Up and Down

August 29, 2011 — 17 Comments

In the midst of the breakdown of the Roman Republic, during the Civil War between Pompey and Caesar, Pompey made the decision to give control of the military fleet to Cato, the philosopher-politician. A gratifying honor and responsibility for Cato, a chance for the perpetual outsider to put his ideas into action. Yet only days later, under pressures of jealousy and paranoia from his inner circle, Pompey reversed his decision and took the command away.

It was an enormous public humiliation. To be demoted, basically cashiered, for no good reason. But the record shows that Cato’s reaction to this was basically nothing. In fact, he responded with equal indifference to promotion and the demotion. His support for the cause remained unwavering. He did not sulk away or grow bitter. On the eve of battle, when the men—his men, the very men he should have been commanding—were restless and undisciplined, Cato was the one the generals turned to for the right words. They asked him to propel the men to a victory that should have been his. So he did.

See, Cato declined to take the slights personally. And this was possible because he declined to take the honors personally as well. Neither the good, the bad—the dignity nor the indignity—provoked a change in Cato. They could not make him feel better or worse, rewarded or unrewarded. He was immune to the seduction of external events.

On Confidence

August 11, 2011 — 13 Comments

When you lose confidence in yourself, the worst thing you can do is sit and wait for it to be restored. It won’t happen. You’ll feel worse.

Yet this is what we do; we despair because things aren’t going like we hoped. We feel down because of a ‘string of bad luck’ or fall prey to the insidious discouragement that comes along with ‘nothing good happening for a while.’

At the end John Fante’s book Dreams From Bunker Hill, the character, a writer, reminds himself that if he can write one great line, he can write two and if he can write two he can write three, and if he can write three, he can write forever. He pauses. Even that seemed insurmountable. So he types out four lines from one of his favorite poems. What the hell, he says, a man has to start someplace.

When explaining self-esteem to their patients, psychologists use the metaphor of two open cisterns that provide drinking water for nearby towns. When it rains, they both fill to the brim. But when it stops raining, one drains faster than the other. Why does one stay full while the other empties? It’s simple: it’s also fed by an underground spring.

We must find our own spring. And return to it when we need replenishment.

We can run a few miles as fast as we’re able. We can get absorbed in a book, so much that you forget the world around you. Or help someone. Have stimulating conversation. Go for a long walk. These things tap into something bigger than us and in the process remind us about that which is within us—what we are capable of. We simply need to seek it out.

The professional, Steve Pressfield writes in The War of Art, sometimes has to “throw down a 360 tomahawk jam from time to time, just to let the boys know he’s still in business.” The boys in this case are those little doubts you get in your head, the ones that tell you that you don’t have what it takes, that the project isn’t worth it, that you’re not up to the task. Go out and remind the crowd why you’re in the arena. Do what you have within you but take for granted or are saving for later. Silence them by doing it. Remind yourself.

A common theme from the ancients is that of great, supernatural forces. A swirl of particles. Time as a river. Flowing energy. Incarnation. It might have stemmed from their ignorance of certain scientific concepts, but that was a benefit rather than a curse. This makes it easier to imagine tapping into something out there, finding nourishment in it, being moved forward from it. These were streams that they could depend on, infinite underground wells to fill their cisterns.

As I struggle with confidence in my own life and on my own projects, it’s helpful to think of this. It is replenishing, a little bit more each time.

The Present Moment

July 26, 2011 — 28 Comments

There is this feeling you get when you’re driving a friend’s car or staying in a hotel. It is less stressful, easier. All the things and baggage you’ve allowed to accumulate in your actual life don’t seem to be there. You don’t look at the gas gauge and care. The things that bother you about your car don’t bother you in this one. You sleep better in the hotel. It feels nicer than your house.

If it could always be like this, you think, that would be the life. Which is funny because nothing is actually different. Unless you’re an asshole, you’re still paying for gas. Hotel rooms are actually filthy and you could buy all the stuff in them for your own house if you wanted. Yet it doesn’t feel the same.

This is because you’ve given yourself, as Marcus Aurelius would say, “the gift of the present moment.” It feels fresh because you are looking at it fresh. You appreciate your feelings because you’re aware of them, you’re alert for a change. Like you’ve taken a big deep breath and opened your eyes.

These glimpses are helpful because they remind us what we could have if we just got out of our own way. If we stopped minding the gas tank and caring whether it cost $3.59 or $4 a gallon to fill up. If we remember that we can move or, more realistically, rearrange the inside of our own house whenever we get tired of it. If a certain kind of blanket feels better, get it and be done with the issue. They remind us that all the things we say weigh us down are ours by choice.

Sometimes a quick shift in our environment forces us to focus entirely on the present–it doesn’t allow us to muddle up the situation with our thoughts and pessimism and worry. And the instant of lightness we feel when it happens, well, that’s what we could have all the time if we wanted to and worked at it.