I got my world rocked this week, reading up on stoic philosophy.
The stoics are awesome. I don’t even know all that much about stoicism except to say that this is the philosophy of the ancient Greeks — the really smart ones, not the ones who just lounged around in togas all day slathering themselves in oil and lusting after young boys (I mean, okay, the stoic philosophers probably did that too, but they didn’t just do that) — and when you ponder on their wisdom, you figure out that they really had this life thing figured out.
They weren’t religious. They weren’t spiritual. But they also weren’t despairing or existential as you might expect from people lacking religion or spirituality. (I’m not saying lacking religion or spirituality makes you bleak or dark or depressed or depressing — that just seems to be the perception our culture has for some reason, because y’know, a life without belief in fairy-tale creatures in the sky must obviously be a life devoid of joy — but I digress.) To the contrary, the stoics held that because life is devoid of magic and higher powers and providence, it falls to each of us to create our own joy, to create meaning, and to work for the betterment not just of ourselves, but of everybody around us.
This is powerful stuff, perhaps most powerful when combined with certain doses of certain substances and prefaced by sentences like “you know, man,” or “dude, I just realized” spoken at three in the morning. But still powerful enough when consumed in bite-sized quotes from the internet or delivered daily to your face by your magical pocket-sized telecommunications device. (I have an app called “The Stoic” that serves up a quote from a stoic philosopher every day. Yes, I am a nerd. I love it. Today’s nugget, from Marcus Aurelius: “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts; therefore guard accordingly.”)
Anyway, all this is to return to my original point. I got my world rocked by a central tenet of stoicism: The obstacle is the way. I read that and I realized that it’s perfectly in line with my thinking of late, with my recent productive streak, with the through-line of all the nonfiction books I’ve been reading lately about the way we think, the way we connect, and the way the world affects us.
See, we think of obstacles as bad things. I want to go a certain place, do a certain thing, and this other thing is in my way. This other thing is keeping me from the thing that I want. How could that not be a bad thing?
But it’s not a bad thing. It’s just life.
Because the things we want are, by necessity, on the other side of things that are unpleasant. Put another way, if there weren’t unpleasant things in the way of the things we want … we’d just have them. We’d go over there and get them and there’d be nothing stopping us. To put it in concrete terms: I want to publish a book. (Preferably, books, plural.) But first I have to write it, edit it, make sure it’s good, get it into the hands of an agent, then to a publisher. It’s gonna take work. A LOT of work. Hours and hours at the computer, hammering the words into shape and arranging them just so. I also want to be healthy and strong for my family, so I can live a good long time and annoy them for decades to come. That, too, takes work: it takes thinking about what I eat instead of just shoveling donuts down my gullet (which I would prefer!), it takes making time to exercise (which in my case means waking up at five in the morning to get it done before anybody in the house is even awake). Not easy. And while I’m at it, I’d like to ensure my job security, which means challenging myself at work to be not just a decent teacher but a good one, which means improving myself and investing in my students and a bunch of things it would be easier not to do.
We have all these things that we want, but the path is littered with these obstacles. Big or small, minor inconveniences or major heckin’ setbacks, some struggles you can work past in a day or even an hour, others you can’t even see the end of from where you’re standing. The obstacles are out there, and they’re not going anywhere. My books aren’t going to write themselves. I’m not magically going to discover an extra hour during the day to work out on my own time. I won’t become a better teacher by doing the same things I did last year and the year before.
And that’s enough to keep some people from doing these things. It’s easier not to face those obstacles, to keep things as they are, to accept what you’ve got and be complacent. (I was going to write “content” instead of complacent, but there’s a big difference in those words. And there’s something to be said for feeling “content” with what you have, but it’s another thing entirely to be “complacent”.) I mean, I lived with my parents until I was thirty. Because it was easy. I’m not particularly proud of that, but it did lead me to the path I’m currently on, which makes me thankful for it, even though I now lament how much time I wasted.
But the path to Better is laden with obstacles. Which means that the obstacles are the way forward.
When we can view the world in this way, the obstacles become less scary. They cease to be bad things, they cease to be things to be avoided. Viewed this way, obstacles become welcome. They become necessary.
And when you tweak your brain enough, you can even begin to view obstacles as a good thing.
The obstacle is the way.
Are you on the path?
This post is part of Stream-of-Consciousness Saturday.