good life

A Guide to the Good Life – The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy

My friend Mark sent me the first book I read on Stoic Philosophy.  We’ve had a few email exchanges on Stoicism and various other topics since then and he followed up with another book – A Guide to the Good Life.  I was eager to dig into this fine gift as I knew I would probably enjoy it and I had an idea of what to expect.  Who the philosophers are, what the fundamental concepts would likely be, and the type of information I was going to take in.  Stoic philosophy may not be as esoteric as many of the philosophies that garner more mainstream attention but I find it useful.  We could debate whether a table really exists, how we know it exists, and what the meaning of the universe is.  We could also discuss ways to help normal people live better lives.  I know for me, especially in these circumstances, what option I am finding more with.  In my limited experience, academic philosophy can be quarrelsome and arrogant.  Stoicism, on the other hand, is for anyone who wants to remove negative emotions from their life and live better.  Namely, getting rid of anger, anxiety, fear, grief and envy.  How can we prevent the onset of these emotions or rid ourselves of them when they appear?

Stoicism frequently comes back to the topic of desire and Irvine writes about hedonic adaptation.  Becoming used to whatever is good in life and subsequently wanting more.  He refers to this as a satisfaction treadmill, which is an effective analogy.  Do you take what you have for granted, constantly seeking more or do you find joy in what you have?  Through a concept called negative visualization we can create a desire for what we already have.  Instead of thinking about what you want, think about how you would feel if what you have was taken from you.  This is not only in regards to material possessions but friendship as well.  How much more present would we all be, how meaningful would our interactions be, if everyone was aware that any time you’re with a friend could be the last.  You’ll certainly find yourself less likely to take friends for granted and end up finding more joy in the time spent together.

I notice this in prison.  You never know, ever, what the next week, day or even hour will bring.  Over the intercom “All inmates report to the nearest building.  Compound is closed.  Compound is closed.”  That means someone is heading to the SHU – the segregated housing unit.  The prison within in the prison.  When someone goes to the SHU they are handcuffed en route and by closing the compound it prevents an attack on a man who would be unable to defend himself.  This recently occurred with someone I grew to enjoy spending time with.  He’s originally from Laos, covered in tattoos, and here on heroin charges.  He’s an early riser like me and would frequently come hang out when I was in the music room in the morning.  His incarceration has involved time in higher security prisons and needless to say we come from different backgrounds.  He also offered a lot of guidance when I first arrived at Yankton.  Though this friend has been down for some time it was recently discovered he is not an American citizen.  How a person makes their way through so much time in Federal prison and this is just now found out is beyond me but he is no longer here and it’s likely I won’t ever see him again.  It’s something I keep in mind with all the people I interact with whose company I appreciate – any conversation could be our last.

There is a sizeable lack of personal control in here.  I get it – it’s prison in the middle of a pandemic.  At it’s core prison is an environment lacking freedom.  We do, however, still have control over our mindset and the Stoics have much to say about this.  Epictetus is quoted saying “it is impossible that happiness and yearning for what is not present should ever be united.”  Okay, I get it.  Don’t wish I wasn’t here because I am here and that’s not changing soon.  If you can’t change the world around you (in this case, being incarcerated) change the world within you (your mindset).  This correlates with the trichotomy of control, an idea I used to reference daily but is now becoming second nature.

There are things we have complete control over, things we have no control over and things we have some but not complete control over.  It is pointless for me to worry about things that are not up to me, because they aren’t up to me.  Instead, I have control over my attitude, desires, values and internal dialogue.  For example, due to Covid we will be partially locked down all day Sunday and Monday after Christmas.  No access to the gym, no access to the track.  Walk to the chow hall for meals but mostly stuck inside the basement of a windowless concrete environment.  That is not an inherently bad thing – it is my response to these circumstances that determines how I will feel and how good or bad of a day I may have.

Marcus Aurelius, of course, makes several appearances throughout the book.  The one I find most fitting: “A good man will welcome every experience the looms of fate may weave for him.”  Here we are and he raised a fine point.  You can handle what comes in life or reel in pain from it.  Grow or retreat.  That’s what is inherently so beautiful about Stoicism – you’re not above it.  Your situation isn’t above it.  What matters is how you integrate this wisdom with life and the challenges you face – how you choose to atone, make amends, and move forward.

Irvine also takes writes on self-denial.  Undertaking voluntary discomfort in that it helps you appreciate what is available to you.  Finding pleasure in that which is unpleasureable.  This could be as simple as taking a brief walk outside without a jacket so you appreciate the warmth it provides.  Or prison cheesecake.  Yes, it is delicious.  A desert born out of the limitations and restrictions of incarceration.  A while back I made a commitment that although I am fond of it, it is not good for my health.  Since swearing off cheesecake I have not broken that commitment.  I do however find quite enough joy in one to two small pieces of Hershey’s dark chocolate.  Through self-denial, in this microcosm of a desert related experiment, I am equally content with a desert that has a single digit percentage of the sugar and caloric content.

A heavy part of the book comes down to one sentence.  “Don’t pointlessly wish your life had been different.”  If you’re being present you are where you are and you can make it work or you can spiral out of control.  The present moment is only two to three seconds long.  Being present takes what would be a choppy and inconsistent experience (two to three second time spans) and makes them flow.  That’s one reason they call it a flow state and why a requisite of that experience is presence in the moment.  You are definitely not in that state of mind when wishing life had been different – when you’re disrespecting the looms of fate and your prior actions.

Stoicism is a chance to reflect on life and how you’re living it.  If you’re introspective enough you can find portions of your thought process you want to change – this philosophy provides those tools.  We can manage ourselves much easier than we can manage our reality.  We can change our desires rather than our situation.  The only thing we’re capable of being control of is our thoughts.  “A man is as wretched as he has convinced himself that he is.”  There’s no point in not being happy because at some time in your life you weren’t happy.

The author wraps up his book with a brief section on how after training oneself in Stoicism that without hardship it’s possible for disappointment to set in.  This doesn’t come from a classic Nietzsche perspective of “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”  More so, he fears that you might find yourself wishing your mental fortitude would be put to the test.  You may want to find out if you can implement the skill set your studying has enabled you to acquire.  Come to prison my friend.  With no cell phones (or I should say my unwillingness to get anywhere near one) you’ll instead find yourself with plenty of time to read.  I have the chance to take a break from the daily grind and read no less than four to five times per day.  If I am walking around with a book like this it provides a constantly refreshing feed of insight and intellectual stimulation.  All in the midst of an environment that leaves no one looking for any more chances to test the type of insight this book offers.  As I am sure the sun will rise every morning, I’m equally confident each day will bring plenty of opportunities to put this wisdom to use – both here and when I get home.

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