If it is not right, don’t do it: if it is not true, don’t say it.
Sometime in the winter of 179/180 CE, while on campaign in the Balkans, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius – the last of the five good emperors (the white haired one in Gladiator) – wrote these words in his personal journal. He was reminding himself to take care about the things he thought, said and did. He believed that acting in a “right” way mattered, and that integrity mattered a great deal.
As Emperor what he said mattered. He was in a such a powerful position that his word, quite literally, was law and carried the power of life and death over the ordinary mortals over whom he ruled. Marcus did his best to live his philosophy and not to abuse his power. He lived in a time when philosophy was not some desiccated academic pursuit but a way of life. Something to be lived every day. He followed the teaching of the Stoic school and believed in the stoic virtues, the yardsticks against which he measured himself.
- Justice – Treating others with decency and fairness. Not imposing our world view on others. Not giving in to hate speech or treating one part of society differently from the rest. Bearing your community in mind when you make decision about how to behave. Masks anyone. Vaccination?
- Wisdom – Practical wisdom for day to day living. This is seen as the chief human good and remains so under all and any conditions. It allows us to make ethical decisions. Without the wisdom to live well how can we make any sensible decisions about the right way to behave? Perhaps a little practical wisdom might have prevented the unedifying spectacle of Capitol insurgents blaming Trump for their decision to attend the party.
- Temperance – Moderation in all things. A middle way. that old fashioned virtue of self control. Being able to rein in our desires and actions so that we do not lose control or yield to excess or the masses. Thinking before we act.
- Courage – Although this can have a physical element it is more about moral courage. To act according to what is right and to continue to do so even tin he most demanding of circumstances. To take responsibility for our actions and to face the consequences of our choices with equanimity.
Every day, despite all the demands on his time, Marcus took the time to write in his journal. A document that he titled “To Himself”, but is better known as “Meditations.” He wrote in his journal to review the day just past and as a way to prepare himself for the day ahead. He did this in order to hold himself to account for his past behaviour and to plan for whatever upsets might come his way in the future, thinking through the trials and tribulations that might he might face so that he could take them in his stride.
Marcus has been a beacon of upstanding behaviour ever since.
Give distinction and stand out as a fine example to the rest. Epictetus.
In light of the way various World Leaders have chosen to behave over the past few years it would seem unlikely that someone like Marcus would have managed to get elected to any meaningful position if he espoused views of this nature today.
We live at a time where these four cardinal virtues, or indeed any virtues, have been deliberately set aside by those who should be setting an example to the rest of us. Presidents and other world leaders choose to lie to the world. They incite hatred and insurgency. Feeding off those who feel dispossessed and with little real stake in their world to push their own personal agendas and to aggrandise themselves.
Worst of all their followers, fed on a diet of misinformation, take this as permission to stop thinking for themselves and to express the most horrific opinions and bizarre beliefs without challenging their veracity or impact.
It does seem strange that a wealthy american realtor should choose to fly by private jet to Washington, stand around advertising her services before then entering the Capitol complex and then, not just expects, but demand a pardon from the President when she has to face the consequences of her own conscious decision to act unlawfully.
Perhaps what the world needs at the moment is more of these stoic virtues. We should encourage people to think for themselves and make their own decisions instead of allowing them to abdicate their responsibility to the rest of the world and blaming others for the decisions they choose to make.
All rights come with accompanying responsibilities. The greatest of these is not to abuse them.
Compassion is not weakness, and concern for the unfortunate is not socialism.
Hubert H. Humphrey
The headlong rush to the “I’m all right Jack, sod you.” culture, began in earnest in the 1980s with the rise of the Yuppies and the “Greed is good” mindset. Margaret Thatcher, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom at that time, famously stated that ‘There is no such thing as society.”
And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no governments can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours.
The opinion that she expressed in this speech is chilling in its content. A call to put the self ahead of the rest of the world. A siren call to Ego that was reflected back by Ronald Regan the then President of the United States.
This world view, as expressed by the leaders of the western democracies, helps to explain the shift in mentality seen in much of the western world. A mentality that lies behind a gradual drift to Individualism and Nationalism that has contributed so much to the current turmoil in the world. Not least to the increasing gap between the haves and the have-nots, and where difference is seen as dangerous.
A world view that divides people into two camps, us and them. Fortunately this view is now being challenged by new generations.
Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism. Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism. By putting our interests first, with no regard for others, we erase the very thing that a nation holds dearest, and the thing that keeps it alive: its moral values.
If Margaret Thatcher is taken literally, she is saying that governments, that is the people in power, should act in their own interests first and only put those of the people they were elected to serve second.
A prophetic utterance if ever there was one.
The final result has been the alienation of many citizens from the societies in which they live, and a rise in xenophobia and Nationalism..
Never criticize a man until you have walked a mile in his moccasins.
Native American Saying
The counterbalance to this is to develop a compassionate mindset. If we work to understand and appreciate the other person’s point of view and their life circumstances, we put ourselves in a position to help both them and ourselves. The scientific research suggests that being compassionate is good for us.
Compassion should not be confused with pity, an emotional state which emphasises the difference between the two parties.
In many ways compassion becomes a shared experience that allows us to focus on what we hold in common. Triggering a desire that others, as well as ourselves, should be free of suffering and its causes. As one definition summarises it..
‘Compassion is’…being sensitive to the suffering of self and others with a deep commitment to try to prevent and relieve it.
The Dalai Lama
Compassion is not only being open to another’s suffering, but also needs to be directed to the self. We all suffer in different ways, and compassion helps us to reflect on this and make an appropriate response. A positive mindset which is of benefit to ourselves as well as others.
The western world has developed a society in which many people have a very low opinion of themselves. Focussing on what is wrong at the expense of what is right. A world in which anxiety and depression have become a normal part of many people’s lives.
Developing a compassionate mindset allows us to reverse this situation. When we develop an understanding of the causes and effects that are at play in our own lives we can address them more easily, and so become better placed to understand and respond to others suffering as well.
Once we understand our own circumstances, and observe our habitual responses, we can act out of that changed mindset and become a positive influence in our world.
The good news is that the more you practice compassion the easier it gets.
Fake it until you make it.
I recently had a discussion with my son about the ways in which animals get their energy from food.
In articular we were discussing the way cows extract maximum energy from cellulose in the vegetation that they eat, and the process of rumination or chewing the cud that this involves.
“Eeuuh, you mean they eat their own sick?” was his response.
In a way this is what the cognitive process of rumination is like.
Take a pinch of white man
Wrap him up in black skin
Add a touch of blue blood
And a little bitty bit of red Indian boy
Oh like a Curly Latin kinkies
Oh Lordy, Lordy, mixed with yellow Chinkees, yeah
You know you lump it all together
And you got a recipe for a get along scene
Oh what a beautiful dream
If it could only come true, you know, you knowWhat we need is a great big melting pot
Big enough enough enough to take
The world and all its got And keep it stirring for a hundred years or more
And turn out coffee coloured people by the score.Blue MInk – Melting Pot
Psychotherapy and mediation have much in common.
In therapy, it is the conflicts and tensions that exist in our inner world that we need to resolve if we are to live at peace with ourselves. Mediation is a similar process and concerns the conflicts that arise in our outer space. We need to resolve such difficulties when they arise because we are social beings, and therefore have to reach an accommodation with other people if we want to live in a harmonious world.
As we grow up and develop within our families we go through an unconscious process of learning how to be human. We learn how to be “our kind” of human. The world view that we learn is based on “how we do things around here.” A world view that is acquired rather than being innate.
This becomes what we call our culture
We learn to be a human being in our family, in our street, in our community, in our country. This becomes what we call our culture and includes a multitude of beliefs and behaviours that we accept without question as being the only way to do things. How we talk, what we wear, what we eat and even what we think and believe. It is interesting to see how many non-religious people in the UK, when asked, say that their religion is Church of England, even though they have never been to church in their entire lives.
A kind of psychological adaptation to the stresses of living where we live.
Culture – the social environment that we grow up in – provided an evolutionary, or at least survival advantage for humanity as we spread out across the globe and populated our world. It binds us together into a supportive group that is best adapted to survive in the particular region of the world that we have come to call our home. A kind of psychological adaptation to the stresses of living where we live.
Ties of blood and clan became ever more important as our population expanded. When there were only a few modern humans wandering the world, resources were plentiful and we were unlikely to come into conflict with other people. As populations grew “ownership” of fertile land and well stocked hunting grounds became more important, and our cultural differences became signs of danger and threat. So much so that the banks and ditches that our ancestors built to show ownership of land are still visible in our world thousands of years later.
In much the same way that the different fishing villages of Scotland had their own specific knitting patterns for fishermens’ jumpers (allowing drowned sailors’ bodies to be returned home), and the different clans developed tartans out of the local weaving patterns and available dyes, we started to identify strangers by their dress, jewellery, and speech.
Difference became more important than similarity. Differences began to trigger a judgement of danger and threat. Our social nature only went so far. In the same way that the folk in Gulliver’s Travels almost went to war over which end of a boiled egg should be cut off before it is eaten, our different ways of doing things became part of our personal identity rather than an adaptation to the local world.
When we feel threatened by others who challenge our habitual ways of doing things our instinct is to fight back. The perceived threat is often as trivial as how we eat our eggs.
We interpret the world through glasses that have become obscured by our culture, religion. political ideology, social class or even which footie team we choose to support. Difference produces immediate and automatic judgements about others and their intentions.
If you tell them they are under threat they will let you do anything.
Early in the twenty-first century this is clearly seen in the increasing isolationism in the western world. Immigrants in particular have come in for a considerable degree of fearful and negative stereotyping. Cultural dress is seen as threatening, different religious practices become cause for paranoid concern and we all attack what we do not know.
We come to accept as truth what is mere falsehood based on ignorance. The lies spread by populist politicians with their own axes to grind are accepted, unchallenged as truth. Worrying echoes of the rise of fascism in the mid twentieth century.
So all muslims become terrorists, all immigrants are just after an easy life. “Coming over here taking away our jobs” etc. Yet none of these ideas stand up to any degree of scrutiny. For instance, many of the West Indian members of the UK population arrived as the local population didn’t want to do important jobs like driving buses or garbage disposal. Many asian families arrived – as was their legal right – to run corner shops or chippies that took whole families, working all hours, just to put food on the table. Not to mention the large number of foreign doctors and nurses that keep the NHS running.
Migrants are seen as a drain on the local tax payer, yet all the evidence shows that these groups are net contributors to the economies of any country to which they move.
The sad thing about this misplaced fear of strangers is that diversity is good for us. Isolation leads to in-bred populations which stagnate and wither away and die. So called “mongrel vigour” produces healthier, stronger populations. One of the best things we can do for our children is to marry out. This introduces new genes into a population and reduces the incidence of many culturally bound illnesses.
One of the best things we can do for our children is to marry out.
So, next time we find ourselves making an automatic judgement about anything, young people, strangers, Chelsea supporters, add your own bias here, perhaps we should take a second or two to think about what we are doing.
The reality is that the things that we humans have in common far outweigh our differences. Under our skin and different customs we are all human, and if our families have been settled out of Africa for more than a few generations, we are all descended from the same small groups of modern humans that spread out to colonise the world just a few thousand years ago.
Perhaps the time has come for mankind to work together in the best interests of all, rather than allowing a priveleged elite to run the world for their own benefit.
But they can’t see the light (that’s right)
‘Cause the boy with the cold hard cash
Is always Mister Right
And I am a material girl
You know that we are living in a material world
And I am a material girl
One of the great joys of living in our increasingly technological society is the easy access that it provides to the increasing volume of well conducted research; research that we can integrate into our daily lives to make them both healthier and more satisfying.
We have spent too long living in a world that is always on, with its instant access lifestyle. In this situation our evolutionary heritage can work against being able to lead a healthy and fulfilling life.
Many of the systems with which evolution has equipped us helped us survive to become the top predator in the world. These systems are no longer appropriate to our more “civilised” culture and are now working against us. The chronic low-grade stresses that form part of our twenty-first century, consumerist society can result in high levels of allostatic load and leave us living in a state of chronic, low grade stress.
This allostatic stress contributes to many of the problems of the twenty-first century. Obesity, heart disease, diabetes and depression to name just four. The toxic effects of this allostatic load means that the baby boomer generation may be the last one to live longer than their parents.
Several apparently disparate areas of scientific research are coming together to provide answers to this difficulty. Positive psychology, Mindfulness, Happiness, dietetics and longevity research seem to point us in the same direction. What we choose to do and how we choose to think contribute more to a sense of fulfillment in our lives than any number of possessions. Indeed a life full of shared experiences is a vital part of living to healthy old age.
8 men have the same net worth as the poorest 3.5 billion of the world’s population
Use it or lose it, is an aphorism that applies to many aspects of human life. Using our health to stay healthy and using our minds to fight off the effects of ageing seem to be key ingredients in longevity and good mental health.
A newly published book by Johann Hari – Lost Connections. Uncovering thereal causes of depression and the unexpected solutions. – posits an alternative explanation as to why depression is increasingly prevalent in the westernised world, and has had a mixed response from psychiatrists, with most seeming to condemn it out of hand.
A life full of shared experiences is a vital part of living to healthy old age.
The book highlights the very rapid changes in our lifestyle since the industrial revolution kicked in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The move away from the land to cities, away from small, supportive communities that grew their own food and looked out for each other to crowded urban areas where people hardly know their neighbours, lead very sedentary lives and eat highly processed foods. I am always entertained by one of my neighbours who drives down to the local gym to walk an a treadmill….
When we add social media to the picture we have the appearance of community without any of its benefits. The excessive stimulation that comes from the beeping of electronic notifications means that our brains are starting to need a much greater stimulus for the same effect. This not only contributes to a sense of emptiness but also depletes the brain’s ability to respond to novelty – one of the key things that keeps our brain young.
When we limit the input to our brain, we get a greater impact from a lower stimulus and have a happier brain. A brain that has greater focus is better at paying attention and leads to greater contentment. We can appreciate and take joy in the small things of life. We can actually watch our child perform in the school play rather than stress ourselves by taking a video and missing out on a first hand experience.
Materialism: more and more is more.
When we complicate our lives we only add to this allostatic load. The modern materialistic, consumerist world generates dissatisfaction, selling an image of a happy lifestyle based on owning objects. This quest for more is fed by the promises of the advertising world.
It always amazes me how the roads in car adverts are always empty, how drinking alcohol is associated with living a cool life through hip adverts and the sponsorship of sporting events. Worst of all I find it laughable that the people shown as needing/seeking cosmetic surgery are already in the top 1% of good-looking humans.
Living an uncomplicated life will lead to greater happiness. When we fill our lives with the things we need to live a healthy life we find that we only need enough to live on, that the world in which 8 men have the same net worth as the poorest 3.5 billion of the world’s population is no more. There is enough fo go round and to feed the world – if we just want to do so.
Minimalism: less is more than enough.
We seem to live in a world where the ownership of things is equated to happiness and the trappings of success are more important than happiness. A world in which we pursue the latest shiniest new toys expecting them to make us happy. The only problem is they are all out of date the moment we buy them. The latest NewToy mk 6 will be out tomorrow. We allow ourselves to be held hostage by our possessions.
The time has come for us to stop expecting the external world to provide us with happier healthier lives. Finding a sense of purpose in what we do will give a sense of purpose to our lives.
When we take time to be in direct contact with other people, as part of a real world community, if we are kind to others and live a simpler life based on our purpose, this will allow us all to be happier and to lead more productive lives.
We will again be able to take joy in the small things.
The wind in our hair, the smile of our love, the songs of the birds.