Category Archives: philosophy

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!

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? =)

That moment when time comes together

I reflect on mortality pretty frequently; at least every week, and probably much more often than that. If you do it just a few times each year, you’ll hardly get used to it. I think it makes life sweeter, knowing that life’s so short.

I used to clearly separate this meditation from other things because I sometimes cried. Now I sometimes find myself simultaneously aware of it as I play with the cats, hang out with friends, talk to my parents, or spend time with my husband. Those moments feel oddly grace-ful, like I’m seeing one of our cats as a kitten, at the end of her life, and beyond, all super-imposed. It’s interesting to imagine who someone was before you knew them, and to trace their impact on your life by seeing their absence–or even non-existence, “It’s a Wonderful Life” sort of not-existed-at-all-ness.

When I feel this way, it’s easier to be appreciative and grateful for the gift that was given. It’s easier to feel safe, oddly enough, knowing that I can look on without clinging too much.

I’m not always like this, of course. I am often less thoughtful, more immediate. I think it would be interesting to be in that kind of moment more often, though. Perhaps writing about it like this will help me remember what it’s like, and how to do things with that perspective–even in those normal moments when time is separate and not all together.

Thinking about leisure activities: noble, advantageous, pleasant

As an experiment (and because the timing works), I have a three-month break coming up. It’ll be quite a different experience from the 1-month breaks I’ve been taking so far, probably as different as the way that having an entire weekday to yourself is different from squeezing your activities into an evening. So I have a few questions to think about:

  • How can I make the most of that time?
  • With the answers to that question in mind, how can I make the most of the weekdays I have until then? How do those activities compare with working a little more from August to September?
  • Considering the most likely situations, how would I like to adjust my work/discretionary-time balance?

It got me thinking about what I actually do during my leisure time, and why. Oddly enough, despite the ability to spend lots of time reading and writing, I still end up writing at roughly the same rate I did back when I was working full-time. Some days the words flow freely and I queue up a few posts, other days I’m casting about for ideas. My reading has shifted a little, and for the better (I think). I doubt I’d have had the patience to read philosophy and reflect on it slowly back when I read in the evenings and the occasional weekend.

Aristotle writes in the Nichomachean Ethics on the topic of why we choose what we choose:

But that [virtue and vice] are concerned with the same things might become manifest to us also from these considerations: there being three objects of choice and three of avoidance–the noble, the advantageous, and the pleasant together with their three contraries, the shameful, the harmful, and the painful–in all these the good person is apt to be correct, the bad person to err, but especially as regards pleasure. (1104b30)

It might be useful, then, to reflect on these leisure activities and figure out how they stack up against Aristotle’s objects, along with some notes on how adding more time to these activities makes sense. This will help me make a decision about the months leading up to November, and for after the break (depending on how things turn out).

Legend:

  • T: Well-served by additional time
  • N: Noble
  • A: Advantageous
  • P: Pleasant
T N A P Activity and notes
T N A P Work so that I can develop my skills and reputation, help people out, make a difference, and enjoy excellence; More time = better skills, more help, more appreciation
T N A P Write or draw what I’m learning so that I can understand, remember, and share; More time = more application and sharing, and better skills too
T N A ? Spend time with people (online/offline) so that I can appreciate other people’s interestingness; More time = more opportunities to get to know people
T N A Copy, review, and apply my notes so that I can learn more; More time = deeper understanding and application, more connections among ideas
T A P Tidy up, take care of chores/errands, and cook so that we have a smoothly running household and so that W- feels wonderful; More time = cleaner and smoother-running household, but possibly diminishing returns
T A P Learn Latin so that I can read and enjoy older works, and so that I can enjoy learning; More time = more practice, but constrained by memory
T A P Learn Japanese so that I can enjoy listening to anime/podcasts and reading tech news/blogs; More time = more practice, but constrained by memory
T A P Bike so that I can exercise, get somewhere, and save money; More time = more explorations
T A ? Go to meetups and talks so that I can learn and meet people; More time = more knowledge and connections
T A ? Build simple furniture or fix things around the house so that I can make/repair things that suit us (haven’t done this in a few years, but worth revisiting); More time = better DIY skills
T A ? Work on Emacs so that I can learn more, customize it better, and help others learn; More time = more knowledge and resources
T A Finish projects so that I can reduce mental clutter; More time = more stuff done
? N A P Exercise so that I can become healthier; More time = fitter, but constrained by gradual training program
? N A Read nonfiction books so that I can recognize and articulate ideas, and so that it prompts thinking / writing. More time = more reading, but application may be better
? A P Have a massage so that I can learn more about my muscles; More time = more relaxed and more aware
? A P Draw what I’m watching or reading so that I can practise drawing people and so that I get more out of the movie; More time = better drawing skills
? A ? Read social media updates and interact with people online so that I can maintain connections and learn from people’s lives; More time = more interaction
? A Read and write e-mail so that I can help or learn from more people; More time = prompter replies
? A Balance my books and plan my finances so that I can make better decisions; More time = better prepared, but possibly diminishing returns
? A Sew so that I can make or fix things suited for us; More time = projects, better attention to detail, improved skills
? A Research and buy things to improve our quality of life; More time = wider awareness and better decisions
? P Play with the cats so that I can be amused and so that I can appreciate them; More time = happier cats
? P Garden so that I can slow down and enjoy watching things grow; More time = more attention, but limited by knowledge and conditions
N A P Cook at Hacklab so that I can connect with people and learn new recipes; More time = more elaborate or consistent meals, but limited by frequency
N A Simplify our things so that I can practise detachment and resourcefulness; More time = simpler life
A P Read blogs so that I can get a sense of other people’s lives and challenges; More time = greater awareness and possible interactions
A Do paperwork and plan ahead so that we can minimize risks; More time = better organization, but diminishing returns
P Watch movies so that I can spend time with W-, accumulate more in-jokes, and enjoy other people’s work; More time = more shared experiences
P Watch amusing videos and read fiction/blogs/analyses online so that I can appreciate other people’s brilliance; More time = more pleasure and appreciation, but limited value
P Play video games so that I can appreciate other people’s brilliance and enjoy figuring things out; More time = more pleasure and appreciation, but limited value
P Sleep so that I am well-rested; More time = an excess of sleep

Hmm. Tabulating and sorting it like this is actually pretty useful. I can see why work is so tempting for me, despite the opportunity to do other things. It is an opportunity to work towards and practise nobility/excellence through work; it is advantageous in terms of resources and reputation, which contributes to safety; and it’s pleasant, especially when I get a chance to do some rapid-prototyping magic or some custom analytics.

Writing and drawing are less clear and more self-directed. But they are useful techniques for working towards nobility; they are advantageous both in terms of the content and the skills I develop; and both the process and the results of figuring things out are pleasant. If I spend more time and attention on these things, I can improve my ability to observe and articulate. It may take me years to get the hang of these skills, but they are good to develop.

I can develop both writing and drawing in the afternoons and evenings, but I do notice a difference in attention. I usually watch movies in the evening as a way of spending time with W-. This is okay for slow and light writing, but does not lend itself well to study, deep reflection, or application. When I worked full-time, I generally wrote in the evenings (sometimes before dinner, sometimes shortly after) or on one of the weekend afternoons. I like writing on weekday afternoons, now. I like the pace. Would I pick that over consulting? Yes, actually, depending on what kinds of tasks I’d work on. I can put off writing when there are important and time-sensitive tasks to be done, but writing is also important to me long-term, and I’m willing to take on a little risk in order to experiment with it.

Hmm. If I do two to three days of work a week–maybe even four–from now to October, while leaving at least one full day for writing, that’s probably good. I can front-load the writing, since that’s important to me. If I feel it could use more time, I might adjust what I work on. I’ll spend the usual time cooking and taking care of house-things, although I might spend a little more time during the week to cook fresh dinners. I can use the three-month break to experiment with more writing and drawing. In the meantime, I can avoid getting used to the additional income by stashing it all in a safety net, opportunity fund, or similar budget. If we keep our lifestyle the same, it’s easy to evaluate work for its own sake.

Are there some smaller-value activities that I should spend more time on instead of reading, writing, and drawing? Spending time with people is nice, but it can be a little iffy in terms of energy, so I might take the occasional opportunity and use the rest of the time on other things. I can review my notes instead of reading lots of new books, and use those notes for material for blog posts and experiments. When I find myself looking for non-writing activities, this table might be handy to review.

Let’s see how this works out.

Learning philosophy at the right time

When I took the required philosophy courses in university, I was too young for it. We all were, I think — inarticulate adolescents with little life experience. Perhaps a brilliant teacher would have been able to teach it anyway, and perhaps for some of my classmates our teachers were brilliant. I struggled with the courses, though. The topics seemed abstract and impractical. We read Plato’s Republic and were quizzed on his ideal society. We read the Nichomachean Ethics and differentiated among types of friendship. We read Hannah Arendt’s thoughts on totalitarianism and discussed terror. But nothing really made an impact on my everyday life, aside from the unexpected oddness of being comfortable with–even finding a sort of joy in–the hopelessness and despair described by Sartre when it seemed, based on how we were taught and how my classmates responded, that I should have had more philosophical discomfort with the concept.

Hence the young man is not a fit student of Moral Philosophy, for he has no experience in the actions of life, while all that is said presupposes and is concerned with these: and in the next place, since he is apt to follow the impulses of his passions, he will hear as though he heard not, and to no profit, the end in view being practice and not mere knowledge.

Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics (Book 1 – 1095a)

The normal course of events, perhaps, might be that I’d revisit these topics later in life. Much later, the way people conscious of mortality tend to think about life. I think this 5-year experiment of mine nudged me to think about the best use of time, and from there to wonder about Aristotle’s recommendation of the contemplative life. Time and patience

I’m not quite at the point of understanding Heidegger and similar thinkers. I don’t need to get there, I think, in order to get some benefit from applying philosophy to life. I want to train my mind to see clearly, want the right things, not want the wrong things, act on these right judgments, and be able to explain what I’m learning to myself and to others. Starting this early makes sense, because then I can avoid bad habits (or unlearn them before they get ingrained) and enjoy the benefits for longer.

Keep on as you have begun, and make all possible haste, so that you may have longer enjoyment of an improved mind, one that is at peace with itself. Doubtless you will derive enjoyment during the time when you are improving your mind and setting it at peace with itself; but quite different is the pleasure which comes from contemplation when one’s mind is so cleansed from every stain that it shines.

Seneca, Epistles, Letter 4

In a later letter, Seneca also tells us that we don’t have to put this kind of thinking off until we are comfortably settled. This reminds me of how people set these constantly moving goalposts for themselves (“I just need to make $XXX,000” – and then higher, and higher), and why it made sense to me to risk jumping earlier rather than later. We’ll see how this works out.

Study cannot be helpful unless you take pains to live simply; and living simply is voluntary poverty. Away, then, with all excuses like: “I have not yet enough; when I have gained the desired amount, then I shall devote myself wholly to philosophy.” And yet this ideal, which you are putting off and placing second to other interests, should be secured first of all; you should begin with it. You retort: “I wish to acquire something to live on.” Yes, but learn while you are acquiring it; for if anything forbids you to live nobly, nothing forbids you to die nobly.

Seneca, Epistles, Letter 17

Now is a good time, I think. I can train my thinking and inspire my writing with classic, clear texts, and I can work on learning things that are common to more people than my other niche interests are.

Becoming comfortable with simplicity and even discomfort

Here’s an excerpt from Seneca’s Epistles (Letter 18) that made me think about voluntary simplicity:

Such is the course which those men I have followed who, in their imitation of poverty, have every month come almost to want, that they might never recoil from what they had so often rehearsed.

… Even Epicurus, the teacher of pleasure, used to observe stated intervals, during which he satisfied his hunger in niggardly fashion; he wished to see whether he thereby fell short of full and complete happiness, and, if so, by what amount be fell short, and whether this amount was worth purchasing at the price of great effort.

… For though water, barley-meal, and crusts of barley-bread, are not a cheerful diet, yet it is the highest kind of Pleasure to be able to derive pleasure from this sort of food, and to have reduced one’s needs to that modicum which no unfairness of Fortune can snatch away.

I’m careful with my finances because I don’t want to end up in the kinds of situations that I see play out around me and on the Internet. I know I can’t eliminate those risks (no one is immune to bad luck!), but I can try to minimize the risks.

I’m pretty insulated from everyday troubles. I’m not often hungry or thirsty. I usually bring a bottle of water and a snack in my bag, and in the city, there are always places to go. We have what we need and want, and we don’t worry about where our next meal is coming from or how we can keep a roof over our heads.

Sometimes when I talk to people a little further ahead in life, I’m reminded that prosperity can lead to complacency. Some people tell me they wish they could do something like this experiment of mine with semi-retirement, but on the other hand, they like their current lifestyle a lot too. I like keeping my life simple and my budget almost student-ish. I check out thrift stores for clothes. I shop for groceries with a list, do the math when it comes to prices, and enjoy home-cooked meals more than restaurant steaks. It’s a way of minimizing risks and increasing safety, I guess. If I don’t get used to the good life – if I fight lifestyle inflation and hedonic adaptation – then I can more easily weather any downturns in markets or luck.

How can I get even better at this? In terms of food, it’s good to practice with simple ingredients and simple techniques. Then the main differentiator would be skill in choosing, combining, and cooking. I can still enjoy the things that I’m not very skilled at. I might even skip a meal, or eat lightly. In terms of transportation, maybe I should walk long distances once in a while, so I don’t get too accustomed to taking transit or biking. In terms of things, I can give more things away, or box things up temporarily.

It’s good to get pleasure from the small stuff. I can drink tap water here in Toronto, which still boggles me no end. I can read hundreds of books from the library. I can walk and feel the sun shining. I can breathe and feel my lungs inflate. What do I need richer pleasures for, if these simple ones can be enough?