Step by step. Brick by brick. Inch by inch. Changing your habits, mentality, or approach to life is a tough journey. And a long one. So be patient with yourself, and be consistent with your efforts. When you get discouraged, take stock of where you were, and where you want to be. If it is getting easier to see the goal than it is to see the past, you know you’re doing the work.
Yesterday, my wife said to me, “You have changed.” I think that sentence most likely strikes fear in the heart of husbands everywhere, because it might mean unmet expectations, disappointment, and impending strife.
But that moment was a very satisfying moment for me, because it meant that this Stoicism thing was working. I’ve been digging into this philosophy for a couple of years now, but most seriously during this last nine months of living 5,500 miles from my wife.
I had found Stoicism to be useful in managing my thoughts and emotions during difficult times, but this distance would be a whole new challenge. Yes, we would be apart, but we also had significant stresses that we each were dealing with on our respective sides of the Atlantic. I was trying to build a couple of businesses that I wasn’t sure I’d be running in a year, and she was finishing her undergrad in neuroscience. We didn’t know whether our futures would coincide again in America, England, Germany, or Italy. In short, our futures were very uncertain. Times were very unstable.
I knew that I needed to find some way to manage the stress, and also find a way to keep as much stress away from my wife as I possibly could. The best thing I could come up with was to dig deeper into Stoicism, and work toward mastering my emotions and reactions to all our difficult situations.
An important thing to remember is that this does not make life any easier. Not at all. We still face significant difficulties even though we are now together again in London. I still have a business in the USA, will be trying to reestablish another one here in the UK, develop another business opportunity and wait for important news about my wife’s future, which will probably shake up everything once again!
What it does do, is help me manage my reactions to difficulties, enabling me to take better thought out actions, and focus on the things that we could control, and the things that really matter.
The result has been that I am much calmer, and that got noticed by my wife. The positive change is noticeable, and that was the goal.
Stoicism is about working on those things that aren’t working well. It is about learning from past and current mistakes and discovering a better way forward. If you are a person, you can benefit from studying Stoic principles. If you have difficulties, you can benefit from training your mind to respond better. Whatever your belief system, Stoicism will help you become better at what you do.
You just have to apply the principles, then practice, practice, practice.
Expectations seem custom made to bring disappointment. In relationships, work, and play, we want specific results. Yet, so many factors can be set against us. If the expectation is not met due to an external source, you can do nothing to change it, so calm yourself and focus on what you can change – the internal. Life is full of challenges; we choose whether or not we are disappointed. Choose to learn from the challenge, react with intent to learn, and you may yet realize that expectation.
There has been a strange absence of training videos and posts from me on any of my social media feeds. I haven’t really trained since June 2017. Sure, there has been the occasional flirtation with a barbell or kettlebell, or even a cable and weight stack. But I haven’t had structured or heavy training of any sort for several months now.
But, wait?!?! I thought you were a strength coach! How can you coach when you don’t even lift?
Sometimes, it is necessary to eliminate aggravating factors in order to address a root problem. I had come to the point where my lightest warm up weights were causing me extreme discomfort. My body was systemically inflamed, and any level of training was just making it worse. I needed to find a solution. I needed to stop training because the resulting pain was affecting every other aspect of my life.
While I am still in that process of finding solutions, I have made significant progress in determining what that root problem is, and am able to take steps to address it. I am slowly getting back to the point where I can consider weight training again, but it will be a very slow and cautious process. In the meantime, I do what I can. My training may look very easy and to most, ineffective, but it is where I am. But always with an eye to the future.
So here is the Stoic lesson: in difficult times, you have a choice to make. You can either moan about the difficulty, or take action to sort out the difficulty and get on with your life. Only one way is useful.
“Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.” – Seneca
This is a thought that I saw today, and it really struck me. I know many from all walks of life that live in fear: the religious and the irreligious, the employed and the unemployed, the safe and the persecuted, the controllers and the controlled, the sociable and the lonely, the successful and the destitute, the loved and the bereft. All have their fears.
What do we fear?
Some of the things that come to mind are loss, success, a new beginning, the end of something. We fear the things that are coming, and we fear the things that may never come. Essentially, we fear loss of control. But the reality of life is that there is very little that we can control. If we focus on the unknown, the uncontrollable, we will always feel adrift, lost, and powerless.
Our lives can be utterly ruled by fear if we allow it to be so.
How should we respond to fear?
There are three disciplines in stoicism: the discipline of perception, the discipline of action, and the discipline of will. I will expand on these disciplines in future posts, but for now, I’ll keep it brief.
Discipline of Perception: maintain absolute objectivity of thought; avoiding inappropriate value judgments.
Discipline of Action: governs our approach to the things within our control; our reactions and responses.
Discipline of Will: governs our attitude toward things that are not within our control; response to the actions or attitudes of others.
So again, how do we respond to fear?
If we look at the discipline of perception, we see that we need to recognize the situation for what it is. Identify the facts, without judging beforehand that it is a very bad or very good situation. See it clearly.
This clear sight will help you with the discipline of action. You can now determine what aspects of the situation are in your control, and which are not. Here, you will learn what you can control or determine. Your habits develop from this discipline.
Finally, the discipline of will. This is the tricky one. The will can be thought of as that innermost part of you – your soul. This part of you is the only one that you always control, because it is truly you. You literally have to choose who you are each moment. You must choose to either remain the same (can be good or bad), or change directions (again, can be good or bad).
When you understand that outside events and other people don’t change you, then you understand that they don’t control you. Only you control you. And that means you can control your response to anything that happens to you.
And that knowledge allows you to live without fear. We will have to face it every day, on the long road of life. But we can always choose our reactions to fear.
“What then is the punishment of those who do not accept? It is to be what they are. Is any person dissatisfied with being alone? Let him be alone. Is a man dissatisfied with his parents? Let him be a bad son, and lament. Is he dissatisfied with his children? Let him be a bad father. Cast him into prison. What prison? Where he is already, for he is there against his will; and where a man is against his will, there he is in prison.” – Epictetus
Denial of reality is a prison of our own making. Refusal to accept the actual state of things prevents us from making useful decisions. Complaint about our life situations locks the door on us and keeps us powerless in those situations for as long as we focus on the dissatisfaction.
How then do we stay out of this prison? We recognize each situation for what it is. Rather than complain about being alone, or being overwhelmed with people, see the isolation as solitude and reflect; see the abundance of contact as cause for celebration or opportunity to develop your network. Instead of complaining about poor treatment from others, see how you can treat others better. If your children aren’t turning out the way you desired, reflect on your actions that may have influenced the outcome. And then change what is not desirable. If your career isn’t developing the way you had hoped, find out the cause – don’t bemoan your fate.
We always have choices. We will always have undesirable truths to deal with. How we focus on our options means the difference between a life well lived, or a life wished for.