July 29, 2019
One of the most important lessons I’ve received about patience and humility came from a very unexpected source. Not from a dear friend or admired colleague but from everyone’s favorite, always helpful but sometimes hard-of-hearing personal assistant—Siri.
I was driving somewhere in Los Angeles, when a thought came to me I wanted to write down and expand upon later. I queued up Siri and asked her to take down a note. “What do you want it to say?” she replied. But just as I was about to tell her my brilliant idea, another car swerved into my lane, almost hitting me. And I went off. After my short rant was over, and the other car was long gone, Siri piped back up, “Okay, I created a note.” And in her unmistakable, feminine yet robotic voice, she read the note back to me: “Nice driving mother fucker fucking fuck stay in your own fucking lane you fuck head fuck faced fucker.” I’ve never gone from rage to pure laughter so quickly. And look—that note actually did get used for something.
Embracing the sheer ridiculousness of some of our biggest stressors is crucial to a happy life. One of the major teachings of Stoic philosophy—and something we generally learn through lots of trial and error—is honing the ability to control our emotions. “Check your passions,” Epictetus wrote, “so that you may not be punished by them.” The goal is not to be emotionless but to act purposefully and have measured responses appropriate of the situation or interaction.
Simple traits like patience and adaptability tend to quiet the chaos of the world. Things soften and slow down, and you become desensitized to external stressors and criticisms—making the unintended slight or minor frustration easier to ignore. It is this sense of purposeful indifference that is crucial to the cultivation of self-mastery and discovery of contentment.
And you will need all the forbearance you can muster on the path to a better life. Because, unfortunately, it will be quite difficult and filled with critics—one of the harshest likely being you.
In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield uses the blanket term “Resistance” to describe internal and external obstructions, such as apathy, procrastination, self-doubt, and criticism. “Unalleviated, Resistance mounts to a pitch that becomes unendurable,” Pressfield writes. “At this point vices kick in. Dope, adultery, web surfing. Beyond that, Resistance becomes clinical. Depression, aggression, dysfunction. Then actual crime and physical self-destruction.”
Hangups and pitfalls of all kinds can be disheartening—even debilitating or destructive. And we often find ourselves in need of rescue from our own negative self-talk but are afraid to ask for it. For me, when the self-criticism gets too intense, and my doubts reach their peak, I say to myself: “Remember, you chose this. You chose to disrupt the cycle of bad habits and negative thoughts that were plaguing your life.”
Yet even after you’ve quieted your own self-censuring, you must still find ways to tune out the unsolicited commentary of others. Many people, even those close to you, will question and criticize your choice to live a better life. It will appear they do not understand you, but, in reality, they are afraid of you. They know they do not yet have the courage or strength to do what you are doing. Most people do not. Others will try and place a box around you—if only so the walls of their own box feel more inviting. You will lose friends, and, at times, feel very alone. But to truly see who is willing to stand with us in the dark, we must dim the light created by false contentment.
In these dark moments, I again remind myself, “You chose this. You chose to live in a way that others might find strange or uncomfortable. But this your departure, your adventure, and your homecoming—no one else’s.”
Hurt feelings, in most cases, are unavoidable. But with practice, slights from others or doubts of our own can be deflected or transformed. In Man’s Search for Meaning, psychiatrist Viktor Frankl describes this mental alchemy as “the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
One would be hard-pressed to find anyone who suffered more hardship than Frankl, a Viennese Jew who barely survived his imprisonment in a series of Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz. And to find a person who endured such an experience with as much poise and dignity is even more unlikely. While imprisoned, Frankl worked in the small infirmary of the Türkheim concentration camp, watching over many patients, most suffering horribly from Typhus. The sickest of them—the ones emaciated and smoldering with fever—he was able to give half an aspirin tablet a day as their only intervention.
When there is nothing left to do, there is still compassion. It would do us all good to remember this. When we feel harmed, but before we react, we can remember everyone we encounter is as equally flawed and human as we are. Give them the grace you would hope to receive. “When we are no longer able to change a situation,” Frankl wrote, “we are challenged to change ourselves.”
When we feel attacked, angry, hurt, or insulted, we react in kind: hurt for hurt, anger for anger, fear for fear. A person we love says something hurtful, we fire back without thinking. A car enters our lane, we consider it a personal attack. Our achievements go unacknowledged by our superiors or peers, we consider it an intentional insult. Without empathy and patience, daily inconveniences become a continuous string of mental assaults.
We wear down. And, overtime, become emotionally fragile or volatile.
As surely as April brings Tax Day to us all and spring rain to the Pacific Northwest, adversity will checker our lives from beginning to end. Fear or flight will get you nowhere. We can no more avoid hardship then we can hold back the rain or deter the Internal Revenue Service. Life guarantees suffering, it does not guarantee happiness. The former will readily find you, but the latter must be mined from the depths of your existence.
Nearly eighteen hundred years before Frankl recounted his trying experience, Marcus Aurelius foreshadowed this philosophy on hardship when he wrote, “Remember, too, on every occasion that leads you to vexation to apply this principle: not that this is a misfortune, but that to bear it nobly is good fortune.”
Waste no energy trying to avoid the unavoidable. Instead, conserve your energy to be as resolute and rational as possible amidst whatever trial you are facing. And, most importantly, be mindful of who you are becoming while under such pressure or facing such heartache.
For it is not how we act during times of triumph or ease that constructs our character. It is how we react when our lives hit a wall or shit hits the fan that makes us either dependable or deplorable—panicked or poised.