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Avoid Pointless Journeys (Week 7 of Wisdom)

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‘If you shape your life according to nature, you will never be poor; if according to people’s opinions, you will never be rich.’

Epicurus

The desires of nature are small, but those of people are limitless. You can amass enormous wealth; you can buy a luxurious house with marble floors and expensive paintings. And the result of all of this? You will desire more luxurious houses, more marble floors, and more expensive paintings. If one looks at the habits of many (but not all) of billionaires, this observation is accurate.

Desires that are socially created have the character of developing into obsessions. And obsessions of this type are dangerous because they are hard to control, and impossible to satiate. I think this is a deep idea, and truthful one. If you think about BDD (body dysmorphic disorder) for example, you can see how it is not a natural urge (to eat, or to sleep) that creates an obsessive feeling of inferiority, but a socially derived belief.

Or think about gambling, another social invention that can spiral into endless patterns of self-destructive behavior. Or plastic surgery, where it is possible for someone to become so addicted to attaining a beauty standard, that they spend their lives with low self-esteem. Think about TV network ratings, social media likes and followers, or any popularity metric, and notice how people, even the most powerful (especially) become victims to the mechanisms of social approval. They obsess over being the most liked or the most viewed. Their self-worth depends on it.

That is the price we must pay for being a part of society. We must accept that our psychology, at any moment, can be taken hostage by some silly obsession, or impossible idea. The short statement of Epictetus so precisely captures the human condition. That is why the Stoics call towards living in accordance with nature. Seneca, later in the book, attacks those who live contrary to nature, even in their sleeping habits.

It is not true, of course, that everything natural is good. Now, you may argue, society is a part of nature, so why the distinction? But society is also different from nature in its complexity. Think of society as a more complicated form of nature, and this is not surprising since it contains the most complex things in the world, human minds. And these minds are in continuous engagement with one another, creating sophisticated patterns of thought that become more influential with time.

Thus, we can think of Epicurus’ statement a little differently, and that is to ‘shape your lives according to what is simple.’ The voice in your head that is imploring you to make more money, or to have more relationships, or to have a perfect body is calling on you to become more complex, which will inevitably lead to misery.

When a person is following a track, there is an eventual end to it somewhere, but with wandering at large there is no limit.

Seneca

The Stoic way of life is to embrace simplicity, and to shun the influences that are complicated and unnecessary. Now, I do not think anyone should live like a Stoic. Even the Stoics did not live like Stoics. But I do think there is wisdom in embracing what is simpler and what is natural at the right times.

Because we are complex beings, we invented something like Stoicism to make our lives simpler – we recognize that what is complex is not always what is good.

Often, our pursuit of what is socially desired is our only real chance of happiness, but we must remind ourselves that what is socially manufactured is also a great source of misery. When things are not going according to plan, when the complex desires of society haunt us, when we find ourselves obsessing about a thought for months, or even years – maybe it is time to step back into nature, to recognize that we can choose the simpler way whenever we want. This is an effective way to give ourselves peace of mind.

So give up pointless, empty journeys, and whenever you want to know whether the desire aroused in you by something you are pursuing is natural or quite unseeing, ask yourself whether it is capable of coming to rest at any point; if after going a long way there is always something remaining farther away, be sure it is not something natural.

Seneca

Another way to benefit from this idea is to simplify (to be like nature). If you are trying to solve a problem that is too complex, then simplify it. Break it down to more digestible components. Live a more simple lifestyle, think about less things, make fewer choices, have fewer plans and fewer goals.As your lists gets smaller, and your life becomes simpler, you will be able to manage it better, to accomplish what is important, and then when you feel comfortable, to add complexity once again. In this way, you constantly walk the path that is between order and chaos without becoming overwhelmed or apathetic.

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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