Tag Archives: armchair philosophy

The Obstacle Is the Way

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.

Image by skeeze from Pixabay

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.

Past baggage

We’re out of town and away from computers this week, but I can’t not share this, so I’m posting from my phone, of all things. Blasphemy! My typing speed is hamstrung, but that’s a testament to my shookenness.

I picked up a copy of Dale Carnegie’s How to Stop Worrying and Start Living on the recommendation of Tim Ferriss (thanks to my previous post) and 5 pages in I can already tell this one is a keeper. I’m sharing with you, then, an excerpt from the opening pages.

A few months before he spoke at Yale, Sir William Osler had crossed the Atlantic on a great ocean liner where the captain, standing on the bridge, could press a button and -presto! – there was a clanging of machinery and various parts of the ship were immediately shut off from one another – shut off into watertight compartments.

“Now each one of you,” Dr. Osler said to those Yale students, “is a much more marvelous organization than the great liner, and bound on a longer voyage. What I urge is that you so learn to control the machinery as to live with day-tight compartments as the most certain way to ensure safety on the voyage. Get on the bridge, and see that at least the great bulkheads are in working order. Touch a button and hear, at every level of your life, the iron doors shutting on the Past – the dead yesterdays. Touch another and shut off, with a metal curtain, the Future – the unborn tomorrows. Then you are safe – safe for today! Shut off the past! Let the past bury its dead … shut out the yesterdays which have lighted fools the way to dusty death … the load of tomorrow, added to that of yesterday, carried today, makes the strongest falter. Shut off the future as tightly as the past … the future is today … there is no tomorrow. The day of man’s salvation is now.

Waste of energy, mental distress, nervous worries dog the steps of a man who is anxious about the future … shut close, then, the great fore and aft bulkheads, and prepare to cultivate the habit of a life of ‘day-tight compartments’.”

We – and by we I mean I – carry so much of the weight of yesterday and tomorrow that it gets in the way of today. But the fact is, yesterday is over – whatever will come of it is out of my hands. And tomorrow will come, or it won’t – and very little of that is within my compass either.

Worry over the past or the future, therefore, is worry picked up for its own sake. Maybe think twice before picking up all that baggage.

Put another way…

Surfing, Crawling, or Riding the Cosmos


The prompt for the week is “information” over at Stream of Consciousness Saturday. And technically the goal of the prompt is to engage with it spending as little time in planning as possible, but rather to dive in and just let the mind wander. Still, I couldn’t help noodling on this one for much of the day: while mowing the grass, while walking around with the kids in the stroller, while sitting on the crapper… at first it seemed so small, so insignificant a topic, such a minute and overspecific little thing, what could I possibly write about it? But the more I thought, the bigger it got, until it struck me rather like a 50lb sack of concrete tossed from the flatbed of a rusted-out Nissan on the freeway, generally fargoing up my mental vehicle and much of my worldview: information is everything.

That’s not metaphorical, of course. From a scientific standpoint, everything in the universe is simply a collection of information. This particle occupies this space relative to that other particle, and as a result this atom shifts into this alignment within this molecule, and because of the presence of said molecule, proteins can form, and with the preponderance of those proteins come cells and body structures and blood and bone and brains and everything else that makes us us. The tiniest deviations from the blueprints are all that make up the myriad differences between not just humans, but chimps, fish, trees, and the very earth we walk on (my sorry-not-sorry apologies to the creationist lot). And given enough time, money, and concern, those differences — that stream of information that makes us who we are — could possibly be chronicled. And that’s something.

But it doesn’t stop there. The movement of the heavens is relayed to us through information; much more so than simply the information we’re able to decode with our flimsy senses. Satellites capture the movement of one star past another, the bend in the gravitational field of a planet illuminated by the slowing of the light around it, the Doppler effect of interstellar debris, and translate this — this stew of raw information indecipherable to all but maybe a tenth of a hundredth of a thousandth of a percent of us — to paint the picture of our known universe, even looking back through time itself to map out what the universe was like in its primordial state.

And then, of course, there’s information in the traditional sense: the information that we doddering bipeds build our world around, the collection of the relative movements of the species across the face of our particular bit of space rock that cause economies to rise and fall, forces at war to invade or withdraw, and a million other decisions to swing this way or that in a flicker of firing synapses. Information drives the world, and that information has to come from somewhere for it to make me decide whether to get up off the couch to get another drink, or sit and suffer with a dry mouth while I watch another episode of Aquarius (which I’m not sure if I care for yet).

The internet. Right? When we say “information,” that’s where it comes from, for most of us. In the Western world, at least, if you’re getting your information from anywhere, odds are that it passed through a computer on its way to your face holes, if your own personal computer wasn’t the last stop. An interview conducted over Skype. Documents e-mailed from a presidential candidate’s personal, totally-legal-no-matter-what-anybody-says server. A record of purchases that you may or may not have made from websites of dubious repute. Whether it be legitimate information, ill-guided misinformation, or maliciously-intended disinformation, there’s a flood of it coming at us through the internet all the time.

So I took a pause from writing and googled one of those questions that I felt very dumb typing into a search engine: “how much information is on the internet?” And I ended up trying to grasp what I found on the wikipedia page: Exabyte. An exabyte is a million terabytes, or a billion gigabytes, or 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes, which is one of those numbers — like the size of the universe — that your brain just sort of goes fuzzy thinking about. And estimates in 2010 showed that in a month, about 21 exabytes of information are passed along the internet. A MONTH.

And for all that, it’s estimated that a single gram of DNA could contain over 450 exabytes of information. So if you think those construction instructions from Ikea are complicated, well…

Now, your sources might differ from mine, and I’m not here to pass judgment on what sort of information you invite into your home (though given the size of, for example, the anti-vaxxer movement, some of you are receiving and believing some decidedly poor information). I’m only here to ponder the ramifications of such a system, and I will do so vis-a-vis a surprising moment we had driving home from the beach yesterday.

I pulled into a gas station in rural Alabama and swiped my card at the pump. I received an error message telling me to see the attendant.

Frustrated, I pulled to another pump (kids were in the car and there was no sense unloading them, and god knows you can’t leave them in the car on a hot day in Alabama) and got the same result. I called my wife on her cell phone (a fantastic tool for delivering information, and a little ironic if you’ll bear with me) where she was standing in line to buy some snacks for the road and asked her to check with the attendant.

Turns out, the gas station runs its internet connection on dialup, and the phone line was in use at the moment.

Now, there’s two funnies in this situation from where I stand.

First is that a business in the Western world is still operating off of a dialup connection. (Actually, first is that dialup connections are still offered at all, let alone to businesses.) But then, that’s Alabama for you, I guess. (My apologies to any readers from Alabama, except you already live in Alabama, so my apologies won’t help you.)

Second is that a person was using a phone that wasn’t in his pocket or in any other way connected to the internet. I thought we’d moved past that as a society, but you learn something new every day.

Point is, there is a literal uncountable ocean of information flowing in, around, and through us every instant of every day. Some of us simply ride the wave faster than others.

Again, my apologies to the readers from Alabama.

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