Remembrance is about values

Today is Remembrance Day. We remember the sacrifices made by others to secure our freedom, a future many of them would never experience. Why would someone risk their life, not knowing what the outcome would be, to benefit another? It’s about values.

We all have values, deeply held beliefs about the world and our place in it. In essence, our moral code. Values are learned consciously and subconsciously. They are found in the stories read to us as children, the interactions of our families and cultures. They are written into our institutions. They are more often acted than stated, leaving us to weave our own stories from scattered threads.

To optimize well-being, you need to know your values. You need to know if they are serving you well, or if you are simply a vessel carrying the untested values of yore. You need to know them, because true freedom is acting in accordance with them, with authenticity.

Learning what your values are can be challenging. You can’t take things for granted anymore. Think about your peak experiences, times when you were mad as hell, or times when you felt awe or pride. These experiences were either in opposition or perfectly aligned with your values, respectively. What were those values? Examine them. Write them down. Ask yourself if they reflect who you thought you were, or who you envision yourself to be.

For the past century, roughly the duration of the longest living human’s memory, there have been constant deadly conflicts between groups of people. At the heart of any conflict is one set of values against another. Those we remember today valued freedom, the freedom for all of us to live by our own values, without judgement, without someone else forcing their beliefs on us.

For their sacrifice we should we grateful, not complacent. Nothing is forever. We can honour them by accepting the challenge their gift presents us, not to squander our freedoms, but to explore them and live them, finding in ourselves that which is most meaningful, the morals and values we wish to offer our children. We remember.

Be well.

Experience is your only possession

Your only true possession is your human experience. It is the only thing that cannot be taken from you. Everything outside of you exists merely because you experience it. This experience is uniquely your own. It will never be entirely accessible to another, nor theirs to you.

Understanding this simplifies matters. For to optimize well-being, all you must do is design a life that allows you to experience more of it. Easily stated, but hard-won.

The next inquiry necessarily becomes, then, how to define experience. Experience is fluid, refreshing itself as each moment arises. It is fully formed by your feelings and stories. This combination of feelings and narrative characterizes your life.

Fortunately, your stories can be edited and your feelings can be challenged, allowing you to shape your future experiences. Being aware of this is a critical step on the path to well-being.

What is the Human Condition?

Let’s start at the beginning. To get what you want you must know what you have. Everyone, every single person, wants to improve their experience of life. We are all chasing well-being. Why? The Human Condition.

The Human Condition is what makes us human, apart from the animals. It is the condition we have inherited from the wondrous properties of nature. Simply put, it is that which makes us aware of our consciousness.

It is imperative to know this because everything you think, feel, do, and experience occurs in consciousness. This is where your life occurs, made possible by the Human Condition.

We have all been granted this gift, our common starting point. From there our paths diverge, even though we seek the same end. A good life, filled with well-being. On your personal journey, reflect on our alikeness, and know what made your good life possible.

Why We Care

During the COVID-19 pandemic we’ve seen the meme of doctors and nurses holding signs that read, “I stayed at work for you. You stay home for us.” This refers to health care workers willingly putting themselves (and their families) at risk to perform their work under more hostile than usual circumstances. When asked why, many will say they are, “just doing their job,” or that this is, “what we signed up for.” But this is not truly the reason they continue to show up. No one is purely following a blind sense of duty, especially not highly educated professionals who pride themselves on autonomy. This situation requires a more complete understanding. 

The helping professions, ones defined by moving toward rather than away from crisis, present an existential problem for those who perform them. Quite literally, they have chosen to accept the risk of personal harm in order to help others. Under typical circumstances in health care, this risk is low. There are certain times, though, when this reality becomes clear, such as when faced with the threat of a potential fatal infectious disease. The threat is even more apparent for soldiers, police officers, and firefighters, whose risk of physical harm is more immediately threatening. 

A person faced with an existential problem has the option to either proceed, assuming the risk, or to change course. The actions, and their outcomes, hinge on this choice. When the problem involves another person in need, the choice could be thought of as between the “I” and the “other”. Of course, when choosing “I”, one may be thinking of their children, spouse, or future ability to help in other ways. When considering the “other”, one may project the realistic outcomes the other person faces, their likelihood of survival, let alone their quality of life thereafter. If afforded time to think, one can weigh these things. In the moment, however, this is often not possible. And, as illustrated time and again, via heroic efforts, we most often choose the “other”. Why is this so?

The 20th century philosophy of Existentialism helps us understand the problem another way. It is posited that our actions become our practical identities, they determine our existence. When faced with an existential problem, we are confronted with the possibility of our “nothingness”. Because our identity is defined by the actions we take, inaction is synonymous with embracing the death of “I”. Conversely, to act is to choose “freedom”, experiencing the transcendence of one’s being in the world; living for something greater than the self. When thought of in this way, the question one faces is not, “Who do I choose?”, but rather, “Who am I?”. Answering the latter will immediately resolve the former. 

Bringing this back to our health care workers, the risk of actual death to the self is of lesser importance than the death of the experience of their existence, in keeping with the identity they have chosen and the actions that support it. 

At the risk of oversimplifying an entire school of philosophy, I put forward that health care workers care not because of their sense of duty, but because doing so is the manifestation of the freedom of the self, fulfilling the deep need to identify as part of something greater than themselves. This is as authentic as humanity can be. 

To all those who care and protect us, putting yourselves in harm’s way, thank you. Your willingness to help is the greatest example of what it means to be human. 

Be well.

Breaking bread (not bad).

An interesting observation of human behaviour during the COVID-19 pandemic is to make note of which shelves in the grocery store are empty. We’ve all heard the meme about toilet tissue. Clearly a necessity, but an odd one to hoard. What I find more intriguing are the bare shelves of flour and yeast. It would seem that everyone has suddenly started baking. Where does this urge come from?

During ordinary busy life, eating, let alone cooking, has become a matter of convenience and efficiency. We have so many things to do, that how we nourish our bodies has become an afterthought. We tend to cram in meals between other things. Worse still is that we often miss the rich opportunity to dine together, sharing stories of our days, learning from our families. 

Well, now we have the time. We are home with our families. We are dining together again. So, we bake. Making bread takes time and care. A level of attention that simply wasn’t available until now.  This is an opportunity to connect with our loved ones through making something together. I see those bare shelves as a sign of real humanity in the midst of crisis. 

I have previously written about the importance of identifying moments that matter. Sitting down to break bread together is one of those moments. My wife and I make a priority of doing this with our children. We have an ongoing joke when we sit down across from one another by saying, “Well, here we are again.” This makes light of the routine nature of the act, but within it there is comfort. We know that no matter what we have experienced that day, how challenging it may have been, we will always return to this place. 

Following the pandemic, my hope is that we can all slow down a bit, taking the time to cook and dine together more often. No one regrets having more dinners with the people they love. So, go stock up on flour and yeast. Along with your bread, may your well-being rise. 

Be well.

Remember what is important.

Most of us are craving the return to normal life right now. The same life that we used to complain about before it all changed. This reveals an interesting phenomenon of the human experience. We quickly adapt to any context in which we find ourselves. No doubt, this has served us exceptionally well over the millennia of our evolution. We have been taken from the savannah to complex nation states fueled by economies and governed by layers of bureaucracy. For the most part, we are unaware of our individual adaptation as it occurs. It is usually only when we consider the stark differences between our lives a decade ago and now that it partially sinks in. However, when we are confronted with a significant change to our lifestyle, en masse, it reallysinks in.

The default manifestation of our adaptation to the present context is taking things for granted. Many of us enjoy going to the gym or stopping by the coffee shop. These activities become a part of our routines, so much so, that they may start to seem mundane. You can easily skip a day and not think much of it. But when the ability to do these things is literally taken away, we realize how important it really was. We also realize how much of a privilege it was. 

This is where the Stoic principle of negative visualization can be useful. The Stoics suggest that we should frequently consider that we could lose anything we care about in an instant. Tragedy could befall us or those we care about at any time. This exercise isn’t meant to invoke fear or anxiety, rather acting as a reminder to be fully engaged in what we are experiencing right now.

Any time you go to the gym, sip your coffee, hug your child, or connect with a friend, could be the last time you have that opportunity. Remember this, and you will act as though these things are as important as they truly are. 

Be well.

How to win the day during COVID-19 (or any day).

To understand something, you must strip it down to its raw ingredients, making sure you then understand each of them. Only then can you put them back together and assert that you know why the product of their constitution is what it is. The same applies to optimizing well-being. We need to understand the problems we have, the challenges to be overcome. 

As we continue to practice the new art of social-distancing, we may find ourselves beginning to get anxious. We feel unproductive, captive, disconnected. This need not be so, if we break things down to examine our predicament. Instead, we need to focus on winning each day, challenging ourselves to find meaning and achieve success in our new way of life. 

Stoic ethics provides a framework for identifying the most basic components of human nature. Satisfy these things, deliberately and consistently, and we’ve won. The Stoics professed that we ought to be, “living in agreement with nature.” This includes nourishing and attending to our biological functions, caring for our offspring and others, and nurturing our unique human ability to reason. 

These are the ingredients that we must deeply understand, for when we put them together, in any one of us, they constitute who we are. One could delve into all manner of rich dialogue about any one of these, but for our purpose today I put forth a simple quiz one can employ to determine if they’ve won the day:

  1. Did you do something good for yourself today?
  2. Did you do something good for someone else today?
  3. Did you learn something today?

If we answer yes to all three, we win. That’s it. Simple. It matters not how profound or wide-reaching the actions, or their outcomes, were, but rather that they happened. In this vein, our productivity does not need to centre around a vocation, or any other thing in particular. In the age of COVID-19, if we got outside for a walk, then stayed home, and read a chapter of a book, we won the day. This is living in accordance with the human condition. If we apply this way of thinking, anything extra we go on to do is a bonus. 

As you reflect on the current state of things, think of how to win today, or any day. It is eminently achievable. 

Be well.

This isn’t the end of the story.

Perhaps you’re feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, seeing no end in sight. You think this shouldn’t be happening, it doesn’t make sense. You want nothing more than for things to get back to normal. In a word, you’re suffering. 

We are all suffering. Some more than others. That’s what happens when life changes quickly and we don’t know what comes next. People don’t like uncertainty. 

Here’s the good news; this isn’t the end of the story. 

Our experiences are simply the product of the feelings we have and the stories we tell ourselves. They change over time. We change over time. In the moment, we feel our emotions in real time. These feelings immediately dictate the story to be told, be it one of sadness, pain, anger, or joy. Later, when we’ve had a chance to fully appreciate the context we were in, the other characters involved, the outcomes of our actions, the stories change, reshaping our feelings about the events that transpired. 

This is a wonderful opportunity, one that only rational beings get to experience, so it would seem. If someone asked what you were most proud of in your life, no doubt your answer would involve a struggle that you overcame, a period of suffering. At the time it was miserable, but you persevered, grew, and became a better version of yourself. 

That is what’s happening now. It’s hard. We don’t know how the story ends, and that’s precisely where the opportunity lies. We will all have the chance to rewrite our own stories, turning this present experience into one of meaning and triumph. 

This isn’t the end of the story. But remember, our actions today will shape our stories tomorrow. 

Be well.

On Being Disappointed in Oneself

We’ve all experienced disappointment in many forms. Disappointment is the feeling of displeasure when something doesn’t turn out as expected. Perhaps the most insidious form is self-disappointment. It’s insidious because it occurs within the privacy of our own minds, subject to our inner monologues, badgering us relentlessly. I find the notion of being disappointed in oneself fascinating. Are we not supposed to know ourselves better than anyone? How is it that our expectations can be so routinely misaligned with reality that we feel sad when we miss the mark? I believe the fundamental problem has to do with our overextending the concept of personal agency, or free will.

Everyone has said something that they regret. Often this happens during an emotionally charged exchange. Whatever was said probably came out within a fraction of a second of its preceding thought entering consciousness. There was literally no stopping it. If asked to explain why what was said was said, there truly is no satisfying answer. Feelings were hurt. Self-disappointment follows. The explanation, however, while unsatisfying to the recipient of the regretful utterance, is interesting to explore.

All things that we say or do are a product of our conditioning and present context. Our conditioning stems from our predisposition – genetics and human instinct – and all of our life’s experiences to date. Context is the present state of everything going on around us. Where conditioning meets context, actions ensue. If the context is such that there is no time for metacognition – thinking about what you’re thinking – then the role of personal agency is drastically diminished. We act on conditioning alone. This is the case for most spontaneous conversations, sports, driving, and so on.

If we mainly act on conditioning, then why should we be disappointed in ourselves for things we had no chance to plan? I don’t believe we should. The only possible internal conflict with a given outcome, then, would be its discordance with a deeper set of principles we ascribe to ourselves. To be kind, for example. Am I always kind? Of course not. Yet, there is nothing to be gained from being disappointed in myself when circumstances arise in which I am not kind. I did not fulfill my aspirational value in a given moment. What I got was a product of who I was in a specific context at a specific time. Principles, by their nature, are general. They may guide thinking and conduct in the general sense but cannot determine how we will act in any particular circumstance.

What, then, should we do when we feel that twinge of self-disappointment? Be aware of the feeling, but don’t stop there. Consider whether what occurred could have been anticipated and mitigated in the exact context within which it happened. Chances are it could not, especially since much of our context is beyond our control. Next, we should become curious about how to begin shaping our future conditioning, so as not to act the same way when presented with a similar context. Taking a future-oriented problem-solving approach, guided by our principles, should be a successful treatment for the disappointed self.

Be well.

We Must Create Space

To give ourselves the best opportunity to optimise well-being, we must create space. There are three dimensions in which this space is to be created: time, physical, and mental.

In a previous post I explored how time is simply a tool of measurement. We use it create order in our lives and our memories. We are skilled at filling time with all manner of activities on a weekly basis. When we do this, we don’t allow ourselves opportunity to explore what makes life most meaningful. Anyone with a job, family, classes to attend, and so on, clearly understands busyness. This busyness is a constant distraction that may occupy us for years. Just as we book meetings, we must book time in our schedule to simply be with ourselves. Time to think, reflect, take stock, reprioritize. These dedicated times can be the most important appointments of our weeks or months.

Create space in your schedule.

Physical space is also crucial for our well-being. Clutter quickly becomes overwhelming. Most of us have too much stuff. Making a point of tidying up or taking a minimalist stance to acquiring things can have a tremendous impact on how we feel in our own environment. Similarly, we need periods of physical space away from other people. Aloneness, rather than loneliness, is an important tool on our well-being journey. A simple way to create physical space is to get outside in nature. The vastness of nature allows us to sense our relative smallness. This helps realign our perspective of ourselves, as we have a tendency to over-estimate self-importance.

Create physical space.

Once we successfully create space in our schedules and surroundings, we are better positioned to explore our mental space. The basis of our human experience is spacious awareness. We usually don’t recognise this during our daily routine. When we clear things away, however, we can tap into this awareness, helping us understand our state of being. Mindfulness and meditation are specific techniques one may use to guide this understanding. However, one cannot properly use these tools unless we create the necessary space. When we are too busy, don’t write things down, have too many deadlines, our minds become cluttered. We are constantly lost in thought. We are not in control. This is how we spend most of our waking lives. The problem is that during our waking lives we are not truly awake to our most fundamental state of consciousness. Creating space gets us closer.

Create mental space.

Sorry. Not sorry.

Has someone ever demanded an apology from you? Have you demanded one from someone else? Have you refused to forgive someone?

I am willing to bet you have experienced all three. You’re not alone. But, the way most of us think about apologies and forgiveness is wrong.

Apologies and forgiveness are not for the person receiving them, they are for the one issuing them. How can this be so when your experience indicates that it feels good to receive an apology, and that it feels especially good, to your guilty conscience, to be forgiven? The problem is the narrative that for you to feel better, someone else must do something. Since the actions of others are outside of your control, this sets you up for conflict and unnecessary suffering.

When a transgression occurs, it cannot un-occur. Something happened, someone got hurt. Both parties feel bad, but for different reasons. If the transgressor feels guilty or ashamed, they may tell themselves they cannot shed these negative emotions until they are forgiven. Depending on the nature and magnitude of the transgression, they could be waiting a long while. Conversely, the hurt party may feel justified in carrying anger and resentment until they hear the almighty, “I’m sorry.” Until then, they shall keep their assailant locked securely in a shame cage. This strategy perpetuates suffering for both.

Worse yet, if someone believes they are entitled to an apology, and goes so far as to demand one, they will either receive a begrudgingly insincere version, or none at all. They have layered on the egocentric accelerant of pride to the smouldering conflict.

How do you avoid unnecessarily prolonging the pain in these situations? First, accept that no matter what you think, say, or do, you do not control the perceptions or responses of others. I cannot emphasize this point enough. Do not make your feelings contingent upon what another person says or does. This is much harder to enact than it sounds, but is a crucial step toward overall well-being, as you navigate relationships.

An apology means taking responsibility for your actions and their outcomes. Everything you do potentially impacts others, intentionally or not. You must be aware of and accept this. By owning your actions, you can sincerely issue the, “I’m sorry,” which is an empathic expression of regret. Apologizing, when you haven’t taken responsibility or don’t feel the other party is justifiably hurt, is no apology at all. It is an insincere placation meant to protect your own ego. Finally, by insightfully learning from your experiences, the apology will naturally extend to thoughts of how to prevent this outcome from happening again.

This is a constructive and positive approach. You cannot change what happened, nor should you dwell on its negative impact. Instead you should own it and turn your sights to bettering the future. This approach does not, however, guarantee a positive response from your counterpart. How should they respond?

When someone wrongs you, the best response is to forgive them as soon as possible. Do not mire yourself in how things could or should have gone differently. It’s done! You certainly should not wait for an apology, let alone demand one. How self-indulgent that would be. Instead, take stock of what happened and how this might change the course of the future relationship with this person. Consider intent, magnitude of the damage, and the relationship’s relative importance. Interestingly it seems most difficult to forgive those closest. Higher stakes, I suppose.

Nevertheless, as with our apologizer, you ought to be future-oriented. Move on from this event, with or without an apology in hand. This allows ridding yourself of unnecessary negative emotions. This is so even for the most minor transgressions. Through forgiveness, you give yourself permission to move on. The result of this choice liberates you to stay present, inwardly unscathed, outwardly strong and accepting. This choice, however, will come neither easily nor naturally. Reciprocity is the default when harmed, but it can be overcome.

Keep this philosophy in mind the next time you find yourself on either end of an incident where an apology or forgiveness are on order. Given the complexities of our relationships with others, it won’t be long!

Be well.

The Vacation Fallacy – Part 2

In wonderfully coincident timing, the Farnam Street Blog recently published a piece (click here) on how to think about your travel experiences. Their thesis aligns with mine (confirmation bias alert) in that vacation should be used as an opportunity to experience the diversity of the world and promote different perspectives. In keeping with their theme of mental models, they propose two ways of thinking:

1) Algebraic equivalence – realizing that different approaches can sum to the same value. Different cultures may have different definitions for things you take for granted. For example, some cultures place less emphasis on working life than we do in Canada. They may feel that other factors are more important to lead the meaningful and successful life we all seek. Experiencing this can be powerful enough to make you re-evaluate your own relationship with work and the meaning it creates for you.

2) Galilean Relativity – altering your point of reference, allowing you to make new observations. By getting outside of your routine environment, you are bound to notice new things about how societies, nature, transit, etc., operate. Gaining new perspectives and insights is one of the highlights of the travel experience.

They conclude their article with a few recommendations to help us get the most out of travel. These include journaling, not over-planning, deliberate goal setting, and having a growth mindset. All great advice! I encourage you to check it out.

Be kind. Be curious. Be useful. And create.

My children are too young to have nuanced conversations about philosophies of life. Yet, I often think about the type of advice we should be giving them on how to live a meaningful life. While they may not recognize advice for what it is, at this point, I am mindful that we are already modeling the values and behaviours we believe most important. The result of my thinking on this is a simple and foundational list of recommendations:

Be kind. Be curious. Be useful. And create.

I see this as both a starting and ending point. Before starting anything, if you commit to being kind, curious, and useful, you will stand to make the most of it. When you’ve come to the end of a project or phase of life, no matter the outcome, and you can honestly say that you were kind, curious, useful, and that you created something, then you have succeeded. 

Be kind.

Kindness is giving others the benefit of the doubt, listening to their stories, or stepping in when help is needed. We are dependent on so many people for so many things, but often take this for granted. Everyone has a story when the kindness of a loved one, neighbour, or stranger helped them in a time of need. No reciprocation expected. We are at our best when we have mutual respect for one another. We shed the weight of suspicion, hate, unnecessary competition.  When we are kind, we allow others to flourish. We grow along with them. It starts early with our children. They see how we treat others. We must show them and tell them what it means to be kind.

Be curious.

One of the great joys of being human is our ability to learn. Children embody this for us. They have an incredible sense of wonder. A deep desire to explore everything. My four-year-old asks questions that I don’t know how to answer. “Why do we dream?” “Where does the wind come from?” What an amazing opportunity to learn together. This never has to stop. But it does. Something happens in adulthood. We become entrapped by the lives we have created for ourselves, with rigid schedules and rules. There’s no time to explore. But we must. Our children need to see the same joy in us, when we learn something new, that they experience themselves. Education, innovation, and progress depend on our insatiable curiosity. 

Be useful.

To live in a vibrant and productive society we need people to put skills into action. Look around you. Everywhere you go there is evidence of peoples’ work. Children need to have this pointed out. How was our house built? Who put these roads here? How does that airplane fly in the sky? The answer, in each case, involves people coming together to do useful things for our mutual benefit. At some point, our children will have to decide where to focus their efforts. This will depend on their natural and learned abilities over time. We must help them know that there are more ways to contribute than one can think of. But above all, whatever you do, be sure that it’s useful. When we do something useful, we know that our work is valued and that we have given back to the society on which we depend. 

And create.

Note that I have not said “Be creative.” I believe when people think of creativity as something that you are, rather than what you do, their view quickly narrows to the arts. While the arts are a beautiful manifestation of what people can produce, we can also create in other ways. Create friendship and community. Create love. Create joy. Create suspense. Create a new perspective. Create a car out of Lego. The possibilities are truly endless. The only limit is imagination, and our children should be encouraged to use theirs’ extensively. The peak of human achievement is when we have created something, together, that generations before would never have thought was possible. This is the power of humanity and a pillar of our sense of meaning and fulfillment. 

These recommendations work together. Being kind forges strong relationships and opens doors before you. Curiosity brings you to the brink of what has not yet been created. Being useful develops your skills to contribute to the progress of society. Creating something for others brings us together and moves us forward. 

If you’re looking for advice to give your children on how to be, I hope you find these simple recommendations of use. Discuss it with them. Model it for them. Grow together.