The Upside of Insecurity

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How can something bad be something good? The answer: in moderate doses. We all benefit from a bit of insecurity — a measure of self-doubt — even though too much is disabling.

A Google search of “insecurity” produces lots of articles, including some of my own. Signs of Insecurity: Behavior that Reveals a Lack of Confidence and The Causes of Insecurity are among them. Books give detailed instruction on getting over this subject’s close associates: worry and anxiety.

You will find fewer words, however, on how necessary this quality can be, along with the hesitation and uncertainty attached to it. Most writers focus on the trouble of too much insecurity, rather than its usefulness.

One thing is for sure: insecurity is a widespread concern. According to Google, based on research from 1800 to the present, the use of this term peaked around 1950 and remains near the apex. No wonder W.H. Auden wrote a 1947 poem called The Age of Anxiety.

Freelancer_Lenna_-_FF_V_(2)_**_Explored**

Today I’ll list several reasons why insecurity is essential and useful; indeed, why our species wouldn’t survive in its absence:

  •  Childhood. Youth equals inexperience and having lots to learn. You are dependent. Others must do for you, but something inside drives the desire to do for yourself. Little ones want to discover the world. Their uncertainty about how things work fuels their effort to meet challenges and grow. Were children secure in their state of dependency, they’d remain “little” no matter how big they grew.
  • Safety. Uncertainty improves your chance of survival. The insecure person scans the environment for signs of danger. Anticipation of a precarious future contributes to caution. We want to avoid accident and injury. Even if the odds of being struck by lightning are microscopic, you would be foolhardy to walk in an open field during a thunderstorm twirling a metal golf club overhead.
  • Evolution. Darwinians tell us we need people who are insecure. Were some degree of insecurity a serious obstacle to our survival, natural selection would have reduced or eliminated the trait’s presence. When an overconfident driver is about to send us over a cliff, we best yell, “Wait a minute” or “Slow down.” When a national leader is about to take us into a misbegotten war, the same shouts should be heard from the citizenry. Those with doubts will be alert to danger signs, while the supremely self-assured at the helm believe in themselves and their ideas too much.
  • Swindle Protection. The insecure tend to be short on trust in other people. That hesitation can make them question the motives of those who are in a position to take advantage of them. A handful of suspicion is not a bad thing when it stays your hand from signing an unfair contract.
  • The Human Condition. Few are indifferent to the brevity of life. If “the end” doesn’t make you a bit insecure, you aren’t attending to the plants and animals in nature. Tulips, trees, and tigers don’t foresee what is coming, but we do. The advantage provided by that knowledge can forestall the inevitable and remind us to use our time well.
  • The Cost of Overconfidence.  The world is a scary place: war, disease, poverty and more. Insecurity’s association with worry and anxiety comes at a cost, but so does the peace of mind of the cocky. Whether untroubled by their nature or by self-delusion, their sense of superiority leads to several incorrect beliefs. Those who place themselves above their fellow-man are foolish. Invincibility and immortality are not our birthright. Insufficient concern about the future and the importance of preparing for it is built into The Three Little Pigs children’s story. The tale instructs us to take precautions and demonstrates the danger of ignoring that lesson. Full of ourselves, our simple solutions make us simpletons.
  • Humility and Empathy. Insecurity encourages us to be humble, grateful, and to value the gift of life. Empathy is impossible unless you recognize personal vulnerabilities and identify your likeness to those less fortunate. Thinking ourselves life-sized rather than gigantic and self-important permits awe of the natural world. Oversized egos are drawn to the mirror’s reflection of themselves and their trophies. Some insecurity is needed to kneel down before nature or God or anything bigger than the face in the looking-glass.
  • Life is a Moving Target. Whatever status we attain and however talented one might be, no certificate of permanence comes with the prize. Athletes are the most obvious examples, because their skills erode first. Physical beauty and brain power also degrade at different rates. There will always be someone better, unless you are Lincoln, Churchill, Beethoven, or Shakespeare. Sports records are made to be broken. The moderately insecure are more likely to understand this and prepare for changing circumstances.
  • No One is Perfect. While perfection is unattainable and its pursuit can be a cause of misery, the uncertain are certain they still have things to learn; the know-it-alls are sure they have no such need. The incentive to grow and change is worthwhile. At its best, insecurity opens your mind.
  • Relationships. An over-confident individual expects the world to fall at his feet in admiration. The self-deluded believe they are wonderful just as they are, but risk alienating others and feeling entitled. They make poor team players. Insecurity reminds us that our romantic partners and friends need our attention, affection, and consideration. If we value those to whom we are close, we would best consider they might not put up with our crap forever; and if they do, they’ll probably own some smoldering resentment. Should one think himself irreplaceable, potential shock awaits when a loved one finds another who is more pleasant and thoughtful.
  • Business and Work. Self-doubt keeps you looking for an edge over the competition whether you are a CEO or the company janitor. Other businesses are trying to innovate, not sell the same product in the same way. You can get fired, your market share can decline, skills are overtaken by computers and robots. The work force confronts not only the local competition of the preindustrial world, but competition in the world’s every corner.

A last word on insecurity. The emotional distress accompanying insecurity cannot be ignored. Insecure or not, however, people are poor at “affective forecasting.” Psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson coupled those words to describe an individual’s ability to predict his emotional state. Their research tells us that the typical bride and groom are overly optimistic in their estimation of lasting marital bliss, while the worried and anxious see a more disastrous future than reality will deliver.

There is good news here even for those with severe insecurity. Hold on to some of what you’ve got. You don’t have to reduce your anxiety and worry to zero. You will be better off, however, if you can lower it to a level aligned with most others.

Life satisfaction and happiness depend more on your genetically inherited temperament than anything else, according to Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winner. The contented among us view the partly cloudy day as partly sunny. Happiness relies on what we are thinking about and how we think about it, as the Buddhists knew long ago. Clearly, too much insecurity-driven worry and anxiety do not make for a happy life. Still, a moderate amount is an advantage. As perilous as the world is now, we humans wouldn’t have survived this long without the help of some insecurity.

The top photo comes from the U.S. Department of Defense. It shows a local contractor detailing “some of his concerns about requirements during a contractor’s conference, Feb. 7, 2009, at Gardez City, Afghanistan, near Forward Operating Base Gardez. Some are hesitant to enter the more dangerous areas to take on the projects.” This kind of insecurity is among the qualities that reasonable people need to have. The second image is called Freelancer Lenna, about which the author, greyloch, states “I was a little hesitant to upload this pic — at first — as she had such a vulnerable expression and body-language in this shot.” The picture therefore illustrates both the uncertainty of the photographer and of his subject.

Getting to Know You: On the Difficulty of Making Close Friends

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What happens when the wish to be known conflicts with the fear of being known?

Why is it that we so desire someone — someone — to know everything there is about our story and then say, “It’s OK. I’m still lucky to have you as a friend.”

Does anyone know you in this way?

Do you know anyone in this way?

It took several years before one university professor friend told me about “doing time” in a federal prison. This friend is, I must add, as fine and decent a person as I know.

The individual took a risk in the disclosure, hoping (based on knowledge of me acquired over long experience) that I would not summarily judge or reject. I felt privileged and grateful that my acquaintance would tell me this; and this kind soul was, I think, equally pleased that I reacted in the way that I did.

It only made us closer.

But the question is, how did we get there? Get to the point where a risk like that could be taken: a depth of knowledge, confidence, and intimacy.

Both psychological research and ancient philosophy tell us that nothing will make you happier than friendship.

“The factor found to be most important for subjective well-being is that of social relationships with family, friends, and others,” reports Sissela Bok in Exploring Happiness. And ideally, these relationships are not just the superficial kind, but those that go beyond “How about those Cubs?” and “Hasn’t the weather been great” and conversation about cars and shopping and business.

Like the kind I have with the friend just mentioned. The kind you rely upon when the rawness, ridicule, and roundhouse punches of life get to you.

Most who obtain such companions find it enormously gratifying to be “fully known” (warts and all) and still valued and cared about by another: someone who helps you to feel less alone in the world and more alive to what it offers.

So maybe a few tips are in order as I discuss the challenge that achieving this kind of closeness presents.

The most intimate platonic relationships are obtained by a kind of emotional strip tease; a denuding that substitutes the removal of personal defenses for the clothing that is taken off by the exotic dancer.

Like the seven veils worn by Salome in her biblically recounted dance, each veil falls to the ground one at a time. What is left at the end is almost complete openness — nothing hidden, nothing protected — a state close to total vulnerability to the other person (who you hope has moved in-synch with you and will not take advantage of your unguarded state).

There is certainly danger here, my friend.

James Baldwin described the dilemma as a sort of love without love-making:

Love takes off the masks we fear that we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.

Some never get over that fear and keep vulnerabilities protected behind a screen of surface calm and unblemished “appearance.” Call them “masks” or veils or armor, these coverings keep us “safe,” but keep us alone.

Until you give up that safety, you can never answer the questions, “What if he knew? What would he think of me then?”

And if you worry about those answers, how can you ever be self-confident?

Unless you are enormously self-assured, unguarded, and out-going, there is a journey from strange to familiar, from casual acquaintance to close friend; an emotional distance that must be traveled.

In the days of trench warfare, there was an expression known as “going over the top,” which meant coming out of the protected cover of your army’s dug-in, underground position to make an assault on the equally defended emplacement of the enemy. To do this, you  entered “no-man’s land,” the several yard’s between the two trenches, where you were exposed and open to fire.

For more people than you might think, taking the social risks needed for true friendship feels a little like this.

Some part of it can go back to messages learned at home. “Don’t tell the neighbors” is an expression that informs you there is something to be ashamed of and that the people “out there” will take advantage of one’s household secrets.

Of course, they just might.

Some languages even use words to institutionalize and formalize the distance between two people. The German words “Sie” and “du” both mean “you” in English. The first is used for formal relationships, people with whom you are not intimate. Should this barrier be overcome, there is a tradition that goes back to the middle ages to commemorate your new closeness. It involves a mini-celebration toasted with alcohol called “Brüderschaft trinken;” becoming “brotherly,” in effect, so that you are permitted to use “du” to refer to one another.

You can be married to someone, but not really know your partner. You can be sexually intimate and wildly uninhibited when the clothes are off, but much more “closed-off” when you dress up again.

You know all the fears: of being cast-away, condemned, cut-off and criticized — a loss of power and control in the relationship with the possibility that others will harm you.

We worry that “fair weather friends” won’t stand with us, for us, and by us when the going gets tough. We tremble at the thought of “friends of convenience” who can’t be bothered to give us nearly as much as they get from us. We dread the possibility that our “friend” will share our secrets with others and betray our trust. Or that the friend will ask for our money in such a way that we cannot say “no,” but never pay it back.

We choose between the risk of being hurt by others on one side vs. quietly hurting ourselves in the self-imposed isolation of the other side; a depth of loneliness that sometimes makes physical pain seem preferable.

Friendship of any kind usually starts with shared experience or small talk. Taking the same bus every day, going to the same classes, working for the same boss on the same projects, we begin to chat about what we do and what we see.

If this is difficult for you and you “don’t know what to say,” consider a few of these topics:

  • Where do you live?
  • Where did you go to school?
  • What movies or TV programs do you watch?
  • Do you have any hobbies or play any sports?
  • What music do you like?

Music is a kind of proxy topic. It stands in for those probing questions that might determine whether you share the same sentiments or the same view of life. The early stages of a relationship represent a kind of feeling-out in which the two people are both passing the time and attempting so see whether they have much in common. Some go so far as to make lists of things to talk about; not a bad idea if you are a bit unsure.

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The next stage usually takes the pair to the possibility of some shared activity. Coffee? Dinner? A ball game? A concert? Shopping? It can be as simple as time together giving someone a ride. Of course, there is the risk that he is too busy for another relationship or doesn’t want your company.

No risk, no reward.

Some people prefer (or find it less threatening) to be part of a group rather than one-on-one in the early stage of making someone’s acquaintance. That’s fine, of course, but if you really want to get below the surface you’ll need to spend some time alone with the person.

If you have a significant other, convention can dictate that you meet new (or even old) friends in groups of four or more — couples with couples. But unless all four of you know each other awfully well or are unusually open, group topics tend to stay on the surface of things, revealing little that is personal or private; in other words, little that you would reveal only to a close friend.

Finally, by intent or by magic, you can reach a point where you begin to reveal more about yourself and ask more about your new friend. Things like the kind of family you come from, past romances, job problems, a history of therapy, religious and political views.

You also begin to rely on the other to do what he says he will do, show up to help you move to a new residence, help solve a problem, lend you a small amount of money to pay for dinner or visa versa. You will notice if he pays attention to you and helps you fit into any new group of which he is already a part.

If these “tests” are passed, you just might have a new friend worthy of the name.

The revelations don’t always come at once. Usually, dropping your guard takes time. You wonder whether the “other” will “understand,” treat your concerns with respect, “be there” when you need him.

And then there are those revelations that wait decades to occur. I was recently told the story of two childhood friends who had lost touch and lived on opposite coasts. Keeping to the family requirements as most children do, they’d never shared the troubling things that had happened in their homes. Instead, their contact was based on playing together, going to parties, talking about school, and so forth.

Meeting again at a class reunion, one caught the other’s eye and they quickly embraced.

Then, without any preceding word, the first woman spoke the thing that she’d been told never to say.

“I was adopted.”

It was something she knew even as a child, but was forbidden to utter. Only now, it had become the thing that needed to be said to close the distance of time and disunion.

What do you call this?

Catching up, for sure.

But I’d call it a new start — a deeper start — to an old friendship.

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The top 2008 image is called Two Friends by fotoguru.it. The second picture is entitled Friendship by “Nina, from Australia.” The bottom photo is called Friendship by “Gideon, from Paris, France.” All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Long Road to Becoming Rich

Most of us are raised to believe the path to happiness is a simple one: get a good education, obtain a high status and well-paying  job, find the love of your life, have children, stay healthy, and do good in the world.

But what if you have done all these things and you are still not happy?

My friend “Rock” has given me permission to tell you his story. And his tale sheds some light on what can prevent life satisfaction and how you can find it after all.

Rock was a charming, active, and extraordinarily bright and curious little boy, the second of his parents’ two children. Both mom and dad had to work at a time when most middle class American families did well enough on a father’s salary alone, well enough to permit the mother a life at home raising the kids and keeping house. As a consequence, Rock was a “latch-key” child before the expression had been invented, coming back from school to an empty home, passing the lonely time until the after-work arrival of his parents.

The modesty of the family’s material life was no small annoyance to Rock’s mom, who was disappointed in her husband’s limited capacity as a bread-winner. Unfortunately, “Al” Adelstein had no defense against his wife’s repeated verbal assaults. He could do no better with his limited education than work in a hat factory. Purchasing a home was out of the question given the family’s finances, so Mrs. Adelstein faced the further disappointment of living in an apartment when most of her peers owned homes.

The spillover of her episodic avalanche of unhappiness and anger sometimes fell on little Rock.

Not only did he witness his mother’s tirades at his dad, but he discovered she had enough discontent left over to criticize and disapprove of him. Cruel pranks were not out of the question either, as on the day mom and son were waiting for a baby sitter. But, Mrs. A unexpectedly disappeared before the sitter arrived, driving the small boy to a near-panic state, believing he had been abandoned. At last, his mother emerged from her hiding place, laughing at the “joke” she played on her terrified child.

Nonetheless, our boy did surpassingly well at school.

After skipping a full year in grade school, he was to be the only National Merit Scholar in the group of nearly 600 unusually bright, motivated, and accomplished students who comprised the Mather High School class of 1964.  He placed second in both the City of Chicago and Illinois State Science Fairs, and went on to acquire degrees from three different Ivy League universities, the last of which produced a combined Ph.D/J.D., that is, simultaneous doctorates in Economics and Law.

In high school, he would sometimes say to me he hoped to achieve something great in his life.

But life is funny about such things, and our friend didn’t become famous.

Instead he went on to be a full professor and (for a time) Chairman in his Department of Economics at Wesleyan University, wrote scholarly papers (about 30 or so of these), gave talks nationally and internationally, and taught with passion and intensity, winning the first ever teaching award given by a school founded in 1831.

And just  to give you a sense of the scale of his achievement, he spent a year at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, a place associated with names like Einstein and Oppenheimer.

But still, on some days he thought back to his high school wish to do something great and wondered if the really great thing would ever happen. Because, you see, nothing in the accomplishments I’ve mentioned — accomplishments that seemed so impressive to everyone else — was very satisfying to Rock. And the feeling of discontent he carried with him from childhood into the life of a university professor never left him. This, despite the good education, the high status and well-paying  job, the love of his wife Sandy, two adoring children, and the excellent health of all concerned.

He was, perhaps, a bit like Virginia Woolf’s Mr. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse; like him, an academic; like him, unhappy. A man who had:

…a splendid mind. For if thought is like the keyboard of a piano, divided into so many notes, or like the alphabet is arranged in 26 letters all in order, then his splendid mind had no sort of difficulty in running over those letters one by one, firmly and accurately, until it had reached, say, the letter Q. He reached Q. Very few people in the whole of England ever reach Q… But after Q? What comes next? After Q there are a number of letters the last of which is scarcely visible to mortal eyes, but glimmers red in the distance.

For Rock, like Mr. Ramsay, there was always one more letter just out of reach.

…because, in effect, he had not done the thing he might have done.

It wasn’t something Rock talked about much, even to his closest friends. For him, like most men of our generation and before, the “athlete’s creed” is honored: don’t complain, don’t look back, just rub some dirt on your “injury” and keep playing the game — mind over matter, and the heart (and the hurt) be damned.

In the summer of 1998, my buddy and I took a long road trip from his home in Connecticut to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. It was the fulfillment of a childhood wish of two middle-aged baseball fans who were also two life-long friends.

And, it was a time to be together and talk.

Really talk.

When I’m alone with someone for a while, I often ask, “If you could have dinner with anyone in the history of the world, living or dead, who would it be?” You get some interesting answers. Jesus is mentioned a lot. Great writers and musicians are named along with other famous people of various kinds. But, Rock’s answer was a little bit different.

“Well, if I could really have dinner with anyone, I’d like to have dinner with my mother — I’d like to think she would believe I’d turned out pretty well in life.”

You see, Rock’s mother died just after he graduated from college, so she never knew about some of the items on his long list of achievements, although his Science Fair and National Merit Scholarship awards, not to mention his admission to M.I.T., all happened well before her death.

Our conversation didn’t stop with that question and, as our time passed on the road, I got to know more about Rock’s home life — the turmoil I related earlier.

One story in particular stands out.

In order to get to the University of Illinois campus at Champaign/Urbana, where the State of Illinois Science Fair was held, Rock had to carry his science project and take public transportation. While it was a bit of a chore, the return trip was sweet. Imagine, at age 16, you have placed second among all the potentially eligible students in the State!

And so it was that he walked in the door of his parents’ apartment, feeling pretty full of himself, beaming at the thought of his triumph; feeling what you feel when you are young and the sun is out and the day is glorious and your adrenaline is flowing and you are on top of the world.

His mother greeted him.

“How did you do?” she asked.

“I finished second in the State of Illinois!” he enthusiastically answered.

“Why not first?”

Before Rock and I reached the Hall of Fame, it was clear to both of us, I think, that the “great thing” he hoped to achieve would never be great enough to make him feel whole. And the roots of his unhappiness were to be found in the circumstances of his early life with his parents. Not even a Nobel Prize or a plaque in the very Hall of Fame we were to visit could have cured the sense of being insufficient to win the approval of his folks.

As the therapist he saw soon after would say to him, “The heart has no clock on it.” Meaning the injuries of childhood wait for us to attend to them. The wound is sometimes as fresh as the day it happened, even if 30 years have passed. And so, at last, the “athlete’s creed” was set aside through the hard work of therapy, and he was able to feel good about an adult life that, all along, had been good objectively.

My friend is one of the Zeolites, a small group of high school buddies — all members of the same park district softball team of years past — who created a college scholarship for the disadvantaged kids at our old school. And Rock has donated more money to it than just about anybody, as well as traveling from Connecticut to Chicago nearly every year to be with us and to be present at the scholarship ceremony, as many of the out-of-state Zeolites are.

He is a smart, funny, and decent man, a man of enormous emotional generosity, warmth, and good will.

Best of all, Rock’s story has a happy ending. Because, in fact, in the aftermath of therapy, his wife Sandy helped him realize the “great thing” was something he’d actually achieved long before.

Not the kind of greatness he expected to lead to fortune and fame, but the kind that sends generations of young people into the world who are somehow different and better because of his influence, and who even today frequently return to Middletown, Connecticut to let him know he was the teacher, the one teacher, who made a difference in their lives.

In 2007 we honored him at the annual dinner of the Mather Class of 1964/65 for the difference he made in the lives of the Zeolites and our class’s effort to make a difference in the lives of a few of Mather’s recent graduates. In addition, he received an engraved paperweight as a token of our affection and esteem.

Although he has given the scholarship an awful lot  of money, he is not wealthy in any conventional sense.

Rather, he is rich in the hearts of all those students whose lives he has touched.

He is rich in the love he has for his family and friends.

And he is rich in the love and respect his family and friends have for him.

It should be no wonder then, the inscription on the paperweight with which he was presented reads:

Rich Adelstein

…the noblest Zeolite of them all…

From the Mather Class of 1964 and 1965

And the Zeolites

May 4, 2007

The photo above is of Rich and Sandy Adelstein.

Old But Useful Thoughts: a Stoic Guide to Life

The Stoic philosophers have gotten a bad rap. I know, this problem isn’t exactly as pressing as the unemployment rate, the deficit, and our military involvement in the Middle East.

I therefore beg your indulgence and hope you will read further. It just might influence how you think about life. The BP oil contamination can wait — and you can’t do anything about it anyway —  so don’t let it get the best of you, a point the Stoics would surely make.

The “bad rap” is largely the result of how we understand the word “stoic.” We define that word to refer to someone who is indifferent to emotion, deadened to pain, hardened and impassive; someone who has “killed” his feelings. But this is not what Zeno, a third century B.C. Greek philosopher had in mind when he founded his school of philosophy.

Rather, the Stoics saw that emotion could become extreme and destructive. They therefore looked to find some balance between head and heart, with the passions held in check.

More importantly, however, Stoics turned their attention to the importance of a person’s own behavior and inner life, seeking to help the individual find equanimity and satisfaction in life (in part) by not overvaluing the inessential, external things and events that crowd in on him. According to their line of reasoning, it is important to distinguish what is virtuous and important that is controllable from what is trivial and outside of one’s control. Then, by giving a paramount position to clarity of thought and self-reflection, one may achieve freedom from the excesses of anger, self-pity, jealousy, suffering, and anguish, as well as an overall sense that life hasn’t “played fair” with us.

Professor Luke Timothy Johnson has said the following about the contrast between the world view of a man like Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic “philosopher/king” of second century Rome, and our own way of thinking about “the good life:”

Marcus Aurelius was obsessed by the transitory character of all existent things. We (by contrast) take our institutions for granted. We think that life is long. We assume that we should be healthy. Marcus Aurelius spurned pleasure and sought duty. We are driven by the notions of feeling good, and the pursuit of happiness is often identified with the pursuit of pleasure. Marcus Aurelius identified freedom as a call to virtue and duty, whereas in present day America, we often think of freedom as the most radical form of individualism and doing what we like.

The Stoics would say that most of us are not free. Rather, we are slaves to making money, accumulating objects, and creating or defending a reputation. For them, “living well” didn’t mean living in the lap of luxury, but living simply, concerned with improving oneself and one’s conduct toward other men.

For these philosophers and like-minded people of today, the ups and downs of life, the illnesses, the job frustrations and relationships disappointments, and the calumnies of the jealous, not to mention death itself, are all seen as simply “in the nature of things.” Acceptance of what is “natural” and what is a normal part of the human condition is key to a Stoic’s way of taking the world as it is, not as one might wish it to be. If a Stoic is approached by someone who has suffered a reversal of fortune and is asking “Why me?” he would likely answer, “Why not you.” (Or anyone else, for that matter).

Stoics such as Seneca and Epictetus believed that by leading a virtuous life one could achieve happiness, regardless of what external misfortunes (including death) happened. This is surely farther than most of us would go, but that way of thinking does tend to normalize and minimize certain events that we consider to be “tragic.”

Those of us who live in Western Civilization run the risk of thinking that our happiness depends on how well our kids do in school (and whether they attend the “right” school), our next promotion or job title, the approval of our “betters,” making a certain amount of money or achieving an advanced social rank, and a gorgeous house in a fine neighborhood. The Stoics would say we are much too concerned with external things (rather than focusing on trying to lead a virtuous life). And, interestingly enough, contemporary psychological research tends to support the Stoics: those with tons of money are only somewhat more satisfied with life than those with just enough for the basic necessities.  Put another way, it is the striving for things outside of ourselves, the struggle to defeat or avoid the inevitable disappointments of life, that robs one of peace of mind.

In effect, the Stoics are saying that we pay too much attention to external things of little “real” value, and that in so doing we create our unhappiness, having chosen beliefs which lead us into the pain we seek to avoid.

Take an example. A parent wants his child to obtain a graduate school level education from a “good” school. The child, however, may not be of an academic bent, and doesn’t seem destined to achieve this goal, although he is otherwise a decent young man. And so the parent frets, feeling disappointment and frustration. Meanwhile, another parent, who has a similar child, doesn’t place so much value on this particular direction and doesn’t see it as an essential path for his child to follow. The first man is unhappy, the second is happy. The unhappiness is the creation of the first man’s opinion about things, it does not reside in the thing itself.  The parent is troubled because of his attachment to an idea, something that is external to him and is inessential for his contentment or the well-being of his son, however much he might think otherwise.

Now, you might think that the Stoic is unambitious and that he doesn’t try hard enough (or encourage his kids to try). Regarding the latter, I suspect that a real Stoic would value knowledge and learning and encourage the same in his child, but not make it a cause for desperation and the wringing of his hands. So, while not completely “hands off” the practical things of life, he achieves some distance from pain by thinking things through.

The Stoics desire to live in harmony with the way the world is, rather than to struggle against it. And, here again, they strive to improve themselves — their moral and intellectual state — rather than the state of their bank account or their rank in the pecking order of social and business life. In the words of Epictetus “…as the (working) material of the carpenter is wood, and that of (a sculptor is) bronze, so the subject-matter of the art of living is each person’s own life.” Thus, the philosopher attempts to attain a state of courage, justice, temperance, and wisdom; and always turns back to such thoughts in a constant effort to improve himself and practice what he preaches.

Interestingly, Stoics were also way ahead of everyone else in matters of social justice. For them, slaves were seen as the equal of other men, and women were thought to have just as much capacity for rationality as men, views that were unheard of in the ancient world.

And, as you might have noticed, the Stoics were not so far off from the mindset of Zen philosophy. In particular, both recommend living “in the moment,” being aware of the transitory nature of most things that make us unhappy, and the fruitlessness of spending too much time looking back (usually with regret or nostalgia) or looking forward (often in anxiety or the uncertain hope of a better future) while the unrepeatable present moment passes by.

Here are a few quotations from three of the great Stoic philosophers. Best to read them individually and think about each one, rather than to blow through them quickly. Who knows, one or another might change your life.

“But what says Socrates? ‘One man finds pleasure in improving his land, another his horses. My pleasure lies in seeing that I myself grow better day by day.'” (Epictetus, CLIII)

“If you are told that…one speaks ill of you, make no defense against what was said, but answer, ‘He surely (didn’t know) my other faults, (or) else he would have mentioned (those as well)!” (Epictetus, CLXIX)

“What wouldst thou be found doing when overtaken by Death? If I might choose, I would be found doing some deed of true humanity, of wide import, beneficent and noble. But if I (am) not be found engaged in (anything) so lofty, let me hope at least for this…that I may be found raising up in myself that (quality) which has fallen; learning to deal more wisely with the things of sense; working out my own tranquility…” (Epictetus, CLXXXIX)

“(I learned) from Alexander the Platonic, not frequently to say to anyone that I have no leisure; nor continually to excuse (my) neglect of duties…by alleging urgent occupations.” (Marcus Aurelius, I.12)

“Every moment think steadily…to do what thou hast in hand with perfect and simple dignity, and feeling of affection, and freedom, and justice; and to give thyself relief from all other thoughts. And thou wilt give thyself relief, if thou doest every act of life as if it were the last, laying aside all carelessness and passionate aversion from the commands of reason, and all hypocrisy, and all self-love, and discontent with the portion which has been given to thee. Thou seest how few… things are (required), …which if a man (has in hand), he is able to live a life which flows in quiet, and is like the existence of the gods; for the gods on their part will require nothing more from him who observes these things.” (Marcus Aurelius, II.5)

“Do the things external which fall upon thee distract thee? Give (yourself) time to learn something new and good, and cease to be whirled around (by external events).” Marcus Aurelius, II.7.

“Or is it your reputation that’s bothering you? But look at how soon we’re all forgotten. (It is) the abyss of endless time that swallows it all. The emptiness of those applauding hands.” (Marcus Aurelius, IV.3)

“Do not waste the remainder of thy life in thoughts about others…For thou losest the opportunity of doing something else when thou hast such thoughts as these: ‘What is such a person doing, and why, and what is he saying, and what is he thinking of, and what is he contriving,’ and whatever else of the kind makes us wander away from our own ruling power.” (Marcus Aurelius, IV.4)

“…By all means bear this in mind, that within a very short time both thou and he will be dead and soon not even your names will be left behind.” (Marcus Aurelius, IV.6)

—“In the morning when thous risest unwillingly, let this thought be present — I am rising to the work of a human being. Why then am I dissatisfied if I am going to do the things for which I exist and for which I was brought into the world.” Marcus Aurelius, V.1)

“Let it make no difference to thee whether thou art cold or warm, if thou art doing thy duty; and whether thou art drowsy or satisfied with sleep; and whether ill-spoken of or praised; and whether dying or doing something else. For it is one of the acts of this life; it is sufficient then in this act…to do well (with) what we have in hand.” (Marcus Aurelius, VI,1)

“The best way of avenging thyself is not to become like (the wrong-doer).” Marcus Aurelius, VI,6)

“…Keep thyself simple, good, pure, serious, free from affectation, a friend of justice, a worshiper of the gods, kind, affectionate, strenuous in all proper acts. Strive to continue to be such as philosophy wished to make thee. Reverence the gods and help men. Short is life. There is only one fruit of…this life — a pious disposition and social acts. Do everything as a disciple of Antoninus. Remember his constancy in every act which was conformable to reason, and his evenness in all things, and his piety, and the serenity of his countenance, and his sweetness, and his disregard of empty fame, and his efforts to understand things…and how he bore with those who blamed him unjustly without blaming them in return…” (Marcus Aurelius, VI, 30)

“Let not future things disturb thee, for (you will) come to them, if it shall be necessary, having…the same reason which now thou usest for present things.” Marcus Aurelius, VII,8)

“Is any man afraid of change? Why? What can take place without change?…Can anything that is useful be accomplished without change?…” (Marcus Aurelius, VII,18)

“The art of life is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s, in respect of this, that it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets which are sudden and unexpected.” (Marcus Aurelius, VII, 61)

“No longer talk at all about the kind of man who a good man ought to be, but be such.” (Marcus Aurelius, VIII, 16)

“I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others…” (Marcus Aurelius, XII,4)

“How ridiculous and how strange to be surprised at anything which happens in life!” (XII,13)

“If it is not right, do not do it. If it is not true, do not say it.” (Marcus Aurelius, XII,17)

“(Good men) should not be afraid to face hardships and difficulties, or complain of fate; whatever happens, good men should take it in good part, and turn it to a good end. It is not what you endure that matters, but how you endure it. (Seneca, On Providence)

“Among the many splendid sayings of our friend Demetrius there is this one…’Nothing,’ he said, seems to me more unhappy than the man who has no experience of adversity.’ For he has not been allowed to put himself to the test.” (Seneca, On Providence).

“You are wrong if you think anyone has been exempted from ill; the man who has known happiness for many a year will receive his share someday; whoever seems to have been set free from this has only been granted a delay.” (Seneca, On Providence).

“What is the duty of a good man? To offer himself to fate…The soul that is earthbound and sluggish will follow the safe course; virtue takes to the heights.” (Seneca, On Providence).

“Inside (of yourself the universe has) given you every good; your good fortune is in not needing good fortune (to be happy).” (Seneca, On Providence).

“Revenge is an admission of pain; a mind that is bowed by injury is not a great mind. The man who has done the injury is either stronger than you or weaker; if he is weaker, spare him, if stronger, spare yourself.” (Seneca, On Anger).

“All of us are inconsiderate and imprudent, all unreliable, dissatisfied, ambitious…all of us are corrupt. Therefore, whatever fault he censures in another man, every man will find residing in his own heart….So let us show greater kindness to one another.” (Seneca, On Anger).

“No man will ever be happy if tortured by the greater happiness of another.” (Seneca, On Anger).

“The greatest outcry surrounds money: this is what brings exhaustion to the courts, sets fathers against children, concocts poisons, hands out swords to assassins and the legions alike; this is what wears the stain of our blood; this that makes the nights of wives and husbands noisy with quarrelling, and the crowd surge against the benches where the magistrates arbitrate; because of money, again, kings grow savage and engage in plunder, overthrowing states built by the long toil of centuries so they can rummage for gold and silver among the ashes of cities.” (Seneca, On Anger).

“…in the future have regard not only for the truth of what you say but for the question (of) whether the man you are addressing can accept the truth.” (Seneca, On Anger).

“…so long as each one of us prefers to trust someone else’s judgment rather than relying on his own, we never exercise judgment in our lives but constantly resort to trust, and a mistake that has been passed down from one hand to another takes us over and spins our ruin.” (Seneca, On the Happy Life).

“Human concerns are not so happily arranged that the majority favors the better things: evidence of the worst choice is the crowd.” (Seneca, On the Happy Life).

“For as far as pleasure is concerned, though it pours itself all around us and flows in through every channel, charming our minds with its blandishments, and applying one means after another to captivate us wholly or partly, who on earth, who has any trace of humanity left in him, would wish to have his senses tickled day and night and, abandoning the mind, to devote himself to the body?” (Seneca, On the Happy Life).

“For if a man has put himself beyond the reach of all desires, what can he lack? What need does he have of anything external, if he has concentrated all that he possesses in himself?” (Seneca, On the Happy Life).

“In my case, if wealth slips away, it will deprive me only of itself, but you (who value wealth too highly), will be stuck dumb, you will think you have been deserted by your own self if it leaves you; in my eyes wealth has a certain place, in yours it is center-stage; to sum up, my wealth belongs to me, you belong to yours.” (Seneca, On the Happy Life).

“I say that wealth is not a good as it is, since something that is found among wicked men cannot be called a good; for if it was it would make men good; as it is, since something that is found among wicked men cannot be called a good, I deny it this name. But that it is desirable, that (it) is useful and confers great benefits in life, I do admit.” (Seneca, On the Happy Life.)

“It is truly said…by Curius Dentatus, that he would rather be a dead man than a live one dead; it is the worst of evils to depart from the world of the living before you die.” (Seneca, On the Tranquility of the Mind).

“Nothing, however, delights the mind as much as a loving and loyal friendship.” (Seneca, On the Tranquility of the Mind).

“Small is the part of life that we really live. All that remains of our existence is not actually life but merely time.” (Seneca, On the Shortness of Life).

“…the greatest waste of life exists in postponement: that is what takes away each day as it comes, that is what snatches away the present while promising something to follow. The greatest obstacle to living is expectation, which depends on tomorrow and wastes today. What lies in the hands of Fortune you deal with, what lies in your own hands you let slip. Where are you looking? Where are you bending your aim? All that is still to come lies in doubt: live here and now!” (Seneca, On the Shortness of Life)

“But those who forget the past, ignore the present, and fear for the future have a life that is very brief and filled with anxiety…Their very pleasures are fearful and troubled by alarms of different kinds; at the very moment of rejoicing, the anxious thought occurs to them: ‘How long will this last?'” (Seneca, On the Shortness of Life)

“No man is crushed by misfortune unless he has first been deceived by prosperity. Those who love her gifts as if they are theirs to enjoy forever, who wish to be highly regarded because of them, lie prostrate in mourning whenever these false and fickle delights abandon their vacuous and childish minds that know nothing of any lasting pleasure: but the man who has not become puffed up by happy fortune does not collapse when there is a reversal.” (Seneca, On the Shortness of Life)

“When you have lost one who is most dear, it is stupid indulgence to grieve endlessly, but inhuman hardness not to grieve at all.” (Seneca, On the Shortness of Life).

The above image is of Marcus Aurelius.

Should Beethoven Have Quit His Day Job? A Few Thoughts on the Complexity of Satisfaction

Ludwig Beethoven Life Mask by Klein c1812

Part of the problem with figuring out whether your life is satisfying is what exactly you expect from life. If you expect close to constant happiness, you haven’t been paying attention to what is going on around you — to what the nature of life is. No one is that happy — life doesn’t permit it with all its routine ups and downs. And, if you compare yourself to people in the media — beautiful or handsome, smiling, rich, famous, and seemingly in control — you will be hard pressed to think that you are doing as well as you should be. Moreover, if you believe that struggle and work frustration are somehow indicative of a life that isn’t satisfying, you just might be misunderstanding what “satisfaction” is.

Take Beethoven, the famous German composer who lived from 1770 to 1827. What is it like to be a genius? Well, for Beethoven it involved lots of struggle and enormous amounts of dedication and hard work. You can learn a bit about this by watching a recently issued DVD set that includes Leonard Bernstein’s Omnibus television programs. One in particular focuses on Beethoven’s process of composing his Symphony #5, the one that begins with the most famous four notes in music history: three Gs and an E-Flat; three eighth-notes and a half-note.

According to Bernstein, Beethoven tried out 14 different versions of the opening of the second movement over a period of eight years. The DVD features Bernstein talking about and conducting the Symphony of the Air in several different passages that were rejected for the first movement, which Beethoven sketched out over a period of three years. Indeed, the composer altered some passages in that movement as many as 20 times. The agony and struggle involved in the composing process can be seen even on the orchestral score of this piece, with numerous write-overs, scratch-outs, and cross-outs.

One might then ask, did Beethoven obtain satisfaction from the process of composing with all its frustration, reworking, effort, reconsideration, revision, contemplation, and strain? The answer apparently is “yes,” he was deeply engaged and committed to the creative process and proud of the results he achieved, however dear the cost. Put another way, “no pain, no gain.”

Happiness isn’t a day at the beach, at least not on a regular basis. Rather, it usually requires that you work for and achieve something — something that isn’t simply given to you. It is not great wealth or a big house in the right neighborhood; it is not power for power’s sake or lofty status simply because you’d like others to look up to you. Rather, it demands that we take on a task that is challenging and engaging — perhaps even creative — master the challenges, and produce a result of value. Having attained that level of accomplishment (not necessarily a material thing or something to which you can assign a dollar value), you can look back with satisfaction on what you have achieved (be it the healthy young life of your child or a great symphony). It is not about work alone, but work is a part of it.

Beethoven wasn’t what we would call a happy man. He was lonely, in part due to his growing deafness, and often frustrated and frustrating in his relationships (and satisfying relationships are normally needed for happiness). But he knew he was a great composer and lived for and through his enormous gifts and an unflagging dedication to producing the greatest music that was in him to create, no matter the length of time and the strain required.

Indeed, it is the strain and struggle within Beethoven’s music itself, and his ultimate triumph over the difficult technical and emotional act of composing, that draws us to him. Beethoven’s “process” is felt in Beethoven’s “product.” The trajectory from travail to triumph mimics the task of composing in such works as the 5th and 9th Symphonies or the Leonore Overture #3. And, in his mastery of the challenge of composing (not to mention the overcoming of his deafness to make great music), he also gives us a model for living.

Should Beethoven have quit his day job and found something easier?

I think you know a rhetorical question when you read one.

(The image above is a life mask of Beethoven done by Franz Klein in 1812 when Beethoven was 41).

By the way, the Chicago Symphony plays all of Beethoven’s Symphonies conducted by Bernard Haitink in June of 2010.