what I’ve been learning so far. That’s as good a start as any, and anything else is icing on the cake. Instead of accepting the common view that life is incomplete unless you do X, Y, and Z, I like to think that life is pretty good, actually, and that things just get even more wonderful. (This is why I haven’t quite gotten the hang of bucket lists–I don’t have that burning sense of urgency and incompleteness.) I would prefer to keep on going, but I don’t have to worry too much about missing out.

While chasing down some notes about hypomnemata (those personal notes I wrote about while thinking about my handbook), I came across Michel Foucault’s The Hermeneutics of the Subject (2001, translated by Graham Burchell in 2005; you might be able to read it online). Here’s the segment that got me thinking about this particular reflection:

With regard to our life, and this is the central point of this new ethics of old age, we should place ourselves in a condition such that we live it as if it is already over. In fact, even if we are still young, even if we are adult and still active, with regard to all that we do and all that we are we should have the attitude, behavior, detachment, and accomplishment of someone who has already completed his life. We must live expecting nothing more from our life and, just as the old man is someone who expects nothing more from his life, we must expect nothing from it even when we are young. We must complete our life before our death. The expression is found in Seneca’s letter 32: “consummare vitam ante mortem.” We must complete our life before our death, we must fulfill our life before the moment of death arrives, we must achieve perfect satiety of ourselves. “Summa tui satietas“: perfect, complete satiety of yourself. This is the point towards which Seneca wants Lucilius to hasten. You can see that this idea that we must organize our life in order to be old, that we must hasten towards our old age, and that even if we are young we should constitute ourselves in relation to our life as if we are old, raises a series of important questions to which we will return.

(p110-111)

Aha! People smarter than me have thought about the same thing, but more eloquently and more deeply than I could have. In the same section, he writes about how society typically thinks old age is not as awesome as youth, but actually, old age is pretty cool because that’s when all of your philosophical work comes to fruition and you’re safe from many of the things that disturb other people. This reminds me a little of how my mom is slowly making peace with growing old. Sometimes it makes her sad. I want to tell her that it doesn’t have to be all that bad. Granted, I am only turning 31 next month, so it’s quite possible that I don’t know what I’m talking about. We’ll see in forty or sixty years. But if Foucault and Seneca say something along those lines with the advantage of quite a few years of experience (Foucalt was maybe 55 when he gave those lectures on hermeneutics that were later transcribed and translated for that book), maybe I’m onto something, or maybe I can take advantage of the springboard that they’re offering.

I’m partly writing this reflection for myself, too, decades down the line. If Future-Sacha gets caught up in the confusion of the world, at least she’ll be able to look back and say, “Okay, clearly you thought this at some point in time. What changed? What’s true?” I would like to grow old like the way I am now, but I don’t entirely know how things will work out yet. Still, if I look ahead a little and figure out how I’d like to live–old every moment, so that I can be young every moment–then I’ll probably have a higher chance of reaching it, I think.

The nice thing about reading philosophers (especially classic ones!) is that they’ve often come up with short, clear ways to say things that you’ve been trying to untangle. Like this, from Seneca’s 12th letter (“On old age”):

When a man has said: “I have lived!”, every morning he arises he receives a bonus.’

Every day above ground is a good day. This is already more than I could have asked for, and what I have is already enough. Anything beyond this is icing on the cake and fudge on the brownie. (So remember that, future Sacha, when you’re figuring out what could go wrong or you’re worrying about opportunity costs. It’s okay.)

I still have a lot to learn about growing old. I imagine that when I am properly old, I’ll be less fazed (“That can’t bother me! I’ve been through worse.”), more appreciative (“Ooh, there are all these little things you notice with experience.”), and better at reflecting, learning, and teaching. I think this process of growing older will be interesting. Who’s with me? =)

Stoic impressions: Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down

I’m with the Stoics rather than the Aristotelians on this one (or at least based on how I understand things): all you need for a good life is you. I’m not wise enough to know whether that’s true, but I think that it’s better for me to live as if that’s the case instead of thinking that happiness can be that much influenced by luck and external events. Challenge accepted!

I’m starting to understand what I’d like to aspire to be when I’ve infused whatever wisdom I can get from philosophy into my reflexive responses to life’s situations. I’m not trying to get through life completely unruffled and serene. Stuff happens. I get sad. I get excited. I get scared. I get delighted. I react to the world around me.

At the same time, I like this ability to step outside of these impressions. I can see myself even as I laugh or cry, working on separating the facts from what I think about them. I can enjoy the ups and downs and yet not get carried away by them. I can be happy that something I cooked turned out well and that people liked it; and I can know that in the grand scheme of things, it’s insignificant (but worth doing anyway). I can be scared about the possible downsides of something I’m going to try anyway; and I can know that in the grand scheme of things, it’s insignificant (but worth doing anyway). Something can happen, and I know that I could respond to it in many different ways.

Whatever life throws at me, I can choose to respond and not just react. Sure, the first few moments might be more instinctive–pain hurts, joy elates, sometimes I say the wrong thing–but what happens after that is up to me.

I’d like to avoid getting carried away by stuff, the way people get consumed by grudges or misled by temptations. I think that’s what the Stoics meant in their focus on ridding themselves of passions–not “passion” in the modern sense of “things I feel awesome about and enjoy doing,” but rather the kind of “passion” that takes over your reason and leads to suffering.

image

I guess I’d like to be like a roly-poly toy, like the egg-shaped Weebles of the slogan “Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down.” Then the Stoic idea of a passion might be wobbling so much and not quite being the shape that you need to be to bounce back, ending up so far off your center of mass that you stay down (or at least until other people help you get back up, because really, sometimes people do get wobbled more than they can handle, and that’s an opportunity for other people to help out).

So far, I’ve been extraordinarily lucky. It’s been easy to return to normal from the little things I’ve come across so far. You know how some video games are designed to gradually help you learn different skills and others throw you in the deep end? So far my life has been like the former. When things come, they’re within my range and I have the support structure that makes them easier to deal with. So I guess that’s like I’m playing a game where you get just enough wobbling so that you can correct your mass distribution or egg-shaped profile in order to wobble back better.

Which is sort of Stoicism, I think. Stoicism helps with adjusting so that you can deal with bigger and bigger wobbles if you need to. Stoicism reminds you that you are not the wobble that pushes you. You don’t control the wobble, so why bother stressing out about it? You can get better at bouncing back. You can work on becoming the weebliest Weeble.

I sometimes hear from people who are playing a much harder game, where they have to deal with pretty darn big wobbles before they’ve been able to sort things out. I’m not sure I have that much to offer. Newbie tips aren’t as useful for people stuck playing life on the “hardcore” setting, I guess! I can say that I’m working on being a better roly-poly toy and that it seems to be working out so far, but I definitely haven’t wobbled as much as other people have. But maybe reflections from someone living an easier version of the game can help people think about little aspects of their own games, either from the actual thoughts or even just the process itself.

One of the thoughts that helps me is this: wobbling’s what makes Weebles Weebles. So as much as I’m sure people wish for care-free lives, I’m okay with there being some wobbling in mine. I might not actively seek out really wobbly situations, but if they’re there, they’re there, and they can help me be better. Eventually, perhaps, experience will let me bounce back quickly from minor disturbances (or even ignore them entirely); and more and more things will seem minor, too.

In the meantime, wobbling away!

Teaching myself to prefer what’s good for me

One of the ideas I’m mulling over from this study of ancient Greek philosophy is this: Instead of using willpower to get through things you don’t like, you can learn to appreciate the things that are good for you or gradually move up through activities that you enjoy and that are a little better for you than what you were doing before.

I’ve been trying this idea in terms of exercise. Having decided that I would be the type of person who exercises, I’ve been keeping up this habit for a little over a month. I usually run with W-. He treats those sessions as recovery runs (he’s much fitter than I am and can run circles around me), and I treat them as “extra time with W- and an occasion for smugness.” I’m not yet at the point of experiencing the runner’s high, but I do feel somewhat pleased by this ability to keep up with the heart rate thresholds that should help me build up endurance. I’ve even gone for runs on my own, propelled by growing custom and the knowledge that I’m going to be able to celebrate whatever progress I’m making. Gradual progress through the Hacker’s Diet exercise ladder is fun, too.

In terms of food, I’m finally beginning to appreciate the sourness of yogurt, the peppery taste of radishes, and other things I’m still not particularly fond of but can deal with.

As for substitution, keeping a range of nonfiction books in the house means I’m less inclined to spend time playing video games. Latin and Japanese flashcards on my phone mean less time reading fiction. A file full of writing ideas means less time spent browsing the Web.

We change a little at a time. It’s good to pay attention to your changing tastes, and to influence them towards what’s good for you. Sometimes you can kick it off with a little bribery or willpower, if you use that temporary space to look for more things to appreciate. Sometimes you can encourage yourself by making better activities more convenient. Good to keep growing!

What’s in your handbook?

Ancient philosophy was designed to be memorized, so that it could be “at hand” when we are confronted with tumultuous situations like the one Stockdale found himself in. … The students wrote these maxims down in their handbook, memorized them, repeated them to themselves, and carried them around–that’s the point of a handbook, so the teachings are procheiron, or “close at hand.”

Philosophy for Life and other Dangerous Situations, Jules Evans (2013) – p116

Oh! Hence handbook – something small that you carry with you to guide your actions or remember principles when the craziness of life messes up your mind. This got me thinking about what might be the beginnings of my handbook: the little ideas that run through my life. Here are some.

  • Happiness is a response. Happiness isn’t something you buy or pursue, nor is it something that happens to you or that someone gives to you. This feeling of well-being comes from how you decide to respond to the world.
  • It’s just stuff. A common refrain when we’re donating things to the thrift store, passing up on purchases, cleaning up after something breaks, and so on.
  • It is what it is. Work with it.
  • Life is short. Before, nothingness. After, nothingness. We know people for such a short time. This is okay; in fact, it makes life sweeter.
  • Life is long. There’s lots of things to learn, and you’re going to run into similar situations again and again. You don’t need to sweat over making the absolute best decisions, since you’ll probably be able to try out different options. Still, giving things a little thought helps, because you can reap the benefits over time.
  • “Enough” is in the mind. You have enough.
  • Celebrate small steps. Because they’re fun!
  • Everything is part of the story. Especially the tough parts. They make the story interesting.
  • Build on your strengths. Situations can often be transformed into similar situations that take advantage of your strengths instead of hitting your weaknesses. Likewise, you can translate your strengths into new ones.
  • See the third way. When you think something is the only way, or when you’re stuck with the dilemma of one or another, step back and see even more approaches. You don’t have to accept the way the problem is framed; look for creative solutions.
  • Choose what to assent to. Be careful about what you let into your brain. For example, just because advertising is compelling doesn’t mean you have to be compelled.
  • It’s okay to be weird. Life is a grand experiment. If you zig when other people zag, you might feel weird, but don’t worry – there are lots of people zigging in the grand scheme of things, too.
  • Everyone’s learning. Everyone messes up. Everyone has bad days. Everyone has awesome moments. Practise loving kindness.
  • Share. Your memory is fuzzy and life is short. Get things out of your head and in a form that might help other people, and you could be pleasantly surprised by how it comes back.
  • A safety net helps you fly. It’s worth weaving a strong net so that you can take risks.
  • Everything will be okay. Things always work out, although sometimes it takes some time, action, or perspective.
  • Cats will be cats. There is no point in getting upset over out-of-the-litter-box thinking, throwing up, etc. Just tidy up and enjoy the purring and the fluffy cat-ness. The same can be said of much of life.
  • How wonderful can it be? Let that be your guiding question. Make life better.

Ask me again in five years and I’ll probably have added a few more. What’s in your handbook?

On Aristotle and talking to people about troubles

After reflecting on how I’d like to respond to people who want to talk about their challenges and how I want to discuss mine, I’ve been thinking a little bit more about the approaches that I favour and why.

Despite my faith in friends and availability of support groups or forums for pretty much any situation one can find yourself in, I tend to work through things independently. Sometimes I talk to W-. Even then, it’s often retrospective: “I worked through this-and-this dilemma. This is the decision I’ve come to because of these reasons, but I’d love to hear your thoughts in case I missed something.” I’d rather talk to people about the good stuff.

When it comes to other people talking to me about stuff they’re going through, I assume they’re smart and have tried things, so I ask questions about the obstacles they’ve run into. I like focusing on getting over barriers because this is one thing that other people can actually help with. You might get stuck on something because you don’t know where to start, don’t have the skills or experience for it, or because it intimidates you. Other people might be able to map out an easier way for you, directly help you (hooray for comparative advantage), or share how it’s really not that scary if you focus on doing X, Y, and Z.

While reading D.P. Chase’s translation of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, I came across this passage on what to share with your friends when you’re going through challenges:

But [friends'] presence has probably a mixed effect: I mean, not only is the very seeing friends pleasant, especially to one in misfortune, and actual help towards lessening the grief is afforded (the natural tendency of a friend, if he is gifted with tact, being to comfort by look and word, because he is well acquainted with the sufferer’s temper and disposition and therefore knows what things give him pleasure and pain), but also the perceiving a friend to be grieved at his misfortunes causes the sufferer pain, because every one avoids being cause of pain to his friends. And for this reason they who are of a manly nature are cautious not to implicate their friends in their pain; and unless a man is exceedingly callous to the pain of others he cannot bear the pain which is thus caused to his friends: in short, he does not admit men to wail with him, not being given to wail at all: women, it is true, and men who resemble women, like to have others to groan with them, and love such as friends and sympathisers. But it is plain that it is our duty in all things to imitate the highest character.

So if you’re sad, it can help to have company in your sadness, but that might cause your friends to feel sad as well. Be strong, if you can.

It would seem, therefore, that we ought to call in friends readily on occasion of good fortune, because it is noble to be ready to do good to others: but on occasion of bad fortune, we should do so with reluctance; for we should as little as possible make others share in our ills; on which principle goes the saying, “I am unfortunate, let that suffice.” The most proper occasion for calling them in is when with small trouble or annoyance to themselves they can be of very great use to the person who needs them.

That’s probably going to be my approach to getting by with a little help from my friends: to figure out, perhaps, if there are small things people can do that could have a big impact, and to focus on those instead of on commiseration. As for when people approach me, or when I notice friends in difficult situations, I will try to keep this in mind:

But, on the contrary, it is fitting perhaps to go to one’s friends in their misfortunes unasked and with alacrity (because kindness is the friend’s office and specially towards those who are in need and who do not demand it as a right, this being more creditable and more pleasant to both); and on occasion of their good fortune to go readily, if we can forward it in any way (because men need their friends for this likewise), but to be backward in sharing it, any great eagerness to receive advantage not being creditable.

… to see the opportunity to be kind, where kindness might be cooking a good meal, giving a person a hug, or helping out in ways that take advantage of our different skills and experiences.

Weekly review: Week ending July 25, 2014

I’ve been going to more of these small get-togethers. I finally got around to hosting one here, too! I’m curious about this process of getting to know people better. I think I’m now more comfortable with conversation than I used to be, particularly if I preempt the “What do you do?” question by asking “What are you interested in?” This often leads to conversations about cooking, gardening, philosophy, and so on.

I used to feel slightly odd about small talk as something that didn’t really move forward–slight variations on a theme, again and again. Something is changing. Maybe I’m becoming more patient? Better at appreciating the little things? Worth reflecting on.

In other news, I made Japanese curry from scratch today, following this recipe. Mm! I’ve been making progress in terms of runinng and exercise too.

My consulting client needs some extra help over the next month or two, so I might nudge the balance a little more towards work. I want to keep writing, exercising, cooking, reading, and spending time with people, so I’ll probably try ~21 hours, but not ~40. Last week was about 25.5 hours and I felt like my brain was a bit fuzzy. Reading and writing feel like they expand my time; biking, too. Less time reading blogs, then. Time to tweak things…

Blog posts

Link round-up

Focus areas and time review

  • Business (34.0h – 20%)
    • Earn (25.6h – 75% of Business)
      • E1: Train TR
      • E1: Finish transition video draft
      • E1: Work on second video draft
      • Earn: E1: 2.5-3.5 days of consulting
    • Build (2.0h – 5% of Business)
      • Drawing (0.0h)
      • Delegation (0.0h)
      • Packaging (0.0h)
      • Paperwork (1.5h)
    • Connect (6.3h – 18% of Business)
  • Relationships (8.8h – 5%)
    • Attend Paul’s party
    • Attend potluck
    • Discuss F2
    • Have coffee with Andrew
    • Host party
    • Attend Nadia’s party
    • Make ratatouille at Hacklab?
  • Discretionary – Productive (11.4h – 6%)
    • Emacs (1.4h – 0% of all)
      • Record chat with Harry Schwartz
    • Fix website
    • Follow up on Canadian citizenship
    • Call CIC to find out what’s going on with my citizenship application
    • Writing (1.5h)
      • What’s in your handbook?
  • Discretionary – Play (14.3h – 8%)
  • Personal routines (23.1h – 13%)
  • Unpaid work (14.6h – 8%)
  • Sleep (61.8h – 36% – average of 8.8 per day)