Part One: Everybody’s got it rough!
One thing that we’ve all got in common with each other, whether we live in a high tech, modern city or the lowest tech primitive tribal wasteland, is that each of us finds daily life to be a struggle.
“Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.”
It makes no difference whether we exist as a rich, successful businessman, or hollywood actor, or a poor, jobless individual with the bleakest of prospects, everyone, rich or poor, good looking or not so good looking finds life to be a bit of a grind.
Skin colour, IQ and general fitness have nothing to do with it. Everybody regardless of religion, or physical characteristics have this one thing in common.
Whether you work hunting for items in your local Amazon warehouse or you work hunting for edible creatures in the Amazon Jungle, it makes no difference, we all struggle.
Living, and more importantly the experience of being alive is an uphill battle that most of us would rather do without.
“Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labor does the body.”
Most of us have at one time or another fantasized of a much better life without money worries or the need to work.
In this fantasy you might be surrounded by beautiful and sexually attainable members of the human race, alternating your time between sweet hedonism and exciting pursuits such as driving fast cars, cliff diving, white water rafting, extreme ironing or a whole host of wonderful things that would thrill you and make your life a pleasurable experience.
You might love fine wines, enjoy the arts and great food cooked by the world’s greatest culinary experts and invariably live in a big house that has a fantastic view in a hot climate which would justify the enormous swimming pool that goes along with it.
In reality however, people that live such lives, having struggled to get there or been lucky enough to inherit it are almost invariably unhappy people. That’s because by removing challenge from their lives they’ve actually stopped living.
From an evolutionary point of view we are hardwired to seek out and overcome threats to our existence, our health and wellbeing which is why nature rewards us with an enormous sense of satisfaction and comfort when we overcome something that we’d rather not have bothered with in the first place.
This makes struggles in our daily lives immensely important, whether it’s painting the ceiling, getting all of the paperwork in the office done on time and fulfilling difficult deadlines, or hitting a tough sales target, one thing is certain that failure threatens our very existence, which leads to stress and a whole host of avoidance strategies we might employ in order to flee the pressures of life that seemingly come at us from many different sources and directions.
There are times when avoidance and flight are impossible, that deadline is still looming and you are the one expected to overcome it. No wonder we’re all anxious, depressed and downbeat about our lives.
It’s at times like these that you need to be the master of your mental processes which is where Stoicism can help.
Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy that flourished throughout the Roman and Greek world until the 3rd century AD.
Stoicism is predominantly a philosophy of personal ethics which is informed by its system of logic, it recognises that the path to happiness is found in accepting that which we have been given in life, by not allowing ourselves to be controlled by our desire for pleasure or our fear of pain.
This is especially relevant in the modern era, where doing a bad job can cause us not only stress and anxiety at the prospect of getting the sack, but doing a very good job can be equally burdensome. It’s tough at the top for a very obvious reason. Everyone else is watching.
Taking life and the things we need to get on with at face value and applying a little bit of stoic indifference (apatheia) to the outcome immediately soothes anxieties and reduces the mental burden of our worries and struggles to a manageable level.
“Apatheia in Stoic philosophy refers to a state of mind where one is not disturbed by the passions. It is best translated by the word equanimity rather than indifference. The word apatheia has a quite different meaning to the modern English apathy, which has a negative connotation. According to the Stoics, apatheia was the quality that characterized the sage.”
Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apatheia (abridged)
Stoics understand that It’s only when we can sit back and clear the mental space of useless emotions can we finally feel happy.
Stoics believe that virtue is it’s own reward which is why it’s important to try your best and do the best job that you are able to do. Win, lose or fail, you will be able to look anyone in the eye and simply say that you did your best.
Whether they give you the sack or praise you to the hilt is unimportant as stoics recognise that life is unpredictable. Success today doesn’t prevent failure tomorrow. Regardless of how well you do on a personal level, employment today does not guarantee a job tomorrow. The world is ever changing, but do you know what?
You’ll be ok…
You’ll always find a way to cope and your existence will continue. Overcoming today’s struggles will see them replaced with future struggles as yet un-envisioned.
You will always be struggling, railing against something or other and approaching these struggles with the correct mental discipline will undoubtedly help.
This doesn’t mean that we should deny our emotions and become a human robot or behave like Mr Spock, far from it!
Stoics should seek to control and master their emotions and use them to their fullest potential as an aid to the mind in the same way that a rider uses a horse to get him to his destination efficiently. Most of us have minds like runaway horses, crazy, out of control and dangerous. Help however is at hand….
The virtue of winning!
Doesn’t it feel good when that last drop of paint goes on the ceiling? Or the paperwork and the deadlines are hit? It’s only natural that we feel good for a short while when things have gone to plan and life has turned out as it should.
We can use this great feeling of reward when we successfully overcome obstacles to great effect. Positive reinforcement is the key here. Getting good feelings for winning in life, even if the battles are small, like being too lazy to make a cup of tea but then making one anyway is a great way to build your success drive, making struggles less of a burden and more of a challenge, part of a greater game that sees you as the victor.
Now imagine yourself as a very wealthy man or woman who can have anything they want, whenever they want, imagine that this fabulously wealthy, powerful and influential person started from humble beginnings and worked hard to win the rat race or make it to the top of the pile.
How do you think they feel now that there is nothing else to resist them in their daily lives. Do they feel accomplished, happy or depressed.
No wonder so many of them turn to hedonism and become embroiled in toxic relationships or drug abuse to even feel alive. All drug abuse everywhere is simply an attempt to buy consciousness. Chemicals make you feel good, but not for long.
People who have it made have despite appearances lost in the game of life in a big way, because they are no longer able to play, not unless they can find bigger or more worthy obstacles to put in their own path. Life itself can become an obstacle which is why some of the rich and famous might even commit suicide when the rest of the world thinks that they are at the height of their powers and living the perfect life.
If only they would turn to philosophy and rein in and take control of their mental faculties. Peace of mind is the greatest of possessions and it costs nothing.
The wise man or sage knows that a life without struggle is not a life at all because everyday that it goes on is another day without any achievements, a life without achievement is not a life worth living.
“Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.”
Struggle or the need to overcome obstacles and challenges has been an essential part of the daily experience of human beings since there’s been human beings and rather than resist struggle we should recognise it as an important and rewarding part of our existence, if we handle our struggles correctly with the right mental attitude, beginning with the acceptance that despite appearances we’re wired to win!
Part 2: Advice for Everyday Living.
We can begin by giving struggles and their bigger brother (problems) the right name. Whatever difficulty you are facing in life from minor to major, from irritation to full blown problem can now be called ‘challenges’ instead. Don’t refer to problems or struggles just call them ‘challenges,’ because every mind that understands the word also knows that there is no such thing as a challenge that cannot be overcome.
Desire & Motivation.
All we may lack when it comes to dealing with challenges and challenging situations is will, simply put the desire and motivation to deal with it.
Will is a mental attribute and as such has an infinite supply, the infinite will always win when it comes into contact with the finite.
“It is the power of the mind to be unconquerable.”
Your mind is built for this, so go to it understanding that you are not some ‘poor little me’ that life gets to push around, but you are indeed the product of millions of years of successful evolution.
You are not only built to survive but are clever, cunning and resourceful because you are a human being; the direct descendant of other human beings that were successful despite living in tougher times. What they had, you have now and more because you can tap into the knowledge of all generations that have lived before you.
They had to catch sabretooth tigers, you’ve got to catch the bus!
“In the days of the caveman and mammoths and glaciers
Bugs and trees were your food then; no pajamas or doctors”
Brad Roberts (The Crash Test Dummies)
Challenges can be minor, moderate, major or seemingly insurmountable. Every problem however is an illusion, simply because you can either take the position of non resistance or you can choose to embrace it. This immediately makes you the master of any difficulties you may have in your life.
Rather than go down the route of avoidance, (which is something that many people do despite the fact that avoidance can create more stress and unhappiness than dealing with your problems head on), find a way of getting some distance and space away from your challenges, get a quiet moment of contemplation and then examine the problem properly. Put yourself in the mental position of a well regarded, knowledgeable friend who wants to offer you advice with the purest of intentions.
Write it down if you must and see where it leads. What’s their opinion of the situation, what advice would they give you and most importantly would you take their advice and thus deal with the problem.
Alternatively you can break the obstacle of each individual challenge into smaller and smaller chunks. Overcoming each chunk in a bite sized way will increase your sense of self empowerment, remove stresses and reduce the mental size of the challenge to the bare minimum.
If you want to be a big shot in business and earn a million pounds you can begin by earning a single pound. Then when you’ve done that you can refine the process so that the next deal earns you two pounds or more. Then instead of repeating the process a million times (which is clearly an almost impossible Challenge) you might only have to do so a thousand times or a couple of hundred.
Each task might be a challenge in itself but at least it’s leading somewhere, taking you in the direction of the goals you’ve set yourself.
Likewise you might struggle to lose weight, get fit or achieve anything that you might feel is a worthy goal for you if you try to swallow it all in a huge lump.
Concentrate on one thing at a time, break it into smaller obstacles and enjoy the immense feeling of achievement that comes from losing a single pound of unwanted fat or the thrill of having earned an extra pound that now resides in your bank balance.
So the process of overcoming obstacles and moving from non achievement to achievement in your life is always one of challenge, but you can make it enjoyable in the same way that rock climbers get a huge thrill about making it up a difficult face of a mighty mountain and is no less worthy an accomplishment than running for office and becoming prime minister, stacking the shelves correctly in the warehouse, hunting small game in Africa for the rest of the tribe, or simply learning to like healthy food in place of junk food that is toxic to the body.
Embrace the struggle and you embrace life. Measure your challenges, or the work that you are required to do and break it all down into smaller and smaller tasks that by themselves are easy to achieve, do this and the sense of overwhelming despondency will soon disappear, leaving you as a happy and contented human being that success comes naturally too.
“We should every night call ourselves to an account: what infirmity have I mastered today? what passions opposed? what temptation resisted? what virtue acquired? Our vices will abate of themselves if they be brought every day to the shrift.”
Get over the hump
Bear in mind that everything that you do, has a hump, a bell curve to be correct, this curve represents effort over time. At first all challenges seem like uphill struggles but that’s only because your not over the hump yet. There will come a point that all of that work over time will pay of and then suddenly you feel like you are rolling downhill and are accelerating towards completion. You are over the hump and rolling home to victory.
Finally, don’t be too attached to your goals/challenges learn to be stoically indifferent to failure. Things go wrong, they always do, that’s because they’ve never made a human being that has never made a mistake.
“The good things of prosperity are to be wished; but the good things that belong to adversity are to be admired. “
Occasionally though something will go right and the more often you repeat the process, the more often it will go right again and again. Learning and experience are key to overcoming challenges. If you don’t know how, then find out how. Ask friends, colleagues or even the internet and give yourself a hand.
If others can do it then you too can do it, that is if you know what they know, so find out how.
There is no such thing as talent. There is only practice which leads to skill which leads to people thinking that you are talented.
Look at us, we’re too guys with no formal education writing philosophy, the cheek of it eh!
Finally, learn to master stoic negative visualisation.
Imagine that you’ve lost your job, lost your home, lost your money, lost your loved ones, lost your friends. How does it make you feel?
The correct answer is of course ‘grateful’ for what you have today. Contentment goes hand in hand with piece of mind.
“True happiness is… to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future.”
This is a real treat: Track 4 – In the days of the caveman.