Embrace the absurdity! With reservation.
I've been cooking up some great stuff on medium lately while working on my upcoming podcast. In between work, writing, and fiction, this, uh, energetic piece came together. It isn't exactly new, but it was fun. Enjoy.
Despite the impression that my LinkedIn headshot gives, I'm not a stoney-faced, emotionally-constipated, Ron-Swanson-impersonator kind of Stoic. I dance, I sing (horribly), I made funny faces, and I quote Camus a bit too much. When people ask about my religious affiliations, I tell them I'm a militant existentialist, because we all need to live, damn it. If you spend too much time trying to make sense of things, you'll never figure it out.
If I had to distill myself into two labels (which is an utterly absurd proposition, but still better fare than most people get in Highschool) I would tell you that I am an existential stoic. I'm the illegitimate butt-baby of Nietzsche and Marcus Aurelius, stomping through your playground with my Will to Power and well-practiced emotional reservation, and I demand that everyone should laugh freely and never cry.
That last clause is a joke. Existentialism and Stoicism don't work like that.
Life Doesn't Have To Make Sense
I swear, if I type that heading one more time you're going to start throwing bricks at me. but it's my personal subhed for a reason, and I'm going to keep repeating it until people understand where I"m coming from.
Most people don't understand Stoicism, or in the very least they pay too much attention to the results of Stoicism and they fundamentally misunderstand the processes that gets them there. The dictionary doesn't help, of course, as it too focuses on the stony-faced men-don't-cry bit and doesn't really address the 'feel slowly but deeply' part.
There has been a resurgence of Stoic values, as expressed by popular individuals like Tim Ferris. Stoicism is being applied to entrepreneurship, side gigs, breakups, and student loans. Lots of people are borrowing from it, as a part of the mindfulness bubble, to help them manage their emotions and expectations when dealing with setbacks. Still, few people identify as a Stoic.
For me, identifying as a Stoic is a kind of personal claim. It's not a claim that movies don't make me cry (they do) or that I go out of my way to limit my emotional expression (I'm a grinning idiot most of the time). It's a claim that I actively consider how I emotionally engage with the world around me. That I self-audit, and, yes, often choose a reserved reaction to negative events.
In the same vein, I identify as an Existentialist because I believe that the realm of my agency is large. There are a lot of things that I can control in my life, including the meaning I invest in it and the value I derive from it. It isn't logical, it isn't consistent, it isn't endless; it's this big roiling mass of agents doing things and making things and feeling things, and my little corner of it all is mine.
If you can't quite see how those two beliefs line up and you're're a fan of wandering metaphors, I look at it like this: We're all giants and ants, at the same time. We're all huge and powerful and stomping around, changing our landscape and shaping our worlds without entirely understanding it, and we're all also small and blind and subjected to things we can't control. Because of this, we should act with internal reservation and external decisiveness. We should measure our emotions, and experiment with our environments, because we're big and small and strong and vulnerable all at the same time, and the single consistent thing we have control over is how we interpret it all.
Life is strange. It's absurd. It's crazy. It's illogical. It's ours. It's no one's. It's huge. It's tiny. Camus says we need to accept that, or kill ourselves. I say we need to accept that, or at least work on our response to it and grow into our tiny humongous lives over time.
But What Does That MEAN?
It means as much as you want it to. It's not like I live a strange, arcane life full of strange rituals and odd patterns. I eat, sleep, shave, and socialize in roughly the same way that everyone else does. I don't kick puppies or talk to trees or walk around with cardboard signs. I'm not morally aberrant (although, as I'm sure my copilot will tell you, I have a couple of strange sticking points), and I'm not a nihilist.
Like most people, a lot of the pleasure I derive from life is filtered through my mental lens. Given the way the world is, having a negative view of things is really easy. Because I derive value (and pleasure) from my perspective, I share that perspective with others in the hope that they'll derive the same value from it that I do.
Because, let's face it, being an existential stoic is fun and everyone should have a bit of fun and I want to show you how to have fun the way I do. If you haven't been having fun lately and you're a bit stressed out, it might even bring an extra dose of value into your life.
I've already talked about how I don't pursue happiness. 'Being happy' isn't on any of my todo lists or multi-year plans or any of that because it's a ridiculously ephemeral thing to pursue. To save you the trouble of reading that entire article of mine (although you're welcome to ), here's a little except from it that relates to what we're talking about right now:
Happiness is internal. Real, lasting happiness doesn’t come from things, it’s a product of what you do and what you value. It requires mindfulness and humility and healthy habits, and the mental clarity to understand the context you live in, and until you pursue those things, it’s as unobtainable as a mars vacation.
In order be in the state of mind where happiness is easily reachable, I pursue satisfaction. I invest myself in my daily practices and my mental health because it makes me feel complete. By living a life built around self-honesty, and allowing myself to experience my emotions without denying them, happiness becomes accessible.
The bold bit is the important part. That's the product of my absurd mish-mash of Stoicism and Existentialism, what I was trying to get at with my rant about giants and ants. Stoicism is about emotional honesty and existentialism is about personal (internal) agency and when I combine the two I get to be reserved and expressive and powerful and world-weathering and logical and absurd and all of these things together help me experience the world with deeper emotions and without the fear of scarring.
In an odd way, my particular experience of existential stoicism also ties into my understanding of minimalism and simple living and having less of the wrong stuff and more of the right stuff. Which is what I'm going to talk about after the next heading because I like those and they're pretty.
Minimalism And Stuff And Minimal Stuff
In a rather traditionally Stoic way, I value reservation. Delayed gratification and MVP's and all that. I'm a big fan of deft solutions, despite what my current word count might suggest.
As that relates to Stuff, I like having what I need, and plants. That's it. The things I need (tools to work with, a pan to cook with, a surface to sleep on, the occasional piece of furniture) and a small succulent named Esmeralda who lives on my kitchen table and thrives despite my black thumb. And books (because I eat those quite frequently) and sweaters (because it's cold up here on the lake shore) and candles (because I like fire) and beer (do we really need this parenthetical addition?) and video games and cast iron and unnecessary parenthetical additions. I don't seem to like shelves because I've lived in one place for over six months now and I still don't own any.
The apartment that Jana and I live in is 590 square feet. It's small, and I'm sure it feels even smaller because we've been using the bins we moved with for shelving and we're not organized people. No matter how much we clean it will always looked lived in, and our floral drapes and old rugs aren't suited to the kind of visual constraint most people associate with the minimalist movement.
I've joked about being a 'messy house minimalist' before, but I'm not sure the minimalist label really applies to the way I live my life. All of the things I've tried to express through the lens of minimalism make more sense when described as an extension of stoicism. I don't care about having less things. I care about having what matters and letting go of the things that don't. I approach ownership the same way I approach emotions; slowly but deeply.
It's a small difference, but small differences count. It's a small difference that sidesteps some of the class bias within minimalism, that accounts for the fact that we can't always pare down because we can't always afford to replace. I'm a young broke millennial who writes for a living; I'm not going to tell you how getting rid of things makes you a better person. I just want you to know that you don't have to participate in the consumerism that's so heavily marketed to us. Take your time. You'll know if you need it.
And on the other side of all of this is the great joy I derive from doing things by hand. Let's not forget the existential side of this absurd pairing. I've been pickling things this summer and it's absolutely awesome and if you're ever in town I'll give you a jar of pickled onions with turmeric because you just have to try it.
I like bouncing around between little hobbies. Small affordable things I can do that requires little equipment and minimal expense. I make hot sauce and salsa and pickles and aftershave and digital art. I take pictures and play with video and record podcasts and generally make a practice of Doing Things because Existentialists Do Things and that's how I have fun. I'm not a Macbook Minimalist. I'm a mashup of reservation and expression and I enjoy every moment of it.
There isn't a single definition of success and you should exploit pluralism to its max. Be a contradiction. Combine strange philosophies in odd ways and see what happens. Be a multi-passionate powerhouse. Take all of the random threads of your life and weave it into whatever you feel like, because no one else gets to tell you otherwise.
But at the same time, control yourself. Don't let your negative emotions rule your understanding of your world. Feel deeply, but be mindful of what influences your mental state. You can weather the world, because only you decide how you respond to your emotions. There's no need to rush. Time moves slower than most people think.
And that's the bulk of my advice. That's how, in my understanding of this crazy and absurd world, embracing the absurdity makes everything more fun. That's how I combine existentialism and stoicism into one big experiential ball of crazy, and why I think you should try it too. Just for a little bit. Just for a moment or two. Treat it as an indulgence if you'd like, sneak away to grab some on the weekends and give yourself a mental re-feed. Have it for brunch. Take your family out dinner and enjoy the buffet. Whatever. Give it a shot. Or do something else. Life is absurd. You get to pick what rules you follow.