We can’t calm the storm, but we can ignore it

[This is part four of a series reevaluating some propositions that I perceived as crucial and important in my early thirties.]

Proposition: I have about 112 hours of con­scious life to live each week: wis­dom dic­tates invest­ing at least one of these hours to med­i­tate on how I will use the remain­ing 111 hours.

First of all, why does getting eight hours of sleep a night seem to get harder with age? It might be time to recalculate my math here. But I digress…

Like most people, my commitment to grand declarations of personal self-discipline ebb and flow with time. Laser-focus intentionality is great: I just have a hard time controlling it consistently. As much as I like the idea that a calm mind — detached from the pressure points of deadlines and expectations — can transcend the temptation to feel overwhelmed, I fall victim to the tyranny of the urgent as much as the next person. Some weeks, devoting 1 full hour to contemplate the usage of 111 hours seems far more anxiety provoking than grounding.

However, in the fits and starts of life, I think I am slowly getting better at realizing that the feeling of pending implosion should be a trigger to slow down, not speed up. Thinking that I will alleviate the pressure by accomplishing more has proven, on many occasions, to be counterproductive. The days when the to-do list feels the least conducive to going for a walk or eating lunch in the park are the most important times to prioritize fresh air and clear headspace. Stress feeds its own momentum. The only way out is to break the cycle, not kick at it harder.

Leaving my laptop at the office and my phone in its home basket has done wonders for helping me appreciate that finding ‘the calm in the storm’ means leaving the storm behind, regardless of how loudly it is thrashing about. There is always a storm. Or at least an opportunity to fight a storm. Serenity only lives in parallel to the storm, not in place of it. The storm is only absent in some other magical realm, where divine management gurus receive book contracts to write about it the rest of us might imagine transcendence.

Those of us stuck in this dimension need to figure out how to strategically ignore the tornadoes trying to send us notifications.

I suppose the ‘problem’ with my initial proposition is that producing a week of organized calm is a lot to ask of one hour. Sure, I know that a weekly review of my projects, commitments, and calendar goes a long way to helping me make better decisions about how I leverage the hours at my disposal. This remains a valuable commitment to pursue, yes. But I also know those other 111 hours can throw plenty of curve balls of their own. Today, I think I’m less concerned with cleverly averting the tumultuousness of life in one fell swoop. There appears to be an infinite amount of chaos and only one me. The older I become, the more interested I am in learning how to just quit worrying about as much as I can altogether.

If you can’t do anything about it, why are you worrying about it?

[This is part one of a series reevaluating some propositions that I perceived as crucial and important in my early thirties.]

Proposition: I can­not con­trol peo­ple or sit­u­a­tions, only my responses and reac­tions to them. I have noth­ing to lever­age for my own hap­pi­ness except my own attitude.

Since writing the above paragraph in 2010, the pursuit of distinguishing between what is inside and outside of my control and has become something of a personal anchor in life. Reading the extant writings of Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and others over the past eight years has doubtlessly influenced this journey in significant ways. I am intrigued by no end with this broader philosophical tradition.

Today, the mantra for me goes like this: There are only two kinds of problems in the world — problems I can’t do anything about and problems I can do something about. Neither category of problem deserves anxious energy. If I make a list of all the things I can’t control in the world, I have a list of things about which my worry will have zero effect. If I make another list of things I can change in the world, worrying about them only detracts energy from doing something about them. The more things I have listed in these columns, the more things I don’t have to worry about.

On the list of things I can’t control are the names of everyone I know. I still think the most liberating realization in the world for me has been realizing that I cannot direct or manage the thoughts, feelings, and decisions of others. Herein is freedom from the curse of trying to be a hero. (As Dietrich Bonhoeffer surmised: a community is only as robust as its members are untangled from one another’s expectations of community itself.)

The proposition that “I can­not con­trol peo­ple or sit­u­a­tions, only my responses and reac­tions to them,” continues to be a cornerstone conviction.

Do not write off realism

Do not write off realism for its curmudgeonliness. There is no greater hope than the latent joy residing in the anguish of complete honesty. After all, even nihilism is nothing but a floating signifier and, in this respect, it is synonymous with meaning.

The sooner you realize

The sooner you realize that you’re gonna be just another irrelevant footnote in the bargain bin of history, the sooner you can get on with the marvellousness of living your life.