I often look around my office at home, see the bookcase in the corner, and wonder how long it’s been since I’ve opened a lot, or even most, of those books. We moved into the house we’re in now almost three years ago; have I opened those books in that time? Will I do so before it’s time to pack them up and move to the next house (whenever that is)?

Simplifying my life by minimizing possessions is something that I’m becoming more and more attracted to, because it seems fairly obvious to me that the fewer things I have, the fewer things I have to worry about.

The human mind has a limited capacity for focus (multitasking is a myth), and for every thing you concentrate on, there are plenty of other things that you don’t (or simply can’t). Possessions have a kind of “psychic load”, for lack of a better term, that requires you to consider them (even subconsciously) even if you’re not necessarily using them. That subconscious consideration leads, I believe, to a level of stress and worry that can be unidentifiable but very real.

I was told a few years ago that when I had a difficult time falling asleep or concentrating on a task because my mind was racing, I needed to do a “brain dump”. Just write, stream-of-consciousness style, into a journal. Or not even in a journal; this isn’t really something I’d refer back to later or even save if I didn’t want to. According to the person telling me this, my mind would calm down and I’d be able to sleep or focus or whatever I was trying to do. I was initially skeptical, but holy smokes, it really works.

This concept has been popularized as “morning pages“. Morning Pages in particular is an activity done (obviously) first thing in the morning, but the concept is the same. Releasing this pent up flow of disorganized thought allows you to get rid of it. The act of writing everything that comes to mind allows us to crystallize and then discard it. Personally, my main problems were a lot of nebulous “worries” and “concerns” that were unrelated to any specific issue or topic that I could identify. It was just a general feeling of unease, accompanied by a mind that just wouldn’t stop running in circles.

In the same way, by removing possessions (actually, I consider them to be detritus of a former time that I don’t use any longer), I can focus on the things that remain.

I recently got rid of a lot of clothing that I didn’t wear, or didn’t want to wear, any longer. Whether it no longer fit my sensibilities, or was just redundant, I consciously narrowed down what I had in my closet and in my dresser to reflect only that stuff that I truly enjoyed wearing.

This isn’t to say I’m down to one pair of shoes or pants, but I got rid of probably half of the clothing that I previously owned. This allows me to circumvent the paradox of choice each morning. Like the much-discussed “Steve Jobs uniform” (although my wardrobe has a bit more variation), it removes a lot of mental effort.

Studies have shown that each of us have a limited well of selectivity from which to draw. Every time we make a decision, we draw on that resource, which reduces the amount that remains for making choices later on. So, if we’re spending some of that decision making capacity on choosing what shirt to wear, there’s a very real possibility that we’re taking it from some time later when we’ll need to make a much more important choice. It sounds drastic (or even alarmist) to imply that the fact that we attempt to choose between 5 different breakfast options could reduce our ability to make a good decision about a merger later at work that same day, but that’s truly the case.

So, by making an effort to reduce the amount of things in my life that I don’t truly care about (like a lot of the polo shirts that I once had in my closet), I’m trying to have fewer things on my mind (even subconsciously). If I can remove anything that distracts, then I can more easily focus on things that I want to focus on. Like my wife or my son or a board game that I really enjoy. You don’t have to get rid of everything, you just have to get rid of the stuff you don’t really care about.

To me, this level of simplicity will vary from person to person and from life’s season to life’s season. As I grow and change, I assume the possessions I care about will change, as well. I may be willing to get rid of things I wouldn’t consider right now. The importance in the exercise of simplicity isn’t about reduction, it’s about being mindful. It’s about having what you need and no more, but not allowing anyone but you to determine what your “needs” really are.

Thoughts on Letters from a Stoic

I mentioned that I was reading The Obstacle Is The Way. Good book. It’s a very approachable introduction to Stoic thought, and the author works at making it applicable to modern day life. A very tactical understanding.

I’ve been reading Seneca lately, since I finished up Obstacle. I’ve not read a lot of Seneca previously, but his Letters from a Stoic have caused me to want to remedy that. It’s very readable, but weighty at the same time. I read it and it speaks to me. It seems truth-full, as it were. I’ve cherry picked three passages that I highlighted from the first few letters that I want to make sure I don’t forget.

“Lucilius… we must be philosophers; whether Fate binds us down by an inexorable law, or whether God as arbiter of the universe has arranged everything, or whether Chance drives and tosses human affairs without method, philosophy ought to be our defense. She will encourage us to obey God cheerfully, but Fortune defiantly; she will teach us to follow God and endure Chance.”

Lucilius is a younger friend of Seneca’s. It’s to him that the Letters are addressed. Seneca acted as something of a mentor in the Stoic philosophy to him, but there was more of a give and take relationship there, as opposed to Lucilius just sitting at Seneca’s feet and taking it all in. Granted, I’m unaware if any of Lucilius’ letters to Seneca survive, so we can assume that Seneca had more of lasting value to say, but the fact remains that we get one side of a conversation that provides evidence of plenty of back and forth. Seneca was always learning, from everyone. Just something to keep in mind.

Seneca was most likely an atheist, or perhaps an agnostic, and yet the times and society in which he lived required him to acknowledge the possibility that there may be a Higher Power. For him, if God did exist, He was unknowable and His ways inscrutable. Seneca acknowledged that God would be able to dictate events and circumstances through His power, and he (Seneca) would simply have to follow along. In this way, whether there is a divine dictate or random chance that governs human events, all that is left to one is to accept what comes and react in the appropriate manner.

I know that I am constantly wondering at why things turn out the way they do, but what I really need to focus on is my reaction to them. I believe that there’s a reason for the circumstances that I find myself in, but my obligation isn’t always to understand it. It’s to function as I should in response to it.

“Each man acquires his character for himself, but accident assigns his duties.”

I’ve begun working in a ministry at my church called Freezing Nights. A warm meal and a safe place to sleep is offered to folks off the street from November through April.

Working with the homeless makes me recognize the fact that a lot of them aren’t really that different from me. Accidents, choices and circumstances lead similar people to radically different outcomes. I know this, of course, but this opportunity to be around and talk to these men and women who are seemingly less fortunate than me reinforces it. “Accident assigns his duties.”

A homeless person didn’t start out in life planning to be homeless, I’m sure. It just happened. Maybe random luck, maybe some bad choices, but the intent was never to end up in the situation in which they find themselves. There but for the grace of God go I.

“For a man, however, whose progress is definite, to chase after choice extracts and to prop his weakness by the best known and the briefest sayings and to depend upon his memory, is disgraceful; it is time for him to lean on himself. He should make such maxims and not memorize them. For it is disgraceful even for an old man, or one who has sighted old age, to have a note-book knowledge. “This is what Zeno said .” But what have you yourself said? “This is the opinion of Cleanthes.” But what is your own opinion? How long shall you march under another man’s orders? Take command, and utter some word which posterity will remember. Put forth something from your own stock.”

Ha ha ha! Can you spot the little joke here?

I’ve always wanted to be a thinker. Someone who provides their own opinion and makes their own judgments on what they encounter, rather than leaning on the crutch of platitudes and quotations. And yet, it’s tough. I can be uncertain in my convictions, or unable to make clear my own thoughts, so I think of a quote from another philosopher and say, “Yeah, that’s good stuff! I’ll take that as my own.” I don’t want to do that.

“Take command, and utter some word which posterity will remember.” I want to leave behind something of myself. I want to make an impact on someone who comes after me. I want to blaze my own trail to have others follow.