March 4, 2017 -Awareness Is Freedom


“The person is free who lives as they wish, neither compelled, nor hindered, nor limited – whose choices aren’t hampered, whose desires succeed, and who don’t fall into what repels them. Who wished to live in deception – tripped up, mistaken, undisciplined, complaining, in a rut? No one. These are base people who don’t live as they wish; and so, no base person is free.” – Epictetus, Discourses, 4.1.1-3a

Epictetus frames good and bad persons in a very specific context. Not by virtue, but rather based on those who do and do not live freely. Surely you’ve heard the old saying which refers to anger as allowing someone to have control over you. How many of us want to live angrily? When we do this we are, in fact, living by the words and actions of others. Do you recall times in which you’ve actually been angry because someone else isn’t angry at the very situation that angered you?

I’m going to my music well, to one of my favorite bands: The Avett Brothers. From the True Sadness album, this is a lyric from “Ain’t No Man”.

You got to go somewhere, ain’t that true?
Not a whole lotta time for me or you
Got a whole lotta reasons to be mad, let’s not pick one
I live in a room at the top of the stairs
I got my windows wide open and nobody cares
And I got no choice but to get right up when the song comes through

Yes, there are many reasons to be mad, but why pick any? Here lies truth for me. I set out to post observations on these meditations daily, and yet I’ll go from consistent to inconsistent. Why? If I had awareness of why I could correct it. Envoke discipline. Succeed. Be a good person. It’s a simple goal, but the awareness of the simple will lead to habits for the complex.

February 26, 2017 – To Each His Own


“Another has done me wrong? Let him see to it. He has his own tendencies, and his own affairs. What I have now is what common nature has willed, and what I endeavor to accomplish now is what my nature wills.” –  Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 5.25

Venting. Oh, the beauty of venting. To get something off our chest. To let someone else know just how we feel about what they did. Justice for the soul!!!

Shelly DuBois writes in Fortune:

You can get a kind of warped satisfaction from talking about being angry without necessarily wanting to change the circumstances that trigger that emotion. But research suggests that venting anger doesn’t get rid of it. Instead, it amplifies those negative feelings.

Family events. Work. School. Any social setting can find one thinking that venting is the best way to release the frustration when someone “does me wrong”. But does it? Kristin Behfar, a professor of business administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business notes:

Most papers on venting find that it’s negative, but they stop there. They don’t find what the listener does.

Brad Bushman, an anger expert at Ohio State University’s School of Communication adds:

Listeners who agree are just keeping angry feelings alive when the key is to let them die.

So this adds layers to our situation. If we’re around others we may find their agreement does nothing to improve our state. If we’re alone we may find that voice in our head continues to validate our feelings and actions. But, there is also the situation in which we are the other. We are the one in the presence of the person “blowing off steam”.

The Stoic approach allows us to change our own thinking, as well as the thoughts of others. Why someone does something has its own reasons. I have mine. You have yours. Of what is your nature? Focused on letting the other control your thoughts, or focused on one’s own will?

Just today I had a conversation with my manager who listened to my venting, well maybe it was more honest dialogue (a matter of perspective), and then shared with me more detail around the situation. The disclosure created a better understanding of the why. It reminded me I don’t have all the information.

Let’s all work at not keeping angry feelings alive.

February 10, 2017 – Anger is a Bad Fuel


“There is no more stupefying thing than anger, nothing more bent on it’s own strength. If successful, none more arrogant, if foiled, none more insance – since it’s not driven back by weariness even in defeat, when fortune removes its adversary it turns its teeth on itself.” – Seneca, On Anger, 3.1.5

Some people think as Johnny “Rotten” Lydon sang, “anger is an energy”. It can be used to motivate us to greatness. It can inspire us to improve our condition or the condition of others. I admit I can be one of those people. This assumes there is no possible way to achieve the same outcome without anger. When Seneca claims “it turns its teeth on itself” he’s telling us that this fuel does not burn without damaging the very system within which it runs.

“Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life; love illuminates it.” –MLK, Jr, Strength to Love

As a bad fuel, anger damages the vessel that holds it.

“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” – Buddha

An article from the “Better Health” website details the physical damage of anger.

  • headache
  • digestion problems, such as abdominal pain
  • insomnia
  • increased anxiety
  • depression
  • high blood pressure
  • skin problems, such as eczema
  • heart attack
  • stroke

Anger will eventually burn itself out. What embers are left? What damage has been done that must be repaired? Does being angry foster love, or hatred? The book uses a great example of how being called fat might motivate someone to lose weight. But at what cost? How does the person who lost the weight feel about those who used the unkind words?

Be ever aware of what is fueling you.

February 1, 2017 – For the Hot-Headed Man


“Keep this thought handy when you feel a fit of rage coming on – it isn’t manly to be enraged. Rather, gentleness and civility are more human, and therefore manlier. A real man doesn’t give way to anger and discontent, and such a person has strength, courage, and endurance – unlike the angry and complaining. The nearer a man comes to a calm mind, the closer he is to strength.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 11.18.5b

February is the month focused on passions and emotions. For me, it started on day one as the month of acute bronchitis. I am not one who often gets sick so when the raspy throat cough I brought back from Colorado crept into my chest the January meditations on clarity had to be invoked. The body is a variable we can try to manage but inevitably cannot control. Proper sleep, good diet, exercise and over the counter medicine all failed to keep me from succumbing to this virus.

The fever and body aches were awful, but it was the lack of sleep I simply didn’t foresee as such a burden. Every night being woken up by uncontrollable coughing. No amount of hydrocodone infused cough medicine could keep me asleep. Thankfully the z-pack and steroidal prescriptions have my arrow on the up, and I can reinvest myself into The Daily Stoic.

And what a perfect start. Anger. Before considering the words of Aurelius, and citing a personal experience, I want to consider a selection from The Guide to Living With HIV Infection by John G. Bartlett, M.D. and Ann Finkbeiner. (source)

One reason for anger is the unfairness of the situation. In the first place, being singled out by the virus at all is unfair. No one, regardless of how he or she became infected, asked for or deserved this infection. Steven Charles, who became infected through sexual intercourse, said: “Why me? I didn’t do anything wrong, I never hurt anyone, I was doing what seemed right to me. I know people who are more promiscuous and they seem to be getting out without a scar.” Helen Parks had found a good job in the post office of the small town in which she lives; she had stopped using drugs by injection before she found out she was infected: “I hadn’t been getting high any more. I was earning good money,” she said. “Why bother to work hard and do good now? I had a rage of fire that wouldn’t go out.”

Being sick affords one a perspective of how it feels to be less than optimal. When it happens to me I consider what it must be like to know you will always feel this way. Getting over acute bronchitis is common. Yes, it can mutate into pneumonia, which can be deadly, but in general, it’s something you overcome in one to three weeks. I have friends that battled cancer to victory but have never experienced the battle and eventual loss of someone to AIDS. Maybe common physical symptoms can grant us a shared experience for the sake of empathy, but the mental anguish is private. Anger seems a natural response to the questions of fairness, and that lack of perceived fairness reminds us that we’re not in control of this body.

Besides unfairness, another reason for anger is frustration at occasionally losing the sense that you’re in control of your life. People get angry about having to live with medications that are complicated to take and can have unpleasant side effects. Dean Lombard was taking a drug whose side effect was diarrhea: “Once I messed the bed like a baby. I got so frustrated and angry at not being able to do what I wanted to do, I cried.”

As we go through this month’s meditations on passions and emotions I found my illness to be a reminder that it’s not just our emotions we can better manage. We also learn to better understand why others may, for example, be angry. There is an ability to be more patient and compassionate through this understanding.

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The question asked of the meditation focused on athletes and trash talking. Why do they do it? If you watch or play sports you know it’s to get a mental advantage. When I was younger I compensated for a lack of physical talent through my verbal banter. During one game I managed to suck an opponent into three straight unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, allowing us to obtain an upset victory.

Marcus paints the question of how we should deal with anger within the context of strength and manliness. We can appreciate the historical context of when this was written, but it’s more beneficial for us to approach this as a problem for the real “person”. But anger, itself, is not the problem. Anger is an emotion, and like all emotions, the key is how we deal with it.

Anger, itself, is not the problem. Anger is an emotion, and like all emotions, the key is how we deal with it. How many news stories of road rage exist that end with someone dead, and another person in jail? How many times have you seen situations when words were spoken that can never be taken back, and relationships are forever damaged?

A few years ago we were in West Virginia for our family Christmas vacation. A friendly game of Spades ended with my 22-year-old nephew rising from the table and walking out of the cabin. A few minutes later he returned with an apology. Being very competitive he was not handling losing very well and feared he was on the cusp of an emotional outburst he’d regret. The strength he displayed in walking out, and coming back to apologize, was admirable.

I personally cannot be angry and think rationally at the same time. Neither my words nor my actions are well thought out. We must not let anger run uncontrolled. We must be strong enough to not let other people, or inanimate things, control us. Anger keeps us from being civil, and in turn, denies us the ability to establish the relationships we need to survive. Is our present political climate not a perfect example of the dead-end anger will put us?

Let me leave you with this Confucius quote.

“When anger rises, think of the consequences.”