Doublewhirler Recommends: A Guide to the Good Life
A Guide to the Good Life—the Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine
I follow a few photo blogs and one I particularly enjoy is Eric Kim’s blog. Eric is a talented street photographer and one of his posts, entitled “9 Lessons I Have Learned About Street Photography (and Life) From 2012” caught my eye. Within it was a recommendation for the book, A Guide to the Good Life. I bought the book on the strength of his recommendation.
Frankly, the book is fascinating and as I read it, I realized that its messages really resonated with my hectic life in New York. It provides insight into stoic philosophy (I know—it sounds thrilling) and debunks the myth that stoics have no fun. This is an inviting little (in the literal sense) book which is an easy and engaging read. Dry? Never!
For those of us for whom Philosophy 101 is a distant memory, the goal of stoicism is to seek tranquility, and the key to this is recognizing that all events can be divided into three: those over which we have complete control; those over which we have some, but not complete control; and, those over which we have no control at all. And then how much time and effort to devote to these events. A bit like an ancient Greco-Roman serenity prayer.
Surprisingly, Mr. Irvine advises us that we should devote only a little time to those things we can completely control because the outcome should be certain. This seemed counterintuitive at first and certainly not the mantra followed here in Manhattan where everyone is constantly striving to attain more…of everything.
The most time should be devoted to those events that we can’t completely control. And in these cases we should set our internal goal to do our best, rather than to win. Irvine reasons that by combining doing our best with the recognition that we may not win for reasons beyond our control, we can achieve a level of tranquility whatever the outcome. This was a wonderful reminder to me, surrounded by the rat race that is Manhattan, that while I have control over giving my best performance, winning is not under my complete control.
Lastly, we should ignore those issues over which we have no control. Paying any attention to these issues just serves to disturb our newly attained tranquility. This was the most useful advice for me. As someone working in bureaucracy and blessed (or cursed) with working with people, dealing with people and their criticism is a daily, if not hourly, task. And in New York, where everyone has an opinion, it is an inevitability.
I valued this last point most as a help to keeping things in perspective. When criticized, consider: is it true? If so, there is little reason to be angry. Does it come from someone you respect—again, there is little reason to be angry. If, however, it comes from someone you don’t respect, then forget it. Ah, the amount of head space that frees up!
I also found useful the stoic psychological trick to help you appreciate what you have: “We should imagine ourselves losing the things we most value, including possessions and loved ones….If we do this, we will come to appreciate the things we have now, and because we appreciate them, we will be less likely to form desires for other things.”
Photographers are notoriously acquisitive—they must always have the latest gear. And I definitely suffer from Gear Acquisition Syndrome. Imagining the loss of a current camera is a great way to take my mind off lusting after a new bright shiny Nikon.
There was one area, however, where I part company with the author’s stoic advice. He doubts the efficacy of grief or trauma counselling, preferring instead the “stiff upper lip”. I don’t agree with the “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” attitude as a one-size-fits-all approach. Great for a high school rallying cry, not so much for dealing with extreme suffering, like post traumatic stress.
This is a book worth reading. Is it easy to be a stoic—no. Would I want to be 100% stoic—no. But, as a framework for thinking about an approach to life, it is good. And, even better, it can be applied.