In the end, all that matters is that you lived with and for virtue. Because there is only virtue. 

The final idea in my series of the 12 ideas that can change your life.

Your mind will tell you that your worth comes from without—that your value as a person is reflected in how others judge you. As such, you should always do what will increase your estimation in the eyes of others. This gets it all wrong—in multiple ways. Your worth would not come from your achievements, your status, or the admiration given to you by others. These things are beyond your control, and therefore cannot be indications of your worth.  But why do we even need to know what we are worth? Are we for sale? Do we ever get to cash in on our worth? No. ‘Self-worth’ is the wrong concept. What really matters is our virtue—how we are fulfilling our unique potential to live according to our values.

Virtue is the only thing really good in life. It is the only thing that cannot be corrupted to serve evil ends. The central idea here—the genius idea at the core of Stoic philosophy is that the purpose of our lives is to do good AND that good can only come from what is up to us. Those may sound like simple ideas, but together they are powerful. Yes, it is true that much of what happens to us is beyond our control—losses, sickness, tragedy, bad luck, faulty genes, people slandering us, betrayal, nasty relatives, natural disasters, war, and death can all happen to us—and most of these will happen to us. But these things are absolutely powerless over our virtue because they are not the product of our free choice.  This means that if you accept that the purpose of your life is to live with virtue, nothing can stop you from doing so. Living for virtue yields a kind of invincibility. 

Virtue requires living according to your values. So what are those?

No one can truly tell you what your values must be.  Others can only tell you what values hold meaning for them. The Ancient Greeks recognized four primary values:

  • Courage—the ability to endure the fear and difficulty that would stop us from achieving our goals.
  • Temperance (or self-control)—the ability to resist excesses.
  • Justice—the ability to treat the people we interact with fairly and compassionately.
  • Wisdom—the ability to make effective decisions in response to practical problems.

Now, it is up to you to define what your values are, but you could certainly do a lot worse than these four. Notice that these values provide direction in how you would try to live your life, but they are not goals unto themselves. For example, you never get to say you have achieved Self-control and can cross that off your to-do list. Alas, there is always another batch of warm cookies on the horizon. Also notice that no matter what your life circumstances—even if you are in a prison cell, exiled to a foreign land, lingering on your deathbed, or (gasp!) have to wait three minutes in line at the deli counter, it is still possible to live according to your values.

In a Nutshell: Virtue means making the most of your human potential—living according to the values you have chosen rationally. Virtue requires choice. Fate, fortune, luck, the actions of others and everything else you can’t control are irrelevant. If you choose to make virtue your purpose, nothing can ever get in your way.

How to Use This Idea:

Your task, if you choose to accept it, is to live the most excellent life you can live. There are three parts to doing this: Values Clarification, Responding to Problems, and Reviewing Your Progress.

Values Clarification. Spend some time evaluating what your values are—what you would consider the essential characteristics of a life well lived to be? One tried and true (if a tad morbid) method of doing this is to imagine your own funeral (or at least a party given in your honor years from now) and ask yourself how you would like to be described and remembered.

Responding to Problems. Whenever you encounter a problem, focus only on the part of it that you can do something about. As you consider your options, ask yourself what kind of response would be consistent with your values. If you confront a problem that you cannot do anything about, accept it, or use the classic Stoic response, “This is nothing to me.”

Reviewing Your Progress. At the end of every day (or week, or whatever timeframe works for you), think back over your actions and evaluate how well you did at living according to your values.  If you did well at something, acknowledge it, and encourage yourself to continue in that fashion. If you did something that was not in line with your values, accept that, but also recommit yourself to living according to your values going forward.

The Fine Print:

You might as well accept this now: You are never going to live according to your values, at least not perfectly. We humans are flawed creatures, capable of doing good only by constantly pushing back against our irrational tendencies. But this shouldn’t stop you. Virtue is about the journey—it’s something you move towards, slowly over time.  The ancient Stoics sometimes employed the idea of a Stoic Sage—a being who could have perfect virtue. It wasn’t that they believed that he really existed or should be worshiped.  Instead, the Sage was a useful concept, one that allowed them to ask ‘What would the Sage do’ in any given circumstance? This provided them with a model that they could seek to emulate, even though they would never attain the status of a Sage.

What This Will Help You Avoid:

A mis-lived life. Humans waste a great deal of effort obsessing on and making futile demands about what is not up to them. Making Virtue your purpose will ensure that you do not live your life focused on trivialities. By setting our sights on goals that are not up to us, we are setting ourselves up for failure. Living for attainment, achievement, wealth, or status will, for all but a lucky few, lead to a life lacking in some essential quality.

What This Will Help You Gain:

Self-Actualization. Making the most of your human potential means doing what you can to live according to your values. Over time this will lead to your flourishing.

The Source of this Idea:

This idea is old. It is the core of Stoic Philosophy, a school of thought that originated in ancient Greece and later spread to Ancient Rome. It is most associated with the philosophers Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca. My understanding of Stoic philosophy has been shaped primarily by two modern writers, William B. Irvine and Massimo Pigliucci.  Some of the treatment I gave to Values also reflects principles of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, associated with Steven Hayes. The critique of the view of self-worth given at the beginning of this post, and indeed many of the ideas that run throughout all of the 12 ideas comes directly from Albert Ellis, the creator of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT).  Ellis saw REBT as an application of ancient and modern philosophies including stoicism.

 

The Twelve Ideas That Can Change Your Life (so far)

Idea #12: In the end, all that matters is that you lived with and for virtue. Because there is only virtue.

Idea #11: You Can Do Good Work or Seek Perfection, But You Can’t Do Both

Idea #10: Your Path Will Not Be Easy. But Ease is Not Required.

Idea #9: Emotions are not your guide. Without reason they will lead you astray

Idea #8: You are not your thoughts. You are not your feelings.

Idea #7: Whenever it seems that other’s must change, accept that they don’t.

Idea #6: People Suck Sometimes. Accept Them Anyway.

Idea #5: Others will not approve. Carry on without approval.

Idea #4: The world is unjust. Live there anyway.

Idea#3: To live is to confront adversity. But to be alive is to have limitless resilience. 

Idea#2: Life is risky. Live anyway.

Idea#1: Be curious. Learn what you can, but hold lightly to your truths.

 

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People suck sometimes. Accept them anyway.

The Twelve Ideas That Can Change Your Life (Part 6)

Humans by their very nature are fallible, imperfect creatures, capable of inflicting great pain on one another. And yet they are worthy of our compassion. We can, with a little practice, develop a mindset of unconditional acceptance of others. While their behaviors may be flawed, we can still distinguish between a person’s actions and their being. Accept that others have as much right to their existence as you have to yours (and vice versa). Accept that humans—all humans—are entitled to live with dignity.

You might be asking, why? Why are all people entitled to dignity? What is dignity based on? One approach would be to consider that dignity as arising out of a person’s unique humanity. Another approach would be to consider humans as deserving of dignity simply because they have the capacity to be rational. You might see it as being an intrinsic gift of their supernatural creator. Alternatively, you can decide that dignity comes from the potential that each person has to live a life of meaning and purpose. Finally, maybe we are worthy of dignity just because we are thinking, conscious beings—tiny pieces of the universe that have woken up and can know themselves.

Seeing others as having dignity is sometimes difficult because we are often dissuaded from doing so by our tendency to evaluate their worth. We have a nasty habit of seeing others as either good and deserving or foul and deplorable. On a daily basis, we are inundated with messages about how we can improve our status and seem better than other people by collecting possessions and accomplishments—as if all of this will be added up on some end-of-life score card. But deep down we know that these things do not mean we are truly better. The whole enterprise of rating the worth of the self or others, at best, is so difficult and complex task that it is near impossible and, at worst, an affront to human dignity. Consider simply declining to rate any person as a whole but instead to grant them dignity by default.

In a Nutshell: We can respect the dignity of all people, accepting them as they are, simply because of their unique humanity.

The Fine Print:

Unconditional acceptance does not mean unconditional approval. You will certainly not approve of all human behavior. But accepting others unconditionally means that you acknowledge and respect them as individuals. You are still going to disapprove of much of their behavior. Sometimes that disapproval will be quite strong. Accepting another person doesn’t mean not condemning their actions when they are immoral. It doesn’t mean being a doormat. It doesn’t mean staying in a relationship when you are being mistreated. And it doesn’t mean not subjecting others to the law of the land. But it does mean acknowledging that they are free, capable of making their own choices.

How to Use This Idea:

You can use this idea by reflecting on the dignity, potential and good characteristics of even the most difficult people in your life. When you see someone struggling, imagine what it would be like to be in their shoes, and offer what help you can. When others disappoint you, don’t damn them. You can criticize their behavior, but avoid labeling them or calling them demeaning names (even in your own head). And don’t forget this applies to yourself as much as anyone else. Avoid labeling yourself, even if you disapprove of your own behavior. At every opportunity work towards accepting yourself as you are and others as they are.

What This Will Help You Gain:

This idea will help you gain compassion. Your connections with others will flourish when you see them as having dignity and when you respect their individuality. Love grows when we can embrace the other for who they are. On a broader scale, this idea will help you strengthen connections in your family, friendships, and community. When you apply this idea to yourself it will help you gain self-acceptance, which is an important protective factor in warding off unhealthy emotions.

What This Will Help You Avoid:

This idea will help you avoid two things, alienation, and depression. Alienation results when we lose the ability to recognize our connections with other people because we are too focused on our differences. Without having compassion and respecting the dignity of others, we will wither in isolation—humans need to be connected to a community. Depression often results when we don’t grant ourselves the same dignity—when we make global evaluations of ourselves and put conditions on what we must be.

The Source of this Idea:

Many philosophies and religions advocate some form of love towards your neighbor, and the idea of hating the sin but loving the sinner is certainly a very old notion. But this particular conceptualization comes from Albert Ellis’s writings relating to Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. Ellis advocated the idea that placing conditions on our self-acceptance brought us misery, and any external justification for our worth would be fragile, temporary, and ultimately futile. He advocated a position of “USA” (Unconditional Self Acceptance) and UOA (Unconditional Other Acceptance).

Next: Whenever it seems others must change. Accept that they don’t.

The Twelve Ideas That Can Change Your Life (So Far)

Idea #11: You Can Do Good Work or Seek Perfection, But You Can’t Do Both

Idea #10: Your Path Will Not Be Easy. But Ease is Not Required.

Idea #9: Emotions are not your guide. Without reason they will lead you astray

Idea #8: You are not your thoughts. You are not your feelings.

Idea #7: Whenever it seems that others must change, accept that they don’t.

Idea #6: People Suck Sometimes. Accept Them Anyway.

Idea #5: Others will not approve. Carry on without approval.

Idea #4: The world is unjust. Live there anyway.

Idea#3: To live is to confront adversity. But to be alive is to have limitless resilience. 

Idea#2: Life is risky. Live anyway.

Idea#1: Be curious. Learn what you can, but hold lightly to your truths.

 

The World is Unjust. Live There Anyway.

Part Four of the Twelve Ideas That Can Change Your Life.

Life requires you to accept that the world is often an unfair and unjust place.  Despite injustice, a poorly-designed society, the existence of ill-informed people, and destructive movements, you can live well in the world. The secret to doing so is to focus on your own choices and what you can control.  You do not need total control of the world around you or the people in it, you just need a small sphere of influence—a zone around you in which you can act. This zone includes everything you can do, every life that you can affect, every resource or institution you can call on, every person you can ask for help, and every movement you can lend your strength to.

One human being can do quite a bit of good. I know not everyone feels that way—injustice or unfair treatment may have reduced your sphere of influence from what it might have been, but you have a sphere of control none-the-less—even if that sphere is no bigger than a jail cell. And it’s within that sphere that you have to work to achieve your goals, to make your life better, to accomplish good, or to create what happiness you can. 

How To Use This Idea:

Continually divide problems into what you can and cannot control.  Here is a handy rule of thumb: If you can’t influence, it’s not your problem to solve.  Accept the state of everything that is outside your control and focus on what you can change.

The Fine Print:

Now, I am not saying that we should enable the world to be unjust, or to give up our efforts to make the world a better place. If there is something you can do to make the world a better place, then that is within your sphere of influence. So you don’t have to accept it, you can address it! But what I am saying is that you should not squander your energy on what is outside your influence.

Also, keep in mind that acceptance is not the same the advocating or endorsing. I accept that there is racism in the world and that for the time being, a world beyond racism is likely out of reach. But I don’t endorse it. I don’t support it. And if some little bit of it creeps into my circle of influence then it’s my job to confront it.

What This Will Help You Avoid:

Helplessness and exhaustion. The demand that we must live in a world without injustice and where everything is fair will sap all of your energy. It’s also incredibly unrealistic. All of the 107,602,707,791 people who have ever lived have had to endure living in an unfair and mostly unjust world. And for nearly all of those people, the world was savagely more unfair and unjust than our world.  Despite the contemporary injustices we face, we live in a veritable golden age of peace, prosperity, and technology that would have made our ancestors weep in awe. And yet all of those humans that came before you found a way to live out their lives—and I’d wager that most of them were able to find some way to create at least a little bit of good within their sphere of influence.

But even if you disagree with my assertion that the world is fairer and more just than ever before, that doesn’t change the crux of my argument. Even if it’s not—and even it is is considerably more unfair for you than it is for most, you can still live well and use all of your ability to affect change to create good in the world.

What This Idea Will Help You Gain:

Dedication. Giving up the idea that the world must be just will help you focus your attention on what you can do to make the world a better place. You can tend to the little patch of earth that is your Sphere of Influence. Care for what you find there. Foster growth. Make your tiny world a better place, and trust that all over the world, other people are doing the same.

This blog post draws heavily on REBT psychology (and the work of Albert Ellis) as well as ancient Stoic philosophy.

Next: Other’s Will Not Approve. Carry On Without Approval.

The Twelve Ideas That Can Change Your Life (So Far)

Idea #11: You Can Do Good Work or Seek Perfection, But You Can’t Do Both

Idea #10: Your Path Will Not Be Easy. But Ease is Not Required.

Idea #9: Emotions are not your guide. Without reason they will lead you astray

Idea #8: You are not your thoughts. You are not your feelings.

Idea #7: Whenever it seems that other’s must change, accept that they don’t.

Idea #6: People Suck Sometimes. Accept Them Anyway.

Idea #5: Others will not approve. Carry on without approval.

Idea #4: The world is unjust. Live there anyway.

Idea#3: To live is to confront adversity. But to be alive is to have limitless resilience. 

Idea#2: Life is risky. Live anyway.

Idea#1: Be curious. Learn what you can, but hold lightly to your truths.