This essay was originally featured in my free Sunday newsletter.
Diogenes the Cynic also reputedly said that a good man considers every day to be a festival and Epictetus subsequently taught his Stoic students to contemplate life in this way. The Stoics used this metaphor to convey a sense of gratitude for the opportunity of life, while accepting that it is temporary and will soon come to an end. The majority of people in this ‘festival’ or ‘pageant’ of life are interested purely in material gain, like cattle interested only in their fodder, whereas a handful ‘attend the festival because they are fond of the spectacle’ says Epictetus. These spectators are people who inquisitively ask ‘What is the cosmos and who governs it?’ or, as we might say, ‘What does it all mean?’ Being struck by this question, natural philosophers are drawn to the pursuit of knowledge, which becomes their chief goal in life – ‘to study the festival before they leave it’.
-Donald Robertson (2013-12-27). Stoicism and the Art of Happiness – Ancient Tips For Modern Challenges: Teach Yourself (pp. 217-218)
You know what pisses me off?
A thing that pisses me off is the fact that philosophy is not more popular.
Yes, that pisses me off.
Because it’s probably the most important damn thing in life!
I mean, come on, are supposed to just figure life out?
I know what you’re thinking, “What about teachers, parents and school?”
Ha. Ya right. If only.
School, college, even our parents to a large degree, don’t prepare us for life. They do not teach us the importance of—and how to have—a philosophy of life. They give us guidelines, rules to not break, trajectories to follow and bits of “advice” when life kicks us in the ass, and that’s about it. Sure, it’s useful, but it has little to do with the pursuit of happiness, which is granted to those of us living in the ‘Merica.
Unfortunately, following the rules and accepting norms and mores does not teach us how to be happy. It teaches us how to be upright citizens. And here’s a fact about most upright citizens: they aren’t happy.
Sure, this is a HUGE generalization, even a stereotype, but it’s also really freaking prevalent. WE live in a society that has been duped to think that owning a 3 bedroom house, working a stable job, investing in a 401-k, getting married and having kids—known as The American Dream—is the path to happiness. And this is exactly what most people do. They follow out this life plan in the hopes that after they get it all they will be happy. (Little do they know, it doesn’t work that way).
The average person doesn’t even know he/she is unhappy. This is mostly because they are still ‘chasing’ happiness through the rouses of success, power, fame, and other external pursuits. Since they are so focused on staying ahead in the rat race, or of whatever thing that they are pursuing, they have no time to think about what they are actually trying to accomplish.
The thing is, most people are seeking happiness but they are doing about it in the completely wrong way. And this is why a lack of philosophy in our society pisses me off because philosophy, and the self-exploration integral to it, is integral—in my not so humble opinion—to finding happiness.
A Class Called Life
Why was there no class in middle or high school called “life”? Why did (does) no one teach us the million things about people, relationships, mental and physical health and happiness, and how one’s life philosophy is the root of it all? Furthermore, why are the actual “philosophy” class more like a history and vocal lesson than a lesson on how to live better?
Why don’t more people teach the younger generate how to be happy?
Because most don’t freaking know!
Some people try to teach us how to live well, but most of them are ill-equipped even though well-intentioned. Then others, well, they are downright toxic.
There are a few reasons for this. First, there has been more insight into human happiness in the last 15 years than ever. Naturally, all this research has yet to infiltrate society in any meaningful way.
Second, human beings have evolved to live in a different kind of world than the one our ancestors lived in—and of which we are not biologically designed to live in.
Now, I won’t go into a long explanation of each of these topics, but just know that things are different now, and that there no one has put together a “playbook” that shows us how to live well even though there is now ample evidence to do so. (Religion and religious texts aside, of course, but let’s not go down that rabbit hole.)
So what are we supposed to do? Are we just figure it out as we go?
Well yea, but doing so with help and awareness is miles better than doing it by blindly following the rules that others have set for you.
I’m a big fan of figuring things out and embracing the ride that is life. It’s awesome and fun and painful and completely necessary. That said, I think the majority of people don’t know how to live life in a way that embraces this journey. They try to fight life by pursuing external means of fulfillment and doing their best to avoid pain, both of which ultimately leaves them feeling empty and wondering why. The root cause of this, in my opinion, is a lack of life philosophy. Another reason is a lack of knowledge pertaining to what actually makes a human being happy—plus all the issues that come with a lack of self-awareness.
I know this is a bit rambly, but I’m in that mood. Basically, this is a calling for you to start working on your life philosophy. The Stoics believed that everyone needs a philosophy for life. I agree.
The thing about a life philosophy is it doesn’t have to be based on what is taught in a philosophy class. In fact, you don’t have to read or know anything about philosophy at all to hone your life philosophy (although I do recommend it). A life philosophy is something you build for yourself, that is based on your life so far. It is formed by consciously being open-minded and aware of yourself while pursuing further understanding of human nature.
I believe something that many might not agree with. It’s this: Experience is overrated.
Why is experience overrated?
Because experience is only useful if you learn from it. And most don’t. If you don’t learn from what life teaches you, you’ll just repeat the same mistakes your entire life. And the sad reality is most people do just that.
Why else do so many golfers shoot the same score for 30 years? They aren’t trying to learn, trying to get better. They are just playing the game the way they’ve always played it. Similarly, why do some people get mad in traffic every time they drive even though they’ve been driving for years and should expect it? Why do some people cheat in every relationship? Why do some people go to jail over and over again? You get the point yet?
Unfortunately, this is the way life is for most people; just a repeating theme based on their thoughts, habits and beliefs.
And you know what? That’s the way it’s always going to be for most people. The masses will always be “the mob.” You will never get the mob to become philosophical. It just isn’t going to happen. That said, there are plenty of members of the mob that will branch out and become self-actualized individuals— which is what I hope for you.
The first step in breaking free from the mob is asking yourself this question: What is my life philosophy?
Don’t be mistaken: you aren’t going to create a life philosophy in a day or two. It takes time in the right mental state. You will have to subject your Ego to pain. You will have to ask yourself hard questions and seek objectivity in your answers. You will have to be vulnerable with yourself and others. You will have to try things and fail often. You will have to live at the edge of your comfort zone for a long enough time to figure all this stuff out. And once you get there, once you have an idea of what your life philosophy is, you have to keep going, refining, improving and learning.
Most people live as Thoreau wrote in Walden: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”
Most people have not the slightest clue why they do what they do, feel what they feel and think what they think. Hell, I struggle with this plenty even though I consider myself a pretty self-aware individual.
This is why pursuing philosophy for oneself is so damn important. How else are you going to figure out who you are and what brings you fulfillment in life? How else are you able to accept what happens in life, especially when it’s not what you want to happen? If you are like most people, you’ll just kick and scream, maybe cry a bit, then move on to the next thing in the hope that the next thing will go your way. Sometimes things go well and you are happy, most of the time you are indifferent, and other times you are miserable, and all because you are lacking in a life philosophy that results in you investing in the wrong things—things outside of you.
To me, this is a bad way to live life.
I’m not preaching or pretend to be perfect in this regard. In fact, when I write pieces like this, I’m trying to “lecture” myself more than anything. Most of my writing is written from a place of personal struggle, and comes with it the goal of making myself better.
Lately, I’ve been reminding myself to seek “apatheia,” which is Greek for “Freedom from passions,” or the state of mind of the Stoic Sage that is not disturbed by, or attached to, externals. It is best translated to mean equanimity rather than indifference. I’ve thought a lot about apatheia because of my recent struggles with members of the opposite sex. As you may or may not know, dating and everything that comes with it, can be a real pain in the ass. I’ve never been one to “cycle through” people, and so dating in a new, and big, city has left me exhausted and jaded with the entire process. Now, as a means to learn, there are a few things worth noting here.
First, I want to seek apatheia so that I won’t be disturbed by the process, or any of the individual parts of the process. I also want to seek apatheia because I want to be able to accept that if it doesn’t work out—i.e. if nature deems I am to be single forever—that I can accept it. Of course, the other part of nature, namely my hormones, would tell me this is far from okay. And so he battle that rages on: the one between finding a freedom from passions and acceptance of what happens in life versus the part of my psyche and physicality that dictates that I should keep investing the time and energy until I get the results I wants.
But it’s not just dating in which I want to attain apatheia. It’s in all things. Ultimately, it’s what Stoicism is about: being content and grateful for life instead of desiring and wanting things you don’t have.
Back to life philosophy…
A thing about life philosophy is it is an individual pursuit. Your philosophy will not look the same as mine, and vice versa. Once you accept this, you won’t be easily swayed by the philosophy of others. You have to find what works for you while avoiding being too influenced by the philosophy of others. I say “too” because I think you should learn from others as much as possible. You just have to be careful with how far this goes.
My life philosophy is rooted in principles I’ve learned from Stoicism, Buddhism, Taoism, all of which is passed through a filter called “life experience.” It is also influenced, to an extent, by my own personal desires and wants. Obviously, we are all bias to the things we want, and so our passions are going to infiltrate our philosophy whether we like it or not. Some philosophers might tell you this is wrong, but I think it’s fine in small doses as long as you recognize it and accept it to the level you are comfortable accepting it (and to the level that it doesn’t cause you to pursue things that are problematic).
As far as traditional philosophy is concerned, this is where you run into some gray areas. Some traditional philosophy will tell you to completely cease all desires and wants. While this isn’t for me, I do know that I have to be careful to not let my desires dictate my philosophy too much. It’s hard to find the right dose.
I believe one should find the healthy balance between a complete removal of desires and having them. I don’t believe in the Buddhist way of removing all possessions and pursuits and living like a monk, and I doubt that would work for most people. I’m more interested in a balance between the extremes. The Stoics agreed. As Seneca wrote to his friend Lucilius, “For he alone is in kinship with God who has scorned wealth. Of course I do not forbid you to possess it, but I would have you reach the point at which you possess it dauntlessly; this can be accomplished only by persuading yourself that you can live happily without it as well as with it, and by regarding riches always as likely to elude you.”
For example, I’m an ambitious person. I want to own a lot, do a lot and have a big family that is safe and secure. I want a life of abundance. I believe that life is short and so I want to do as much as I can within the limited amount of time I am granted. I’m not convinced there is an afterlife (even if I sooooo want there to be one) and this belief plays a large role in my philosophy on life. The way I balance out my drive for more with contentment for what I have is by recognizing and being cognizant of the push and pull. I’ve also accepted a level of life I’m comfortable with forgoing I the present for a greater reward in the future. For me, as long as my mental and physical health and my personal relationships are kept in tip top shape, I have no philosophical problem pursuing accomplishment. And so, I’ve fit a pursuance of success into the philosophy of my life that works for me.
Let’s rap a bit more about success and pursuing externals. My reasons for success are rooted in security, survival and family. My goal is to have a big family that is as safe and secure as possible. That is my first and foremost drive for acquiring resources. Second, I want to experience life as much as possible and so I need funds to do so. Lastly, I’ve recognized that I am not seeking success to win the approval of others or as a means of “validating” myself (which I think is toxic).
By being aware of these goals, and the “whys” to my pursuing success, I’ve accepted them as healthy and, as the Stoics would say, virtuous. For me, it’s healthy to pursue external success the way I have agreed with myself to. For others, maybe not. This is why I recommend each person develop his or her own life philosophy; it’s different for everyone.
What about you? What is your life philosophy? Try writing it down. Start thinking about it. Read about other philosophies and philosophers.
After you define your life philosophy, keeping working at it. Then do your best to align what you do in life to your philosophy.
Living My Life Philosophy,
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