“…it is not men’s acts which disturb us, for those acts have their foundation in men’s ruling principles, but it is our own opinions which disturb us.” Marcus Aurelius Meditations Chapter 11
Yes, this is the very same quote from my last post. You know, the post where I talked about all the terrible things that can happen to you, and how imagining how bad things can get can help you through times that are rough, but aren’t quite so bad as you can imagine? In that post, I talked about how events in and of themselves are neither good nor bad, but rather our impressions are what makes them so.
Today though, I ponder how I should handle those events that are generally considered good. What if things are going great in your opinion? Most of the time, things aren’t so bad. Truth be told, a lot of the time things are actually going pretty good for me. Sometimes, things are absolutely fantastic! During these times, shouldn’t I remember that it is my impressions of those things external that make them good or bad? Well, of course! But why?
Does my Stoic outlook and my Zen non-attachment dull my joy? If I am always aware that reality is illusory, will it calm some of my ecstasy? Does it dampen my pride, when my son gets straight A’s? Does it make me more “matter of fact” at my daughter’s wedding? Do I celebrate less when I land my dream job? Will this attitude make it less satisfying if I have a really good year in the stock market? In short, the answer to all of these questions is basically “yes.” I will be honest, being aware of how my impressions are really what determines whether an event is good or bad, keeps me down just a little. BUT [dramatic pause], It provides perspective…and that is not bad.
I recently read The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. In it the author, Oliver Burkeman, presented the ancient term of memento mori. In English, this term means “remember that you will die.” He relates the story of the great Roman Generals who, as legend would have it, upon returning from victorious battle and during their victory processions, would have a slave follow them and repeat this phrase over and over again to them: memento mori, remember that you will die! This served as a warning to the ancient warrior not to get too high on his horse. We shall all end the in the same place, dead. Do we really need a slave to remind us of this? I don’t think so. With practice and awareness, we can remind ourselves.
I do have joy when things go my way, but I also try to remember that this all happens according to nature. Moreover, I never really know if fortune is truly good or bad (see The Maybe Story). A common example are the stories of those who win the lottery and find that there lives are no happier. In fact, such “good fortune” actually brought more trouble for them. What about the stories of those who met the love of their life AFTER and BECAUSE they were jilted by their previous love? (I’ve recently heard two such stories from friends)
Good or bad fortune? Be careful about your impressions.
For me, mindfulness of the transitory, impermanent nature of things, and remembering that I too shall die, brings great appreciation of the present moment…especially when things are going well. Being mindful of my impressions helps me relish the blessings I have in the moment. All that happens, good and bad, shall happen as is destined and inevitable. So, when fortune goes my way, I appreciate it all the more, and with perspective. This is a special kind of happiness. Granted, it’s not the ecstatic, elated kind, but it’s a peaceful, tranquil kind. Will things get worse? Probably at some point, but I shall not worry about that at this moment (besides, they might get better too). For now, I can rest easy.
This awareness of my impressions and their effects, has left my life with more rolling hills lately, rather than the skyrockets and cliff dives of emotion I had when I was younger. I find it more satisfying, and it leaves me more content. It’s a deeper joy, with the benefit of having a reserve of strength and perspective for the struggles as well.