Here we are at the end of the year once again. It’s ironic to me that sandwiched at the completion of one year and the beginning of another, we have two vastly different rituals.
On the one hand, we have Christmas, which has for too many of us, become so materialistic and gluttonous. We expect gifts and good food and overindulge in both. On the other hand, we have the “New Year, New You” mentality which promotes ambitious new resolutions in which we commit to utterly change ourselves in the upcoming twelve months (or until we abandon these inconvenient goals).
It all seems to be all so misguided. In a way, one creates the problems that the other attempts to solve.
The Stoics provide good advice here, as always. These two thousand year old, pre-Christian philosophers offer us a clearer way to live–without the ups and downs and extra helpings of self-loathing.
Let’s look at three quick insights for the holiday season:
First, practice your “contemptuous expressions.” I know contempt seems like a weird emotion to bring to Christmas but stay with me. As you look out over the bountiful offering of Christmas–the presents, the food, the lights–remind yourself what this stuff really is: a bunch of stuff. As Marcus Aurelius once wrote, sounding like he was almost describing a Christmas dinner:
“Like seeing roasted meat and other dishes in front of you and suddenly realizing: This is a dead fish. A dead bird. A dead pig. Perceptions like that—latching onto things and piercing through them, so we see what they really are. That’s what we need to do all the time.”
What’s important are the people and the thoughts. Don’t let yourself get distracted from them.
Second, live in the present moment. That is, don’t obsess over what has happened in the past or lose yourself in visions of the future. Focus on what is right here, right in front of you. Make the most of it, and enjoy yourself. This moment could be all you have after all–it’s so much better to think that 2015 is not a guarantee and then to be grateful for all of it, then to have expectations and entitlements that go unfulfilled.
As Marcus Aurelius reminded himself:
“Don’t let your imagination be crushed by life as a whole. Don’t try to picture everything bad that could possibly happen. Stick with the situation at hand.”
What matters right now is right now. Enjoy it.
Third, if you are going to try to improve in the next year or you do have some regrets about the previous year, don’t just hope that this will happen. That’s not how it works. As Seneca wrote to a friend who’d asked for advice, you need to pick a person or a model to hold yourself against.
“Choose someone whose way of life as well as words, and whose very face as mirroring the character that lies behind it, have won your approval. Be always pointing him out to yourself either as your guardian or as your model. There is a need, in my view, for someone as a standard against which our characters can measure themselves. Without a ruler to do it against you won’t make crooked straight. ”
So, who will it be for you this year?
Stoicism is not something you “believe”, it’s something you do. It’s a practical philosophy. The more you work it, the more it will do for you. So why not start now? There isn’t a better time.
As a final parting thought, remember that we choose whether this was a good year or a bad year. We choose whether everything is good or bad. As Seneca said, “a good person dyes events with his own color…and turns whatever happens to his own benefit.”
This is the attitude for success and optimism in all situations. By controlling our perceptions, we create a reality in which every situation, no matter what it is, provides us with a positive, exposed benefit we can act on, if only we look for it.
With this in mind, I hope you enjoy the holidays and consider the Stoics when you can.