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083 - On Losing One's Mind - Moral Letters for Modern Times

Am I of sound mind when I tell you I believe I can control the elements? You need but lace up your shoes and join me to experience the phenomenon yourself.
083 - On Losing One's Mind - Moral Letters for Modern Times

You asked me to relay the details of my day and to omit nothing. This must mean you have developed a tolerance for my overly wrought descriptions. Perhaps you feel my actions will serve as an example of how to behave yourself, in which case you are placing great faith in me as your teacher. Or could it be that you have digested well the lesson of mine that a person serves as an example regardless of the merit of their behavior: if they behave wisely you may emulate them; but if they are foolish tell yourself to avoid their mistakes. Either way, let my day be your object lesson today!

The course of my days has changed in recent times as I have moved from being master over others to focusing more on being master over myself. For years I woke to the blare of an alarm clock, pulled usually from some fitful dream brought on by obsessive attention to a topic. A difficult employee situation, a contract dispute, an intense strategy session. Other times it was a recurring travel nightmare my alarm freed me from. No matter how many times I travel, and I once traveled every week in four crisscrossing the globe, I dream I will be late – to wake, to catch the train, to check-in, to board the plane, to make the connection, and so on in a series of endless ways to lose out by losing time.

However drawn from slumber, my routine was to dress and have a quick bowl of cereal while catching up on emails before getting in my car and driving the half hour to the office. This commute was the quietest time in my day, and I used it to change my mental state: on the way to work to get in the necessary hardened mindset, and on the way home to leave that hardness behind and become fit for family interaction.

At work twelve hours would pass, and I will spare you a recitation of those details so as not to unnecessarily strain your politeness. Suffice it to say that I learned to tell myself regularly that upholding the rule of law is so vital to a healthy society that it must justify even the most mundane lawyerly tasks. And though I needed to thus fortify my tasks in my head to consider them vital, still the days would often pass without my noticing the time. It was only upon looking up and seeing the sun was long gone that I realized my kids would already be asleep in their beds and my dinner tucked away under plastic wrap, and take once more to the now empty roads on my solitary commute home.

But you were not asking what I used to do, patient Deuteros, but what I do now. I ask you to indulge this reminiscence if only to draw a contrast to a typical day today. You know I have reduced my work pensum to 50%, though compared to the hours I formerly toiled, in actuality I have gained back far more than half my day. I have largely laid claim for myself the first half of each day, and have been experimenting with different pursuits in this newly found freedom.

I wake now to the rhythm of nature and of my body. I have let the battery in my alarm clock dim and die as I often wished it would when I was working. If I need time to sleep and to dream, I take it. When I awaken, I indulge in a cup of coffee before I leave the snug ensconce of my bed. This simple pleasure brings me such satisfaction. Aaahhh. Caffeine is a vice I will gladly continue to suffer if such benefits can be had at such a small price.

I first started by reading the newspaper in bed, cover to cover while still safely under my covers. This too was an indulgence, for I never had time to linger on any story before. No more would I skim the headlines for anything relevant to our business, perhaps some regulatory development or an enforcement action we should be concerned about. Though it seemed a small luxury to read at my leisure, I began to feel this came at the much greater cost of my peace of mind. This is a threat to my reason that I cannot afford to let linger.

I don’t know when it happened exactly, Deuteros, but the news has turned from the business of informing minds to the business of inflaming passions. When profits are driven by clicks, and outrage keeps readers engaged, should we be surprised when our reporters turn to fiction? What they do not invent, they cherry-pick to present the most extreme side of every story. Habits are truly our friend, though, in helping to both cultivate the good and excise the bad. By simply not picking up my iPad, I soon did not miss reading the paper in the morning or indeed at all. The few times I was drawn in again come evening, I was amazed how irrelevant the day’s news felt as the day drew to a close.

I do of course eventually arise from my bed, lest you think I spend not just the night on my back but also the day. Now up, my self-directed pursuits are found in reading, writing, and running, often in that order. Instead of descending into shameful reporting that leaves me feeling tainted for having read it, I may pick up a letter from Seneca to Lucilius to see what these old friends were discussing to what end. This usually inspires me to write to you, and see if I can wrestle some thoughts from my head onto the page. And when I feel the need for a break from mental gymnastics, I switch from exercising my mind to exercising my legs.

Though I run alone most days, I feel like I have a multitude with me. There are first the voices of the scholars I have been reading and communing with. I hear them as if they were talking aloud. I argue with them, imagining they are running beside me to hear my words. I try to have five or six companions such as this at any given time. Right now they include Seneca, Epictetus, Confucius, Richard Feynman, and Jordan Peterson.

Later in the summer as the days lengthen and warm, I plan to have Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, the Quran, the King James Bible, and Charlie Munger joining me. I also want to visit once more with my former running partners, Jean Jacques Rousseau, John Stuart Mill, John Rawls, and the Federalist Papers. In fact, I feel the Olympic stadium is filled with onlookers who at a moment’s notice can be beckoned down from the stands to rejoin the race. We are blessed to have so many companions to choose from.

I cherish these voices, as much as I do yours, my dear Deuteros, because they help drown out my own insistent thoughts. This is the one voice I can never outrun. You would think after almost 20 years of running I would have learned to accept my limits, to know what I can safely do, and what I should leave to younger, fitter men. But how easily I can bring to mind my old running coach Martin. He is the kindest of persons though he has a mad glint peeking out behind his easy smile. That glint says “Go ahead, I dare you! Let’s see how much you can do. Run as fast as you like, I’ll never be further than one step behind you.” Truly we ran in fear of his imagined pitchfork at our backs as much as we did for the joy of it. I now carry with me in my brain my own mad Martin, urging me on and saying crazy things. It is best to pay that voice little heed, except perhaps when I need him to finish a race. So I find solace in these other companions, though I do all the work of carrying them with me on my rounds.

My madness does not stop with these thoughts about running. I would go so far as to tell you that I am reliably insane in several other areas. For one, I am as gullible as Charlie Brown when Lucy invites him yet again to kick the football from her treacherous hands. My downfall is the weather app on my phone. How many times have I been fooled by a forecast only to find myself cursing the weather gods in the middle of a downpour? Refusing to learn at least this lesson is apparently also habit-forming, for no matter how many times I find myself flung into a momentary rage upon needing to wring myself dry, still I check the forecast every single time before I set foot outside the door. I would do better consulting the Farmer’s Almanack from last century for tomorrow’s weather. At least then I would have no illusions about what to expect.

Am I of sound mind when I tell you I believe I can control the elements, Deuteros? You need but lace up your shoes and join me to experience the phenomenon yourself. When we start out on the path together you will marvel at the bracing headwind that whisks away our sweat. Though we run an out-and-back course, or even run in circles, you will marvel even more to note that the headwind prevails no matter our direction. Or consider the course that you would swear was flat when we ran it one way, but which turns into a hill upon our return. Just today I experienced a horizontal wall of rain (unforecasted of course) driven by a wind so strong that sailors’ spouses would quail in fear that their loved ones would safely come home. As god of the elements, I just hold onto my hat and keep putting one foot in front of the other.

My insanity is at least temporary, for I do not give it a long leash outside the arena of running. Pity those who lose control of their minds on a more permanent basis. I am talking about the afflictions of envy, anger, and greed. Many give themselves over fully to these passions, though it deprives them of their right reason and well-ordered mind. I condemn too lust, if not love. We say a person is “head over heels” in love. If we consider what state of mind and what activities give rise to this condition, shouldn’t we rather say the person is “heels over head” in lust?

Take care that you limit your own insanities to times and places where you can be sure of quickly regaining your mind. I do not ask you to be perfect at all times, but to be perfectly aware when you are not.

Be well.

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