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074 - On Internal Versus External Value - Moral Letters for Modern Times

If you take a step, even a tiny step, in the direction of your choosing, you will have improved your situation over that of yesterday.
Bike path along a waterway with boats in the harbor - Moral Letters to Lucilius
Photo by James Bellerjeau

I do not chasten you, Deuteros, though it seems you have taken my latest letter to this effect. Believe me when I tell you that I see in you a trusted, fellow traveler, whose eyes and ears are open and receptive. When I become dogmatic and exhort you, it is not because I think you do not hear or are stubborn, but because I am driven to passion by the strength of the thought. I rejoice that I can share these thoughts with you, and through you many others will hear you speak.

I have made the case that external things are not to be valued and that true value is found within. The well-ordered mind following the precepts of reason is self-sufficient, which is the only possession that is worth pursuit. If we are to have any hope of gaining adherents, we must make this case persuasively. Just because I repeat a point does not make it true. So let me try to rephrase the argument, to reframe it so that we see its contours in a different light. Before the average person can be convinced to look within, we must first convince them that the external things they have been taught to value are but poor facsimiles offering false promises of lasting contentment.

Let us start our proposition to our fellow travelers by asking them a few questions: “Are you happy, my friend, are you content? Are your wants satisfied and your fears quelled?” If our conversational partner answers “Yes, I have everything I need. I am peaceful and untroubled,” then our position is no longer that of the prosecutor, Deuteros, but the attentive student. Let us listen to this wise person explain how they have found contentment, and probe whether it is built on a lasting base, or is the result of good Fortune alone.

In any event I have little worry that we will spend too many hours in such pleasant conversation. For the answer to our question will more frequently be a version of the following, “Well no, not yet. How could I be? I am troubled by a boss who micromanages me, a spouse who misunderstands me, and ungrateful children who do not appreciate the sacrifices I have made for them. And can you believe I found out my co-worker makes more than me, even though I have as much experience as he does? Hey, did I tell you about the vacation we have planned this summer? We’re renting a cottage on Cape Cod …” And so on, you may insert your own variation of the theme.

Everywhere we go we observe that everyone we meet is beset with expectations. Expectations of how their life is supposed to go, how their career is supposed to progress, how their material wealth and possessions are meant to grow. They are beset by worries: that they will not meet their true love, they will not land their dream job, that they will not be rich or famous. They are plagued by fears. What if they or their loved ones fall ill, or they fall prey to identity thieves, or heaven forbid that a disgruntled soul turns to violence and they are caught in a mass shooting?

You can almost read the anxious thoughts running across their anguished faces: “A COVID mutation might carry off my parents. Ooh, what if I become a COVID long-hauler? Wait, is that a Boeing 737 MAX you expect me to board? Hmmm, the car is no safe haven either. Don’t we have to drive through downtown, and what if we are car-jacked?” I tell you, Deuteros, there is no hell to match the ones people create in their imaginations.

Having asked our hypothetical partners to describe their current state of mind, we trust that they will acknowledge when they are not satisfied. What is the next step in your conversational journey? Well I know from experience one potential path you may safely avoid, Deuteros. Waste no time telling a person that they should be happy because they have objectively more than (take your pick): a poor child in India, all of the people in Africa, the unfree inhabitants of China, the downtrodden South Americans, or indeed any or all of humanity that existed throughout history. So long as a single person in sight of your friend’s eye has a speck more than they do, their discontent is simply not to be reasoned away by logic. If we assume Jeff Bezos is watching Tesla’s share price in fear of Elon Musk overtaking him as the world’s wealthiest person, what hope is there of the average person being satisfied when their neighbor has more than them?

The only person you may safely compare a person to is themselves. In your conversation with them, you may first call before their mind a danger I have pointed out to you previously: creeping expectations. Remember the millionaires of the UBS survey who, at each level of wealth, felt that a third more money than they had at that moment would be just about enough? See Moral Letter 017 On Wealth. Never mind that the carrot is tied firmly to a stick that is always out of reach by design. Satisfaction is like social distancing in the pandemic of desire: the two conditions are never to approach within spitting distance of each other.

When you suggest that a person compare themselves to none other than themselves, you can also offer them one of the keys to the kingdom of happiness: continuous improvement. For there is true magic in this formula. If you take a step, even a tiny step, in the direction of your choosing, you will have improved your situation over that of yesterday. Do you want to exercise more? Simply park a few spaces further away in the lot and take the stairs instead of the elevator and you are a success for the day. Now instead of your goal receding to the horizon the faster you pursue it, you will be stealthily advancing without arousing notice. Does it matter that you sneak in the back door so long as you have successfully invaded the building you were seeking to conquer?

With the seed of this thought planted and hopefully germinating, you can ask your interlocutor the next hypothetical question: “If you can travel a distance by taking incremental steps in the same direction, is there any reason to think you cannot apply this same method to your personal happiness?” Gently, gently, Deuteros, let us not spook the horse, though they have been docile enough this far. This is a delicate turn we are now navigating. I suggest you start incrementally yourself, a gentle nudge in the direction of letting go of past grievances.

We all carry many burdens and worries with us. It is human nature for us to pick up and hold close everything that we come into contact with, without regard to whether this hoarding helps or hinders us. Many of our burdens relate to the concerns of today, and as many more to the uncertain promises of tomorrow. Could it be that we can safely give up dragging along with us the baggage of yesterday? Most of us can readily see that there is a difference between the things we can influence and plan for versus things firmly rooted in the past. The past is beyond influence, beyond change. Is there really any benefit to turning events over again and again in our minds, like Smeagol turning the One Ring over and over in his skeletal hands?

A simple habit you can offer up for service here is the deep breath. Not to calm oneself, though it will also have that effect, but to use the breath as a gentle vehicle to carry off a troublesome memory. Breathe in deeply and on your exhale let the breath carry away a worry, a resentment, or a grudge with it. These are ugly, heavy things in our minds, but the breath can carry them away like the lightest of feathers if only we open the windows of our minds to let them out. I do not suggest trying to clean every cobweb from every corner in one sitting. Let continuous improvement be your guide here as well. Today I will be content if I shed a single burden of the past. And if the burden is too heavy to be shed in a single breath, still you may blow a part of it away. A bit is gone today, a bit tomorrow, and soon what seemed unbearable has broken up into fragments and faded.

At this point, Deuteros, you are well-advised to give your friend a break from your lessons, though I do not give you reprieve yet from mine today. For though you are advising them to empty their head of worries, you have thus far only filled their head with exotic and exciting ideas. Let these ideas sit in quiet and calm for a while, lest you crowd them out by trying to stuff more into a vessel of limited size. To be clear, I am not calling your friend or anyone stupid when suggesting their minds are limited. We each can comfortably consume only so much in a single setting. We must give some time for digestion lest we gorge ourselves and risk losing the whole meal as the body vomits it out entirely.

After some interval of time, you can inquire again, “How are you my dear friend? Have you thought on what we discussed, and have you been able to relieve yourself of any past burdens?” What happy news it will be to hear of their progress because no progress is too slight! Better a single step in a purposeful direction than a thousand miles spent in aimless wandering. And if there is no progress that too is no harm. For it gives you a natural point to resume your conversation. For now, let me assume your words have borne fruit and there has been at least one such positive step. How do you guide your fellow traveler at this stage?

I would say that to plan for your future is not at all the same as to worry about your future. When you worry, you are turning over fears in your mind, much like you earlier turned over burdens of past problems. How to deal with these unhelpful dwellers in our minds? I say unveil your fears, make them known to yourself, write them down in every detail! This will shed light on what you have to deal with and, rather than making your worries worse, you will lessen their impact as follows: looking over your list of fears, you will quickly see that there are many you can do something about, and some that you can do nothing about. Having identified which are which, you can now direct your efforts to the former and forget the latter.

“How can I forget a fear of something I am powerless to prevent?” your friend may ask. I say turn the question on its head and ask, “How can you not forget it, and banish it completely from your thoughts?” In response to the puzzlement this may elicit, you must explain that it is futile to make yourself unhappy today because you may be unhappy tomorrow. It is folly to make yourself ill in thinking that you may one day fall ill. An asteroid may strike the earth! Do you dig a great hole and cover yourself in dirt such that the work is already done when the rock arrives from the heavens?

Most of the bother we cause ourselves when we worry about the future comes from contemplating our fears in an undifferentiated mass. When we call them out by name and rank them, we become the general directing which way they shall go. And I say march the ones we have no control over out of your sight and out of your mind. If you wish, let your breath carry them off in a similar fashion, one at a time. Soon you are left with just the hard core fears of your own making. This is where our instinct to plan is put to legitimate use.

Here is how you plan for conquering fears on topics that are within your control. After you have listed your fears, simply list a few things you can do to start to address them.

  • If you are worried about advancing in your career, there are steps you can take. You will make these steps both more effective and more likely to come to pass by writing them out. The act of writing stimulates thinking, which generates ideas, which will give impulse to action.
  • Are you worried of being lonely in love? Know that you are not alone in this worry, and that for every single girl there is a single boy similarly yearning, along with every other kind of pairing the heart yearns for. How will you find each other? You will not find a partner in your solitary worries, but in the steps you take to meet your fears by meeting others. One of those meeting will bring you face-to-face with your partner.
  • Say you are worried about saving enough for retirement. Here too, there are steps you can take. You may not identify all the steps in one sitting, but that matters not. For you will have changed your frame of reference from a person worried about events to one working on managing them, and this makes all the difference.

And do you know something wonderful? Tiny steps made consistently in a direction of your choosing will also carry you along in confronting your fears too. Continuous improvement is a wonder drug that cures many ills and advances many causes. Let it be your secret weapon that you flourish in all manner of human endeavors.

No doubt you will think it is a wonder that I have at last come to the end of today’s letter. I hope I have not exhausted you, though I sense your stomach is bloated from the meal, for we have not exhausted the topic yet. Digest well, Deuteros, that we may enjoy another meal together soon.

Be well.

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