Some of you may have noticed that (hopefully) all identifying information has been removed from the blog. This was intentional. From here on, I will post “anonymously”. I know, I know… internet archives are a thing. I make no pretense that my identity is non-discoverable, only that I will not personally identify myself in the future. With that in mind, I have also created an anonymous Facebook page for comments if you do not wish to leave them here.
Last week was quite busy in the Wolf Camp.
A few days before that week, my father went in for what was supposed to be an outpatient procedure, only to discover that he needed open-heart surgery. That surgical undertaking happened on Monday after only four days’ notice. On Thursday my wife went in to be tested for cancer. On Friday my son had his own surgery. All of these happenings were at least known to us on Sunday – the beginning of the week.
(Meanwhile, for the preceding months I had been almost constantly sick with worry. I knew my new job was not going very well, but I honestly did not know how to alter its course. I began coughing up blood. I had a constant raspy cough that would not go away. I hardly slept. I was drinking too much. My hands started shaking again for the first time since graduate school. My wife was honestly concerned that I would have some sort of catastrophic health event at any moment.)
On Monday, while my father was quite literally under the knife, I was called into a meeting with my boss and “separated” from my employment.
I do not list these events here to garner sympathy. Rather, I would like them to be a foundation for the rest of what I will argue in this post – that adopting a philosophy of life may have (and probably did) save my own. I hope I may convince you to consider this as you go about your daily routine.
My own adoption of a philosophy began innocently enough. One of my closest friends mentioned that he had become enamored with Mr. Money Mustache. (Seriously, if you’re not reading his blog, you’re missing out on something truly magnificent.) Interested in his reference, I checked out the website too. At first, I was uninterested. What did this guy have to teach me, a Big Shot?
Without consciously realizing what was happening, I found myself reading post after post. Google News was in the rearview mirror, replaced by some bike-riding weirdo from, of all places, CANADA. While obsessively chewing through material, I stumbled across a forum discussion of William Irvine’s book A Guide to the Good Life. The discussion in the forums, coupled with the endorsement of my new spirit guide MMM, caused me to immediately search for this tome.
Because I was working in my oh-so-important job (with which I was already becoming disillusioned), I chose to purchase the audio book from Audible.com and listen to it on my way into work. This was a fortuitous choice. While I was initially unused to listening to someone read to me (it has been, after all, quite some time since I was a child in a library), I found that the book was an earworm. It ate into my consciousness like those bugs in The Wrath of Khan.
Without making a conscious choice, I accidentally adopted a philosophy of life.
Central to this philosophy is the quote listed at the top of this page. I realized, for the first time, that many of the things I thought I could control were simply beyond my grasp. My tenuous grip on employment was one of those things. Likewise were the decisions I’d made leading up to my current situation. I had no more control over them than I did over what type of surgery my father would soon undergo… or what the outcome of my wife’s tests would be… or that my son would have a procedure of his own (his fourth in four years). Any burden I placed on myself relating to my situation was, therefore, a waste of time and energy.
Another core tenet of my new outlook was visualizing the loss of things that I thought I valued. As I practiced, I discovered I did not truly care about most of the things I thought were so important just a few weeks before. I kept finding myself saying, “well… that wouldn’t be too bad. Gosh, losing that wouldn’t bother me all that much either….”
All of these things that worried me were just that… things. I’d been poor before. I will likely be poor again in the very near future. The little trinkets and baubles I’d spent so much time and effort acquiring had done nothing to protect me from that outcome, nor had they made me happier as a result of their acquisition. Instead, as Lao Tzu put it, I found that when you “fill your house with jade and gold and you will find it hard to protect.” Perhaps it was said better for modern audiences by Tyler Durden who said, “the things you own end up owning you.” I’d allowed myself to become a slave to things. And consequently, I’d allowed other people to dictate my future for me.
In short, I was terrified of losing things. This made me terrified of other people. But… at the end of day, losing my job, while meaning the loss of these things, did not mean that I lost anything I truly cherished. The following day, the sun would rise. My children, gods willing, would be alive and well. My wife would still love me. Once I understood that the “burden” I’d carried was no real burden at all, I found that I could not be “unhappy by reason of any, but happy by reason of all…” (Epictetus again).
Fear and stress sloughed off of me like I was molting it. Sometimes, I would find myself anxious at how un-anxious I felt about pending events. I realized that this reaction too was just an internal construct of my own design – and so I shed it as well.
When the ax finally fell, I honestly felt sorry for the people who were letting me go. It was obvious they were nervous. In fact, they were the only ones who were. I, in contrast, was quite happy. I felt grateful that I would get to spend some time with my father, which I had not planned previously. I got to see my little family and spend time with them on a Monday afternoon, which had not happened in years.
I had no idea what I would do the following day – but the following day is guaranteed to none of us anyway, so why should I worry?
That afternoon, the phone rang. A client I had not spoken with in several months said that they wanted to hire me personally for a large-ish project. Then the phone rang again. Another client had heard what happened and wanted me to open my own firm. Then the phone rang again. And again. And again. The next few days found me opening a firm on my own and billing away as normal.
The old me would have been relieved. The new me was excited for the new opportunity. In fact, I would have been excited if the phone did not ring. Realizing that I could not control much of my circumstance, while also realizing that the only things I truly risked losing were those things that I did not actually care about opened my horizons for the first time in years. I understood finally what the Stoics said when they said that nobody can harm another without permission. I’d revoked my permission for my employer to harm me or anyone I truly cared for, and my employer had therefore lost its power over me. In short, I was (and am) impervious to its opinion.
In the following posts, I intend to discuss this awakening with you in further detail. I understand I may come off as some zealot… however, I also know that I cannot control your perception. My wife likes to joke that I’m becoming a cult leader. I like to reply that is somewhat unlikely, since nobody stumbling across this page will know my name. I’m pushing straight happiness here. It will cost you nothing. I hope you’ll consider making the purchase.