Changing Perspectives

Any student of the philosophy of life will eventually come across a small book of quotes called, Meditations, by the second century CE Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius. He was a strict military general who was schooled in Stoic Philosophy and reluctantly took on the mantle of imperial power. I grew up with the idea that Stoic Philosophy was of the ‘stiff upper lip’ variety: take what you get and make the best of it. Sounds like a rather dull way of life and it is no wonder that the boisterous cult of Dionysius had a much greater following. However, the Stoics, much of which we know from the writings of Aurelius, had a very down-to-earth, self-sufficient approach to life. I am enjoying Meditations as well as works of others in this vein of philosophy.

Recently I was presented with the following quote:

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Each an every day we are faced with challenges. Sometimes they are somewhat trivial, such as what to wear or where to dine. Other times we must face far more critical moments, such as the decision I recently took to help my 17 year old dog cross over the rainbow bridge. The actual moment of decision is momentary. I pick this shirt, that restaurant and that veterinary. It’s the after effects of carrying through a decision that has the power to cause me pain or distress. I might question my judgement, or wonder about what might have happened had I taken another tack. All of my pain and distress at that moment is completely internal, ricocheting around in my mind. None of my mental vacillations will change an outcome or a decision. And yet I still allow myself to be haunted by them.

Aurelius’ quote reminds me that I don’t have to let these things bother me. I have the power to let the pain and distress go and move forward. I can make the decision to stop questioning myself. I can ‘revoke’ it because it is all in my head and nowhere else. I have the power to replace my thinking with another topic. I am reminded of the saying, ‘Someday we’ll laugh about this,’ when something in life goes terribly wrong. If there is a funny side to what happened, then I don’t have to cry about it: it is within my power to laugh about it now. It takes a change in perspective. I have that much control over my life.

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Sometimes things happen that we have no control over. For example, someone cuts me off in traffic. I might lean on the horn, flip a certain finger to the driver and proceed to get extremely angry about the whole incident. I can rant on about ignorant slobs on their phones, young drivers, old drivers or other charged slurs to whomever might or might not be listening. Again, all of the distress I feel is internal. I can change my perspective. In this instance, I can remember not to take this personally. The other driver probably didn’t see me for whatever reason. This was not an attack on me. It was not done to purposely startle me. I can remember that I too have been the person who cut off another driver in traffic. Only someone who has never been behind the steering wheel has a perfect driving record. I may not be able to stop the initial response. It’s a part of the ‘flight or fright’ autonomic nervous system. However, I do have the power within me to let it go, to ‘revoke’ the power of the distress I feel.

Perhaps there was a childhood trama or other injustice that occurred to you and that you had no control over. You may choose to mourn the loss of innocence and relive the incident in all of its shocking detail over and over in your mind. But the venom in your soul won’t affect the transgressor with the slightest indigestion. Or, you may begin the process of healing by no longer resisting what happened. Accept that it happened and realize that you can diminish the present pain by realizing that it is stopping you from moving forward and growing in life. Forgiveness of others is not pardoning them; it is accepting that mistakes, sometimes extremely grave ones, were made but that you will no longer allow those mistakes to affect and distress your life. You do not have to give the power over what you feel and think to an aggressor. Take it back. Move forward.

In his book, Man’s Search For Meaning, Viktor Frankl wrote very candidly about his interment in a Nazi concentration camp. He credited his survival to an attitude that his torturers might be able to take everything away from him, denigrate and abuse him in every way possible, but they could not take away his free will. He chose to keep a positive attitude and find meaning and understanding in his desperate situation. We do not have to suffer the indignities that Frankl did in order to make the decision to take control over our own destiny.

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This is your life. You own it. You have the power to create whatever you want with it. This is the ultimate gift of free will that we receive upon our birth. We all have the power to change our view, our perspective. Playing the role of victim and powerless pawn of others is a choice; so is being the captain of your own ship and charting your own course. If you have never done this before, deciding to revoke your distress will be strange, and challenging. Start small. It’s not recommended that you change everything at once. You have time. Trust the process of your life and where you wish to sail.

Becoming Extraordinary!

What makes a life extraordinary? Do you have to find a cure for cancer? End social conflict? Start a new company that will benefit millions? I suppose it depends upon who you are and what you wish to accomplish with your life. People like Richard Branson, Oprah Winnfrey or Elon Musk have made incredible changes in the world around us. Their net worth is certainly much higher than mine yet, they had the same or even less advantages in life than I have had. How are they different from me? Why am I not being driven in a Lincoln Towncar or jetting to meet friends at my private island in the Caribbean?

There’s a common thread in people who are leading extraordinary lives. They have, from an early age, declared that they ‘want something different’. They were not going to be satisfied with the status quo: theirs was going to be a different type of life than the examples around them. None of them knew where they were going to be twenty, ten or even one year down the road, but they were willing to try options that those around them didn’t or wouldn’t even consider trying.

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From an early age extraordinary people, seek something different and are usually encouraged and supported in their efforts by someone significant in their lives, and a poor role model can motivate as much as a positive one. Most don’t possess a superior intellect, or go to the best schools. Most of them have what we would call an average life in average home with nothing to really differentiate them from their peers except for one thing: a rebel spirit.

Most of these people possess a nature that encourages them to go beyond what is expected of them. It may be a desire for more, a personal vision that goes beyond the usual opportunities that surround them. Extraordinary people are risk takers. Their rebellious souls aren’t content to follow in the shadow of parents or other role models. They want something different. They are the ones who strike out on their own and dance their own dance in life. What others think doesn’t bother them. They see many of the ‘rules of life’ as bullshit rules and refuse to follow them, and they don’t really care what others think about what they are doing. They follow the beat of their own drum and accept the inherent risks involved in this journey.

Dwyer Manufacturing

I don’t have to look far afield to see this in action, and to be honest it wasn’t until I started writing this article that I came to realize that my brother is just such a person. While I grew up being the ‘best little boy possible’, he began life a rebel. Pushing boundaries was part of his character as was pushing our parents patience to limit. They were just happy that he stayed in high school for four years even though he didn’t earn enough credits to graduate. He took to the skills that he enjoyed and continued to learn from his work experience until he had enough of working for others and struck out on his own. Today he runs a successful manufacturing business that employs eight to ten people, depending on the workload. In addition, he has a wonderful family and is eagerly awaiting the opportunity to spoil his first grandchild. He broke out of the mold of those around him and followed his own path.

Becoming extraordinary doesn’t mean that one gains fame. It is setting one’s own boundaries and rules. It is saying I want something different in life. Most of us follow the well worn paths in life and don’t venture too far from the norms of conventionality. For others though, this is not enough. They say to themselves things like: I will do things in my own way; I will try new things and keep on moving myself forward; if I screw up, then I learn from it and try something else. And there is no guarantee that being extraordinary will ensure success as defined by most: monetary wealth. However, their wealth comes in a plethora of incredible life experiences, great relationships and an enjoyment of life. They don’t ‘retire’ but continually move forward to savour whatever life puts before them right until the end.

The Matrix

Extraordinary people don’t opt for the blue pill and go along following the rules. No, they take the red pill and open themselves up to possibilities. This doesn’t mean that only the rebel can be extraordinary. We all have that within us, but I think it takes more of an effort to learn to live a life with more risk, trials and change. For some of us it takes becoming so miserably uncomfortable in our ‘comfort zone’ that we have to make changes. I think for the rebel, it the excitement of the risk and the challenge; the carrot, if you will. For the rest of us it is often the stick: being so beaten up by the present situation that a move to unfamiliar situations becomes a better option. In the end, the choice to be extraordinary is up to me.

The Creative Journal

Writing is part of my daily ritual. I wake up at 6 am. It’s not that early here. In the tropics, the length of day doesn’t change much between the solstices, so there’s plenty of daylight year round at this hour. I set the water to boil, prepare the filter and grounds for coffee and sit out on the deck while I wait. Here I say an opening greeting to the day and enjoy the quiet for a few minutes until the water boils. I make my coffee and I sit down to my writing.

I took up writing first thing in the morning about five years ago. It began while reading a book on developing creativity: “The Artist’s Way”, by Julia Cameron. In this text, which is part course, part workbook and part inspiration, she suggests that everyone write their ‘morning papers’. Here one can jot down thoughts, ideas, plans, a description of last night’s dreams, or vent on an issue and get it all out. She suggests to the reader that writing three pages of handwritten script every day is one of the best practices to increase creativity levels.

I admit I haven’t always been faithful to the practice. Some days, there’s a change in how need to plan my morning. Other days I get immediately involved in something and I forget. Once in a while I don’t think I have time (because I turned off the alarm and suddenly it was 7:30!) And until a few months ago, I had dropped the practice completely for almost a year.

I am grateful that I was inspired to return to the daily writing. It does a number of things for me. First and foremost for me, writing sets a good tone for the day. Rather than pop into social media or the news, I pop into myself. I am present with the now. I write about what I am thinking. I write about my challenges. I write about what I love and what I hate. I write about what I would prefer for the future. Sometimes it is philosophical, sometimes spiritual and sometimes it’s a rant from a seven year old kid complaining that things aren’t going the way that he wants them to go. It’s all over the place. And that’s okay. I write what is and try to be non-judgmental about it all.

Second, journal writing helps me to bring things into perspective. Those unassailable problems of life suddenly deflate to their proper size when I write about them. What has been a tornado of thoughts in my head about what is happening around me suddenly calms down into a few sentences that I can review and realize, ‘This is all it really is?’ Suddenly the problem becomes manageable because I know what it actually is: I’ve given the problem definition and thereby a way to find a solution.

Third, morning papers allow me to explore. I’m able to explore new ideas and thoughts about how things work, about what happened yesterday and why I reacted as I did. Exploration may entice me look later for articles or videos on a subject. They give me permission to go deeper into a subject that, honestly, I know I won’t do if I don’t set aside the time.

Gratuitous doggie photo.

The 45 or 50 minutes that it takes usually flies by, but some mornings it is like pulling teeth to think about something and I end up by describing what the dogs are doing or what I need to buy at the grocery store. And that’s okay too. I have learned that I need to be faithful to the practice and that what I am writing doesn’t have to be perfect. I can be patient with myself as well. It very rare for me to even look back over old entries. I just need to get this stuff out and down on paper. And when I start writing the date at the top of the page, I never have any idea how it’s going to end when I finish that day’s entry.

As for the benefits of this morning writing? It allows me to start the day and choose the direction I want it to go in. If I start with some negative stuff, I can end it with some positive stuff. I always end with a statement about something for which I am grateful to have in my life. I have made some good insights into myself and life while writing. Not all earth shattering, but important to me and in the coming day.

Journal writing, creative or otherwise, may not be for everyone, but I still challenge you to take the time to do a bit more research on this subject before you discard it completely. There are many ways of working a journal and morning writing, everything from just jotting down points to full on grammar and punctuation perfect. Whatever works for you. After a short while, I know you will be glad you started.