Think About Death. It’s Healthy.

Marcus Aurelius, wrote Meditations

Epictetus, the founder of Stoicism, said to “keep death and exile daily before thine eyes” and “it is not death or pain that is to be dreaded, but the fear of pain or death.” Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Philosopher Stoic, picking up where he left off, said “think not disdainfully of death, but look on it with favor; for even death is one of the things that Nature wills.”

Superior athletes practice visualization. They visualize the future in order to perform better when the moment comes. Guess what: that applies to life too.

Occasionally I find myself walking down the street in a somber, contemplative frame of mind. I think about the death of a loved one. What would I say at their funeral? What words would express how they lived and the love they gave to me? I’m filled with a bittersweet joy. Lately I’ve thought about my grandfather, father, and mother dying. I imagine myself at the funeral. I picture all the people there. I consider the emotions. It’s funny how to consider death is to consider and appreciate life. I am left with a peaceful feeling. I could die at anytime, and that’s okay. My grandfather could die at anytime, and that’s okay. I love him just as much now as I will then, and that’s it. What else can be said? To think about death as some horrible, impending doom is simply irrational.

I have always dealt well with tragedy. It’s not because I have no emotions (I  really do). Stoicism embraces controlled emotions. My personality, biology, and probably the size of my amygdala all play a part at how I react to tragedy. But my philosophy and mind set play a large part too. When it comes to tragedy, I have already been there. I have been to the mountaintop. I am ready for it. I am not worried about it. This is the Stoic lifestyle. The Stoics were the perfect blend of self-reliance and faith, of philosophy and religion. They did everything they could to be the best person they could be – and left the rest to God, or the Gods, or Nature. Worry about the things that are in your control, and accept everything else with a graceful disposition.

Your mother will die someday. You will die someday. The only thing to fear is not living. And I think that’s why we are scared of death.

Think About Death. It’s Healthy.

Stoicism; or, Know Thyself and Do Thy Duty

Stoicism comes from the freed-slave Epictetus and the Roman philosopher-emperor-general Marcus Aurelius (about 170 C.E.). It comes from suffering and Greek philosophy. Like Buddhism it’s about freedom from suffering, but it’s much more–it’s a positive philosophy for living your life. It’s about using the mind to control the emotions, to calm suffering and put it in perspective, and to create a peaceful life of true contentment that seeks virtue. Sounds like every religion, right? But Stoicism is not about being emotionless, or cold. To the contrary: it’s about expressing the good emotions and suppressing the bad ones. So yes a Stoic might not cry at a funeral, but they might cry at a wedding. It has two fundamental imperatives:

(1) do not worry or concern yourself with things outside your control.

It’s irrational. It makes no sense to stress about things that you can literally do nothing about. Death is the obvious example, but there are several others. Don’t worry about what other people think of you, or luck, fortune, or fame. Don’t worry about what your kids are doing. Stop controlling other peoples’ freedom. Is there an election coming up? Then cast your vote. Are you hungry. Then eat. Will that person you hate be at the party? Then don’t go. Or go. Might the weather destroy my crops? Then plan. However, some things are not so clear-cut: global warming, world hunger, war. These are global, general, constant worries. It requires wisdom and discernment to figure out how much you ought to worry, based on the amount of responsibility, time and effort you decide to give to particular causes. I’m not sure what the Stoics thought of prayer, but I’m guessing prayer is a good exercise as long as you not praying instead of acting (in other words, it’s okay to pray for things beyond your control, but don’t get bothered when God doesn’t oblige). The world will constantly bring random events, some good, some bad. The Stoic accepts everything from God with a heart of grace and thanksgiving. God (or the Gods) know better. And even if the Gods do not exists, Aurelius says, that’s outside our control too! Therefore, still accept serendipity and tragedy with grace.

(2) for those things within your control, accomplish them.

Once you get rid of all the crap filling your head, it’s amazing how well you can accomplish your real tasks in life. Know thyself and do thy duty. This is the creed of the Stoic. Know thyself. Are you a good person? Do you constantly question yourself? At the end of the day, do you take stock of your life? Examine the depths. If you know yourself, then you don’t need to look to others for the answer. Are you best suited to be a doctor? Then become one.  Do your duty. Purge vice and seek virtue. Do the things that need to be done and ought to be done. Simple as that. Living this way, people will think well of you (without you worrying about it). When you question yourself and live the best life you can, everything else falls into place. Perfect your talents, eat healthy, be graceful, forgiving, friendly. If someone has wronged you, go talk to them and work it out immediately, as Jesus also taught. Never let things fester in your soul; purify it constantly.

Stoicism, in my view, is extremely compatible with the teachings of Jesus and Kant.

Stoicism; or, Know Thyself and Do Thy Duty

How saying "they" might kill you

If you’ve worked in a factory, you’ve heard “they” a lot. They. Them. Those in power. Upper management, the government, the scientific establishment, etc. What will “they” do next to make my life miserable?

Sadly, from what I’ve read so far it turns out that this sort of worldview is a slow death. It’s because the people who silently worry what they will do next are constantly under stress, animals in the wild. They have no control. It’s a slow, lurking, chronic stress, barely detectable yet always there. The stress-response system (“fight or flight”) is constantly running, which means the higher parts of the brain are not running properly, like calm reasoning, deliberation, judgement. It pains me to think of it. We all know these people.

I actually had the opposite opinion for a long time. Previously I thought that the rich people at the top were the most unhealthy, stressful, unhappy people in the world. Based partly on my religious views and partly because I wasn’t rich, I would say “I never want to be rich…they are miserable.” But then I read about the major studies that were conducted in England and other places, which clearly conclude that the lower you are on the social ladder, the more stressed you are, and the higher you are, the less stressed and more happy and healthy you are. It turns out Jesus was right when he said “Woe unto the rich, for they have their reward.” In other words, they might have problems in the next world (due to love of money), but in this world they do pretty damn well. The book Born For Love comes to mind too.

Solutions

It’s human nature to fear and this is one example of it. Yet, as all great religions and moral philosophers say: it’s human nature for us to transcend human nature. First, will power. Stop saying “they.” Catch yourself. Start there. I’ve done it. In my job, I always say “we” made a decision, whether I agree or not (it’s pretty easy, the library is one of the best places to work). We passed Obama Care. We went to the moon. We cloned a sheep. Get it? It feels great and sounds right.

Second, go read Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. If you don’t think ideas can change your life, keep reading–eventually you will find what’s meant for you. Stoicism is perhaps the best philosophy to deal with the unpredictability of life, which says: (1) never worry about things outside your control (because that’s stupid), and only worry about things within your control (that’s smart); (2) now conquer and overcome those things within your control; (3) now your life is, by definition, free from worry. Everything else is accepted with grace and all things are seen as a beautiful play of events, a gift from God or Destiny or Chance. The events that led to meeting my wife were random, sad, beautiful, and ended in one of the best decisions in my life. I took them all with stoic grace.

Third, if things get really bad–and sometimes they do–try faith. Religion, as Jesus said so poetically in the Sermon is the Mount, is really for the lowly, the down trodden, the poor. When the world shits on you, when you don’t have a family to love you, when your greedy employer downsizes you, when you become ill and your luck runs out–only God is left to love you. Or despair. Both are understandable. This is why Aristotle thought that the good life required a little bit of luck.

How saying "they" might kill you