This is another excerpt from my stoic book that will be available in digital form in January 2015. It will be FREE for a few days, so please keep an eye on this space if you are interested.
One big part of stoic thinking is to see things objectively, as they are. In Meditations Marcus Aurelius writes:
“Always define whatever it is we perceive – to trace its outline- so we can see what it really is: it’s substance. Stripped bare. As a whole. Unmodified. And to call it by its name-the thing itself and its components, to which it will eventually return. Nothing is so conducive to spiritual growth as this capacity for logical and accurate analysis of everything that happens to us.” (3.11)
The trouble is, we tend to spend time imagining and predicting things rather than seeing things as they truly are and this leads to two problems;
- We are poor predictors of what’s going to happen.
- We are wasting time when we imagine things.
If your imagination is a sense of prediction, note that we are bad predictors. Stop thinking about parenting and stoicism for a moment and think about movies. It’s 1994 and “Film A” is wrapping up production. Its lead actor is an Academy Award winner and his past five movies won 13 Awards in all. Despite a few challenging circumstances while filming, the movie was made for its budget of $175 million. If only “Film B” was so lucky. This movie is delayed again thanks to flooding on the set. The lead actor has only a handful of movie credits since being on TV. The budget has inflated to finish at $200 million and its runtime is has now clocked in at over three hours in length. If we were good predictors we would clearly choose Film A as more likely to succeed. That choose though would mean choosing Waterworld over Titanic.
This happens all the time in life, that we worry and imagine the wrong things. Another bit of faulty imagination is to think about all the harm that can befall our kids. Abductions, poisoned Halloween candy, and school shootings are all horrible events, but thankfully they are also very rare. Without reading on, do you know the most dangerous things for kids? The real risks are car accidents, drownings, and fires. These three things account for three out of every four child deaths, but how often do we take care to drive safely, watch kids at the pool, and check our smoke detectors? Not only is our imagination often wrong, but we can see the second problem too, it’s a waste of time.
Our (wrong) imagination steers our attention away from actually doing something. Marcus writes to not worry about your imagination or other other people, but to just “escape your own (faults)” (7.71). This will be a large enough job in itself. We can do something about the dangers in our lives. For our children it means watching them when they swim and getting a good fitting safety harness on them in the car. In a career it means to do things that earn a promotion rather than thinking about it. In our relationships it means loving your spouse rather than worrying about them. Marcus implores himself to, “avoid certain things in your train of thought: everything random, everything irrelevant.” (3.4)
For a long time I was a constant worrier. Concerned about everything from traveling in the car to my kids getting hurt at the playground. At a snail’s pace I realized that these worries were doing me no good. If I was concerned about making a flight I could actually change things rather than worry. I could build in extra travel time, pack breakfast for the car, and confirm the route. In worrying but not acting I was actually making the problem worse because I spent time not changing something that mattered.
Objective observation is a powerful tool of stoic thinking. When dealing with other people we can peel back their critiques like we might open an oyster looking for a pearl. If there is value in what they say we take it and be thankful. If not, then we can forget it.
It will also be good to remember that a decree about something doesn’t change that thing. There is no amount of jesting that will decrease my enjoyment of the Calvin and Hobbes comic. Rather I would be wise to look at the type of person who degrades something and wonder what their opinion is really worth.
Remember that grandma’s kitchen doesn’t have Yelp reviews.