Simple Way to Avoid a Heart Attack, Roman Style

“Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each particular thing, ask what is it in itself?  What is its nature?” – Silence of the Lambs

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So, if I’m reading this right, I’m not supposed to stress out the alligators?  I’m not supposed to stress out the 400 pound armored killing machine?  Okay, getting right on that.

I ran across a health article about heart disease the other day by an actual medical doctor, not an amateur Civil War surgeon like me (Motto:  Splinter in your toe?  Amputate.).  Dr. Mercola’s theory was simple, that stress causes inflammation which causes the damage that kills you.  Here’s a link to his article (LINK).  Now this article was on a political site, so it wasn’t even related to the main focus of the site, but I read the article and immediately thought of you Internet.  And also me, since I was looking for something to write about today.

It just might be that stress is a problem for you that actually might kill you.  It also just so happens that I have a 2000 year old solution for you – all bright and shiny since I dug it up in my backyard last night:

“Your present opinion founded in understanding, your present conduct directed to good, and your present contentment with everything that results.  That’s enough.” – Marcus Aurelius, Mediations 9.6

Okay, okay, you say, it’s John Wilder Talking About Dead Romans Again.  And you’re right.  Because they were ever so much more like us than you might imagine.  Marcus Aurelius was a Stoic.  And he was also Emperor.  The book he wrote, Meditations, was just that.  His thoughts that he meditated on.  He wasn’t writing it for us, he was writing it to sort out his own thoughts and feelings.

Yeah, a Roman Emperor, able to command power few before or since ever had – King, President, Pope, and General all rolled up into one – had to work out his thoughts.  This makes sense, because Marcus was the last of the Five Good Emperors (spoiler alert) and thought himself something of a philosopher.  It’s like Vladimir Putin took time out of his busy schedule of wrestling bears while shirtless and dating Olympic gymnasts to attempt to deeply study and understand a philosophy of living that directly worked towards the quote from Marcus, up above.

But the quote above encapsulates in just a simple two sentences the core of the Stoic philosophy.  Let’s look at how it can help you reduce stress.

“Your present opinion founded in understanding . . .”

If I were to take liberties, I would re-write that one, “Your present opinion founded in truth.”

Dealing with reality was the core of the philosophy – that’s why it came first.  And if you are dealing with truth, you’re dealing in certainty.  You’re not lying to yourself.

“your present conduct directed to good . . .”

So, you’ve studied and know the truth.  Now you have the opportunity to turn your work towards the good.  You’re doing the right thing, the right way.

“and your present contentment with everything that results.”

You did the right thing for the right reasons.  You have purpose, clarity, and are taking positive action.  And, the best part?  You don’t have to win to win.  Whatever happens, happens.  If it didn’t work?  You tried.  Be content.  If it did work?  Great!  This is a formula for a low stress life.  The Stoics got to the core of it – things have meaning because we place meaning on them.  We think that the world should be a series of results, instead of a series of truthful opinions and actions directed toward good outcomes.

What happens, happens.

I know this is hard, because every day when I try to divorce myself mentally from the outcome of an action that I’ve taken, and just be cool when it didn’t work out the way I wanted it to work out.  The worst part?  When I get upset about something that didn’t go my way . . . that didn’t even matter.

Perspective that I need to remember.  Most things don’t matter – at all.

Back to Marcus:

Marcus Aurelius had a really, really awful son.  Commodus.  So bad Commodus’ wife poisoned him.  So bad that Commodus’ best friend strangled him.  So bad that they had Joaquin Phoenix play Commodus in Gladiator.  Did Marcus have a clue that Commodus would be so awful?  Probably.  But he did everything he could.  And his book has reached across centuries to us.

So, he did the right thing for the right reasons.  And it worked.

After a fashion.  To quote Marcus again:  “That’s enough.”

John Wilder is not a doctor.  Go see your doctor before you take medical advice from a blog written in a basement . . . .

The Chinese Farmer, Kipling, Marcus Aurelius, and You

“I’ve come back. Give me a drink, Brother Kipling. Don’t you know me?” – The Man Who Would Be King

Rudyard_Kipling_(portrait)

Kipling in 1895.  Good heavens, what a handsome mustache!  No wonder the English ruled most of the world – any group that can create such handsome whiskers deserves to run the place.

I first heard this from a friend in 2002 or so . . . there were several of us that would get together to talk about ideas and concepts, and one of the participants told this story:

There is an old Chinese story about a farmer.  One night, there was a terrible storm.  The wind blew so hard, it opened up his corral, and his horses got out.

“Bad luck!” said his friends.

“Good luck, bad luck.  Who can say?” replied the farmer.

The next week, his horses, lonely for home, came back.  But while they were loose, they got in with a group of wild horses.  The wild horses came home with them.  The farmer now had twice as many horses.

“Good luck!” said his friends.

“Good luck, bad luck.  Who can say?” replied the farmer.

A wild horse is good to no one, so the farmer’s son began to work on breaking the horses.  Most of them were no problem, but one particularly fierce horse bucked the farmer’s son off.  The farmer’s son broke his leg.

“Bad luck!” said his friends.

“Good luck, bad luck.  Who can say?” replied the farmer.

The next week, the Emperor, having decided to go off to war due to a very dangerous threat against the empire, marched with his troops through the farmer’s town.  They called up in a draft all of the able bodied young men to accompany them to war.  The farmer’s son could not go – his leg was broken.

I think you can see where this is going.

But the story does stop there (thankfully!), though you see that it could keep going indefinitely, probably ending up with the farmer’s son constructing an evil robot army to enslave the human race that ends up saving us instead by stopping the invasion of the mole people from below South Carolina.  Oops!  I think that’s the plot of the sequel to Pacific Rim.

pacific rim

Source:  Uproxx, by porkythefirst

Despite my firm belief in the power of self-determination, even I’ve got to admit that sometimes you just have no idea how an action will impact your future – what will the result be of a decision you make today.  Opposite effects aren’t unknown.

For example, brush your teeth every day in order to keep them longer, right?  Well, at one point they used abrasives in toothpaste in order to scrub off that yellow tint that evolves over time.  Unfortunately, over time you weren’t brushing your teeth – you were sanding them down to nubs.

That’s an extreme example, but here’s another:

You work really hard at your job.  You’re smart, and come up with innovations to make things work a little bit better.  Your boss notices, but so does his boss.  Rocket ship to the top, right?  I mean, at least a promotion?

No.  Your boss is lazy and scared that he’ll lose his job.  The last thing they want to see is you breaking the curve at work.  He is now focused on . . . . getting rid of you.  Again, the opposite of what you’d expect, and the opposite of what your work merits.

Which brings me to this:

If

by Rudyard Kipling

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too.
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster,
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make a heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

I am an unapologetic Kipling fan.  And in this poem is more good philosophy than you’ll find anywhere.  Well, anywhere but here.

At a certain point, you realize that you’re not going to be a trillionaire.  Or even a billionaire.  You have to settle for what you’ve done and not feel regret that you’ve not transformed the world entirely.  In reading history, it wasn’t just one of the best poets ever to live who understood that, but also, over a thousand years earlier people understood it.

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”  Pretty cool statement.  From?  A frigging Roman Emperor, Caesar Marcus Aurelius.  I’ve mentioned him before.  His book, Meditations was something he wrote for himself.  He didn’t write it for other people to read to see what a smarty-pants he was.  No, these were his private thoughts.

And as Caesar, he had more power than most people on Earth have ever had.  And he still worried about stuff.  He worried about doing a good job.  His back hurt him.  He worried that he wasn’t being a good dad (he wasn’t – his son was horrible and was destined to be played by Joaquin Phoenix – a curse of history).

But Marcus, the unnamed Chinese farmer, and Rudyard all had it tuned into the same thing – we can’t understand exactly what the outcome will be.  We can only go out there and do our best – break the horse, fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds of distance run, or do our best to run the most complex civilization ever devised.

So, today’s your day.  Go out there, and run as hard as you can.  Maybe, just maybe, one day you can have a mustache that will rival Kipling . . . .

Seneca, Stoics, Money and You

“My heart attack didn’t kill me, so why act like it did?  See, Tim, it was the Roman philosopher Seneca who said “if we let things terrify us, then life is not worth living.” –  Home Improvement

seneca

Seneca could definitely use a makeover, but would probably be the last person who cares about a makeover, since he’s willing to be dead and made of marble.

Source- I, Calidius CC-BY-SA-3.0  via Wikimedia Commons

What is stoicism, and why does it matter for your money?

From Wikipedia’s definition of Stoicism . . . “the path to happiness for humans is found in accepting this moment as it presents itself, by not allowing ourselves to be controlled by our desire for pleasure or our fear of pain, by using our minds to understand the world around us and to do our part in nature’s plan, and by working together and treating others in a fair and just manner.”

What on Earth does that have to do with money?

Everything.

Let me explain . . . with a story I’ve used before:

When I was young, we had a subscription to Reader’s Digest (which, really, might have been influenced by the CIA for a time – google it).  For those that haven’t heard about it, it’s where they take articles (and even books!) and edit out the boring bits and republish them.  It’s like someone printed a tiny bit of the Internet.

Pop Wilder always said, “I can read my own articles and decide what’s important.”

And yet?  I always found an issue of Reader’s Digest in the bathroom that only he and I used, and I know that I wasn’t carting them in there.

But in Reader’s Digest they had features as well as the articles, one of which was “Laughter is the Best Medicine.”  In it were nice, clean stories that were, well, funny.  Some of them were even taken from real life.  My favorite was about a five year old girl and her eight year old brother.

They were playing in the backyard (which kids used to do prior to the Internet).  The boy was holding a tin can on top of the little girl’s head and smacking it with a rock.

Mother:  “Tommy, what ARE you doing????”

Little Girl:  “Mommy, it’s okay.  He’s almost done.”

I keep coming back to that image.  It’s like life.

Sometimes the problems we go through are pointless.  Sometimes they are downright silly.  Life keeps smacking a rock into the top of your head.  And when it stops, you feel so good.

Another example:

A friend of mine went through Army Ranger School (a long time ago).  There were two out of their class that passed.  Two.  The other guy was a chaplain.  The last ordeal had been an extended duration hike with little food.  They had survived.  They had made it back to base.  But . . . it was five hours until they would be released from training, and couldn’t go to mess hall (cafeteria) to eat.

They climbed into a dumpster.  They found Doritos® covered with ants.  They brushed the ants off and ate the Doritos™.

His thoughts?  “Best Doritos© I’ve ever eaten in my life.”

And this relates back to money, too.

Seneca was a Roman.  I use the word “was” because he’s dead.  Nero ordered Seneca to kill himself (spoiler, Seneca totally did kill himself) back in moldy old 65 A.D. (Not “Common Era” but good old Anno Domini).

Seneca was rich.  How rich?  Rich enough that he could have purchased six hundred million loaves of bread.  And that didn’t count his real estate, which included at least six Sonic® drive-ins and three strip malls in Omaha.

I’m not even sure where I would put six hundred million loaves of bread.  Certainly my pantry would fill up after 2 million or so.  But outside of bread (food), the man had a lot of bread (money).  And thought a LOT about it.

Seneca:  “He is a great man who uses clay dishes as if they were silver; but he is equally great who uses silver as if it were clay.”

In the end, a dish is a dish, and as long as it comes out of the dishwasher without last night’s Kraft® Garfield® Macaroni and Cheese, well, deal with it.

And a car is a car.  I went to a stand-up comedian one night with a friend, his wife, and a blind date. (Yes, this is you, Chris – the friend, not the blind date).  The comedian was making a joke about cars.  The reason, he thought, that we had so many traffic fatalities was that we didn’t make cars out of Nerf® stuff.

He looked, from the stage, down at me.

“You sir, you look like you drive a big-ass truck.”

Me:  “No, it’s a Toyota® Tercel™.”

Him, loudly into a microphone with everyone in the room listening:  “Well, you must be the world’s BIGGEST pussy.”

Needless to say, the blind date ended right there since I didn’t go and beat him up.  And, yes, I probably should have answered “yes” when he asked if I drove a truck.  But . . . like Seneca, a car to me is  . . . just a car.  The first virtue of a thing is in its utility.  Does it do the job?  Sometimes duct tape is the proper solution.

From the standpoint of a Stoic, even a wickedly rich one like Seneca, taking pride in personal possessions was to be looked down upon.  And, yes, his wife had earrings that cost more than a house.  And he had solid silver nose hair trimmers.  And we know this because he wrote about them.  But, did he care?  I don’t think so.  He bought the stuff because he could, not because the stuff had power over him.  I’m certain that he understood that he didn’t own the “stuff” but just had it until he died, so it had no power over him.

But we let stuff have power over us.  Does the neighbor have a nicer car?  Do they have a better stereo?  It’s normal, natural to envy that.  It’s totes Stoic if you go, “good for you!” and not want to go and buy an even better car because you’re good with the one you have.

When I was in Houston I would be stopped at a traffic light, surrounded by cars much nicer than my 2006 Ford® Taurusdadcar™.  And I would wonder how many of them owned their car.  And I wonder how much heartache was caused by that REALLY BADASS Mercedes® next to me when monthly payment time came around.  And, truthfully?  If it was being driven during work hours by a girl, I wondered how long she’d be with her husband after the money ran out.

So, for me?  Being Stoic about the stuff I own is a sanity preserver.  If I had to worry that The Mrs. would leave me if I didn’t have an awesome car, or, honestly, cared at all about what my neighbors thought, life would have a stress it doesn’t need at all.

But Seneca went further.  He said, get rich all you want, but don’t do it in a way that’s “stained by blood.”  My interpretation?  You got you money honestly, without forcing it out of other people.

How does this play out?  Well, let’s look at . . . Obama phones.  Regardless of how you feel about them, the money that comes to purchase them, and to provide monthly service is forcefully taken from others.  Don’t think that it’s forceful?  Try not paying your taxes and then you’ll learn that the IRS is not your benevolent aunt who bakes cookies.  Unless your aunt works for the IRS.  In which case, please tell me the rule on deductibility of capital losses from a prior year against current year capital gains.  Just kidding, I use TurboTax®, which is probably nicer to me than your aunt.

I digress.  But I think Seneca would think it was wrong to take money from one person (me) without their consent to give to another (Obama phone users) and taking a cut in the middle.  It’s wrong.  Unfortunately, it’s our government’s current business model (LINK) and Elon Musk’s (LINK).

Last?  Seneca thought you should be generous.  Bill Gates is certainly living up to that, shooting money out like a lawn sprinkler at causes he likes.  And I tip well at the restaurant.

But the biggest danger of generosity?  It has to be moral.  Give a man money and he will take it.  But he will resent you, because you didn’t give him more.

Let a man (or, I guess we let women earn money nowadays, and even own property and vote) earn money?  That will provide both support for him (or her or it, whatever the cool kids say nowadays) and self-worth.  So, generosity is good.  Charity is corrosive.

The really cool thing about being a stoic is realizing the beauty you can find in the weird, small bits of life that you often ignore.  The smoothness of a straw.  The stark sharpness of the edges of the clouds on a crisp winter night.  The wear marks on a keyboard you’ve typed a million words on.  The ability to take satisfaction out of nearly every experience you have is there.

If you let it.  And if Tommy will stop pounding the tin can on the top of your head with a rock for a moment.