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THE WAY TO LIVE_DOT II (YOURSELF) // CHAPTER 10
“Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.” // Marcus Aurelius
I once heard a story of a hunter who bought a bird dog, the only one of its kind in the world. This bird dog could walk on water. He couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw this miracle. At the same time, he was very pleased that he could show off his new acquisition to his friends, so he invited a friend to go duck hunting. After some time, they shot a few ducks, and the man ordered his dog to run and fetch the birds. All day long, the dog ran on water and kept fetching the birds. The owner was expecting a comment or a compliment about his amazing dog but never got one. As they were returning home, he asked his friend if he had noticed anything unusual about his dog. The friend replied, “Yes, in fact, I did notice something unusual. Your dog can’t swim.
How we perceive things is often more important than the things themselves.
What are you in control of? Really think about it. If you really spend some time on it, you’ll probably end up with three things, or some variation of them.
My thinking: The way I choose to think about anything and everything.
My attitude: The way I choose to respond to my feelings about anything and everything.
My actions: What I choose to do about anything and everything.
What can you not control?
What people think
What people think of me
How people behave
How well someone else does their job
How rude people are
Other people’s habits
Other people’s success
How well other people listen to you
How much someone behaves the way you want them to
What other people fear or find stressful
You and I only possess control of our thoughts, attitude and action. But what do we spend most of our thoughts, attitudes and actions on? What do we base our thoughts, attitudes and actions on?
If we’re honest, we would say that much of the time, we allow the list of what we can’t control to control the list we can control. Our thinking is shaped by what other people think. Our attitudes are determined by the attitudes of others, how they make us feel, or our instinctive emotional responses to what we experience. Our actions are based on what other people do or what makes us feel comfortable.
We live as if we are powerless to the things around us. Much of what we think, feel and do seems to be dictated by circumstances far beyond our control. Therefore, we feel stuck in life, not able to move forward in any meaningful way until our circumstances change. We find ourselves powerless to change our circumstances. We are who we are because of where we grew up, who are parents were, or whether our boss or teacher likes us.
We find ourselves in snowballs of negative outcomes, negative actions, negative attitudes and negative thoughts. These things build on top of each other almost infinitely. A negative thought becomes a negative attitude, a negative attitude becomes a negative action. A negative action leads to negative outcomes. How can we stop the snowball?
Begin with your thinking, your perceptions.
We are not always in control of the situations that we may find ourselves in. We are always in control of how we choose to view those situations. What makes a situation good or bad? The situation itself or your perspective of it?
“This event happened, and this event is bad” are two statements in one. “This happened” is an objective statement of fact. An event took place. “This is bad” is a subjective statement based on our perspective.
Ryan Holiday, in his book The Obstacle is the Way, uses this analogy.
Insert your life event here:
___________ happened and ___________ is good/bad.[i]
There are a lot of people who go through difficulties in life and make the statement, “This isn’t supposed to be this way.” It’s not supposed to be that way according to what? One of the easiest ways to know that you aren’t in control of a situation is if that situation isn’t the way you want it to be. Obviously, if you were in control, you would make the situation go the way you wanted. Instead of saying how a situation is “supposed to be,” it is more worth our efforts to say, “here’s how I’m going to respond to this situation.”
In psychology, this is called the framing effect. People often will make different choices based on how they perceive or see a situation presented.
How does framing work? Are you a glass half full or a glass half empty person? That is framing—how you interpret a situation presented to you.
Let’s say you need surgery, the first doctor who you speak to says that you will have a 90 percent chance of surviving the operation. The second doctor you speak with tells you that you have a 10 percent chance of dying. These are the same odds but different ways of framing them.
The situations we face in life are often not pretty, but how we decide to see them can make all the difference. The way we decide to interpret and think about what happens to us will determine our response to those things.
“Another person will not do you harm unless you wish it; you will be harmed at just that time at which you take yourself to be harmed.” // Epictetus [ii]
“It is not how the wrong is done that matters, but how it is taken.” // Seneca [iii]
This does not mean that we pretend that there is no problem or setback. It means that we choose to see the setback or problem as an opportunity to move forward. In fact, it is the only way that we can.
Robert Cumming, a distinguished art critic, stood in London’s National Gallery studying a fifteenth-century painting by Filippino Lippi. This painting - seen at the beginning of this chapter - titled The Virgin and Child with Saints Jerome and Dominic featured Mary holding the infant Jesus on her lap with Saints Dominic and Jerome kneeling nearby. Art critics like Robert Cumming were often puzzled by this painting. There could be no doubting Lippi’s skill, his use of color or composition. But the proportions of the picture seemed slightly wrong. The hills in the background seemed skewed and misplaced. Jerome and Dominic were kneeling at uncomfortable angles. Mary seemed to be staring inexplicably at the ground.
Cumming was the first art critic to realize something special about this painting. It suddenly occurred to him that the problem might be one of perspective. The painting had never been intended to come anywhere near a gallery. Lippi’s painting had been commissioned to hang in a place of prayer.
The dignified critic dropped to one knee in the public gallery before the painting. He suddenly saw what generations of art critics had missed. From his new vantage point, he found himself gazing up at a perfectly proportioned piece of art. The foreground had moved naturally to the background, while the saints settled into realistic positions. Mary now looked intently and kindly directly at him instead of the ground.
It was not the perspective of the painting that had been wrong all these years, it was the perspective of the people looking at it. The painting only came alive to those on their knees in prayer.
The first, and most important, thing you can control is your thinking. Your perspective on yourself, your life, your problems, and everything else will make things better, keep them the same or, God forbid, make them worse. Your thinking, and thus your perspective about any situation—good or bad—is the greatest predictor of the outcome of that situation. Even more than the facts of the situation. Yes, there are facts. Objectively, things do happen to us. But there are also perceptions. Subjectively, the way we think about those facts is what matters most. Not the facts themselves.
Put on glasses that have blue lenses. Now look at a lemon. What color is the lemon? It is yellow. A lemon isn’t going to change its color. But with blue-lensed glasses, the lemon looks green to us. That’s the power of your thinking, your perspective.
Growing up with a dad like mine, I don’t remember a time where I wasn’t surrounded with questions and thoughts like these. One of the questions that I heard him repeat often, and continue to hear him ask today, is: “Who taught you to think the way you think?”
Ask yourself that question. Who taught you to think the way you think? Why do you see the world the way you do? Where does your perspective come from?
Every great philosopher has a teacher. Aristotle had Plato; Plato had Socrates. Jacob had Isaac; Isaac had Abraham. One of the best steps you can take toward your life being meaningful is to find someone who can teach you how to think better.
So, who taught you to think the way that you think? Who should be teaching you to think better? Can you think better? Can you have a better perspective than the one you currently have? Of course you can. The real question is: How will you acquire it?
Another question that I’ve heard my dad ask is what he calls the “effectiveness question.” That question is simple. “How’s that working out for you?”
This is the question that we all can use to measure the effectiveness of any philosophy that we observe. Someone may be a great learner, they may have had deep and meaningful experiences, but does their life, their actions, reflect the truths they speak?
Does your personal trainer follow their same diet and exercise plan with results? Has the person who is teaching you how to parent raised great kids? Does the individual who is telling you how to treat your spouse have a great marriage?
When weighing any philosophy or way of thinking being presented, ask the effectiveness question. “How is that working out for you?”
If it is not working in the life of the teacher, it won’t work in the life of the student.
The Stoics teach us that we have the power at any moment to choose to maintain the right perspective. They say that through their own lived experiences. Zeno was shipwrecked and lost everything. Seneca was sentenced to death. Musonius Rufus was exiled from his home. Marcus Aurelius was emperor during a plague that is believed to have killed 10 percent of the Roman Empire—five million people—in a fifteen-year period. Justin Martyr became the first martyr for his faith.
But none of them allowed their negative experiences to transform their perspective negatively.
Zeno said, “I made a prosperous voyage when I suffered a shipwreck.”[iv] He founded the Stoic school that became the primary school of philosophy in the Roman Empire. Musonius Rufus was so respected that he was the only philosopher allowed in the city of Rome for a time. Marcus Aurelius is one of the five good emperors who presided over the Roman Empire’s greatest days. Justin Martyr was one of the first Christian apologists and is venerated as a saint in the Catholic Church, Anglican Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches.
It’s one thing to experience something; it’s another thing entirely to allow that experience to make you think negatively. You might not be able to control your situation, but you can control your thinking. Don’t let your thinking be ruined by your situation. This is what it means to control our thinking.
“We suffer more in imagination [perception] than reality.”// Seneca
[i] Ryan Holiday, The Obstacle is the Way (New York, NY: Portfolio, 2014).
[ii] Epictetus, Discourses and Selected Writings, ed. Robert Dobbin (London, England: Penguin Classics, 2008).
[iii] Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Moral and Political Essays, ed. J. F. Procopé (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1995).
[iv] Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman, Lives of The Stoics (Westminster, England: Portfolio Press, 2020).