Being Plagued by the “What ifs”

 

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One of the bittersweet aspects of the pandemic has been having more time to think. As any reflective thinker can tell you this is a double-edged sword. While this allows you the time to contemplate new insights, it also provides you the unfortunate opportunity to dwell on the past. Plaguing yourself with a multitude of “what ifs”. Excruciatingly examining every lost opportunity.  Every single faux pas firmly under the microscope. Self-reflection soon descends into an unrelenting trial and you are judge, jury, and executioner. One can only cringe when confronted with the prospect of innumerable instances of time wasted. Ranging from a misspent youth to the stagnation of mediocrity. Taking responsibility for all of your missteps is a sharp pill to swallow. Much of this self-reflection has been fruitless and has done nothing more than to rob me of more time.  Creating a bit of cosmic irony. Painfully reflecting upon the past is in turn mimicking the behavior of the past, wasting time. This is self-perpetuating cycle is nothing more than a prison.  A self-made prison.

 

The Stoic philosopher Seneca succinctly describes how we often take time for granted.

 

People are frugal guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy

 

While personal property and money should not be consumed frivolously, we can always acquire more physical goods.  Once a moment is squandered we can never get it back. It is the one nonrenewable resource that few people genuinely are concerned about conserving. It almost seems tempting to veer into destructive patterns of wasting time. Humans have an almost universal proclivity for being fixated on the negative. How often at work do your co-workers relish engaging in a venting session? I am willing to wage more frequently than they are apt to expound upon the positive aspects of their job. Too frequently negative restaurant reviews are more salient to us than the positive ones. The allure of reality television is wholly based on negativity. Millions of Americans are entertained daily by drama and conflict depicted in this variety of programming. Even our escapism is marred with this time extracting parasite.  Like a moth to a flame, we find ourselves drawn to it.  Why do you think network news outlets love being the peddlers of doom and gloom? Not because they are overtly morbid organizations, but because it sells. Like any other business, you need to provide customers with what they want. Even if it isn’t good for them.

 

Unfortunately, life is rife with distractions. Frequently our wills are tested, but the temptation is too great to capitulate to their influence. The countless hours the average person squanders on social media is a sobering realization. It is estimated that in 2019 the average person spent 144 minutes on social media a day.  That is over 2 hours a day and over 14 hours a week.  Social media consumption adds up. The 14 plus hours a week wasted on social media is gone forever. This lack of mindfulness of time may not immediately lead to regret. However, give it time. Many of the young people today will reflect upon their misspent youth much as I have and feel a gripping sense of melancholy. How could have been so stupid?!  I could have been out experiencing life instead of relegating myself to a screen. The only difference was I squandered my teen years drinking, listening to music, and talking smack with my equally misguided friends.

 

A few weeks ago a finished reading a book written by Ari Kiev, The Psychology of Risk which provides some interesting insights into risk management. Granted the book is geared towards day-traders, but the strategies offered for coping with uncertainty are universal. Whether you are a business owner, or you manage a household. Life while always have risk. Every decision has negative and positive consequences. Every decision will have some implied risk. Kiev provides a powerful realization of being cautious. To succeed you need to assume some risk. Many traders suffer from losing out on good opportunities due to being too cautious. This is one of the many ghosts of the past that haunt me in my phases of intense introspection. I always tried to play it safe and attempted to be realistic. Through doing what I believed to be prudent I ended up limiting myself. Much how choosing not to act is still an action, paradoxically, in an attempt to avoid risk I was still taking it on. Now I am at times immobilized by the regrets.  A little bit of risk could have resulted in rewards much grander than my apprehensions.  I am trying to make strides away from this cylindrical, revolving, echo chamber of the past.  To focus on what I can have control over.

 

A few years back I wrote a derisive essay criticizing Barry Schwartz’s TED Talk on the Paradox of Choice. I must embarrassingly admit I have never read his book. Ironically, I was given the book as a Christmas gift and intend to read it soon. Within several years after writing this essay I do not 100 percent agree with all of my previous assumptions.  While I do not believe we should as a society restrict choice. After all, options are the hallmark of any health modern economy. Schwartz wasn’t wrong about the phenomenon of choice paralysis. If offered a myriad of different choices most people are prone to become overwhelmed. Even worst, if we choose that we are unhappy with psychological distress is difficult to reconcile. Because any form of decision making has implied risk, there is always the potential that we made a bad decision. The direct risk of decision making. Kiev reminds us that it isn’t the mistakes we make, but rather how we react to them. That axiom isn’t confined to the trading floor. We need to learn from our errors and move forward. To a certain extend invoking Stoic philosophy. We only concern ourselves with what we have control over. Anything else isn’t worth the stress.

 

To quote Epictetus:

 

“I have to die. If it is now, well then I die now; if later, then now I will take my lunch, since the hour for lunch has arrived – and dying I will tend to later.”

 

 

Let’s be present and in the moment. That is what we have control over. The demons of the past will forever be.  Let’s all look towards the new horizon.

Stoicism On Climate Change

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Many affiliated with the environmental movement have an apocalyptic view about climate change. It mirrors the moral panic exhibited by many “dooms-day-preppers” proclaiming holy judgment will be on the horizon. I am far from a scientist, do not intend on arguing about the empirical validity of global warming. However, realistically what impact can an individual have on to reverse or impede the effects of global warming. When confronted with the magnitude of the problem it is magical thinking to believe that one person can make a profound difference in the outcome. To some extent, you have to be delusional and at a grandiose scale to believe that purchasing an electric car will save the world.  It is analogous to believing that your vote mathematically would be the deciding vote in the presidential election. That would be highly improbable. Then again, I am not a statistician. What do I know?

 

The facts of reality are that our individual actions will only have a miniscule impact. The question becomes how do we cope with the hard facts of reality? Especially, if it is a topic we are passionate about or even profoundly concerned about. Here is where we would applaud the ancient philosophical school of Stoicism for providing some sage advice. Which generally entails focusing on what we have control of and not fixating on what we do not. A significant oversimplification of stoic thought, but a sufficient synopsis for our purposes.  Treating your individual action as the deciding factor in a large decision that has many complex moving parts is a recipe for needless stress. The anti-gun control pamphlet is merely a drop in the bucket. There are plenty of other purveyors proliferation similar material. This goes down the line for just about another divisive topic through American public policy.  The odds of holding a Bernie Sanders sign for three hours on a Saturday will have any genuine impact at the poles is slim. Therefore, there is no reason to lose any sleep over it. If you are really that crazy about the guy vote for him in the Presidential election. Then again don’t put too much weight your vote.

 

I am not trying to breed apathy here, but rather I am trying to realign our exceptions to what we actual have control over. This slightly touches upon Jordan Peterson’s mantra of “Clean your room“. Not that I am trying to promote Dr. Peterson or his ideas, but it does parallel a mentality similar to the stoics. After reading the article in Philosophy Now, A Stoic Response to The Climate Change Crisis I have become inspired to expound upon this topic. All too often people agonize over lofty ideals that they cannot achieve or problems that are out of their reach.  I witnessed a lot of this after the 2016 Presidential election.  There was the mass proliferation of contingencies plans aimed to remove Donald Trump from office.  I am not making a value judgement about the residing President of the United States.  Rather I am illustrating how people burden themselves with circumstances that are out of their control.

 

The previously referenced article details the reactions of various stoic philosophers to the current issue of global warming.  My favorite speculated response was that of Marcus Aurelius. Then again, I am probably biased. My favorite stoic philosopher happens to be Marcus Aurelius. Nevertheless it is still supremely wise advice:

 

The lesson from Marcus Aurelius here, then, is twofold: stop wasting mental energy being shocked or offended by human inaction on climate change. Do not assume that humanity will take upon itself timely and wise actions, or that some mysterious force will protect us from the results of our own behaviour, or soften the horrific blows when they come. Shock and incredulity are not worthy of anyone who studies history or the natural world. Don’t be like a traveler unfamiliar with how things go here. It’s time for us to face what is happening, and to prepare. Facing reality is the first step in figuring out how to handle it well. (Gindin, 2020, P.15) [1].

 

So essentially, overcome being offended by peoples disregard for the environment. Do what is within your power to prepare for the of  externalities of climate change, but do not expect others to follow suit. By all means, recycle, do your part to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, etc.  Understand that you are not going to save the world doing your part. I would add don’t proselytize the virtues of environmentalism. Marcus Aurelius would tell us to expect others to change their ways because we handed them a pamphlet is unrealistic and naive. Making it even anything a waste of time. When we could have been doing that actually would be productive for the environment. Selling environmentalism with the same tactics of a dooms-day cult will not win you any converts. However, you will get a lot of perplexed expressions from disinterested shoppers at the local mall.