Thursday, August 7, 2014

Lost Souls (Letters from the Past II)

When I was 21, I thought the only way to establish my identity as an adult was to move away. In order to make a name for myself and carve out a place in the real world, I thought I had to go work in a foreign country or cut my teeth in the Big City.

Call it wanderlust, a misguided sense of adventure, or just foolish youth.

Luckily I came to my senses before buying a plane ticket. I was still living at home at the time; my mom cooked all my meals and still did my laundry. Hell, she even made my bed.

Who was I kidding? I could never make it on my own in a distant land and I knew it.

The urge to strike out on your own and make a fresh start is most common. It's the remnant of a long-lost rite of passage. It symbolizes your break from parental custody, your first attempt to stand on your own.

I've known many people who, in their youth, went far and wide across provinces, countries, and continents. Some had very good reasons: they pursued job offers, rejoined loved ones, or answered the call to adventure. Others, like myself, sought some missing piece in their lives. Restless and incomplete, they travelled to resolve internal conflicts they could barely understand.

They thought to escape hardship or find happiness, that elusive prize at the top of everyone's wish-list.

Oh ye restless wanderers!
You probably know what I'm going to say next but I'll say it again: happiness isn't out there; it's inside each and everyone of us, and until we find it there, treasures will turn to ash in our hands.

Seneca the Younger, the Stoic philosopher who doubled as emperor Nero's tutor and adviser in the first century CE, shared a similar view. In a letter to his globe-trotting friend Lucilius, Seneca wrote the following:
Are you surprised, as if it were a novelty, that after such long travel and so many changes of scene, you have not been able to shake off the gloom and heaviness of your mind? You need a change of soul rather than a change of climate.
If you've fallen for this trick of the mind before, don't feel bad: Seneca's letter is proof that people have been chasing happiness ineffectually for centuries. Seneca's tongue-lashing is only beginning though. He goes on:
Why do you wonder that globe-trotting does not help you, seeing that you always take yourself with you? The reason which set you wandering is ever at your heels. 
Traveling won't make you happy because you always take the source of your unhappiness with you: yourself.
What pleasure is there in seeing new lands? In surveying cities and spots of interest? All your bustle is useless. Do you ask why such flight does not help you? It is because you flee alongside yourself. You must lay aside the burdens of the mind; until you do this, no place will satisfy you.
Until you get your mind right and find happiness within yourself, you wont find any pleasure in exotic destinations or world-famous landmarks. In fact, Seneca believes that such travels will only aggravate you further:
You wander hither and yon to rid yourself of the burden that rests upon you, though it becomes more troublesome by reason of your restlessness, just as in a ship the cargo when stationary makes no trouble, but when it shifts to this side and that, it causes the vessel to heel more quickly in the direction where it has settled.

If, on the other hand, you learn to know and love yourself, live in accordance to nature, and fulfil your purpose in this world,
all change of scene will become pleasant; though you may be driven to the uttermost ends of the earth, in whatever corner of a savage land you find yourself, that place, however forbidding, will be to you a hospitable abode. 
Once you achieve internal happiness, you find joy in every place. You learn to see the beauty that surrounds you. Your gripes fade or vanish altogether. Quarrels cease to plague your mind. Troublesome emotions appear with decreasing frequency until the mind becomes perfectly still.
As it is, however, you are not journeying; you are drifting and being driven, only exchanging one place for another, although that which you seek--to live well--is found everywhere.
And then, to summarize, Seneca drops this gem:
The person you are matters more than the place to which you go.
I believe it was Too $hort, the prolific Oakland rapper, who said "It ain't where you from/it's how you do it where you at." How remarkably Stoic of him!

Lastly, Seneca beckons us to
Live in this belief: "I am not born for any one corner of the universe; this whole world is my country."
The carrot at the end of your stick doesn't have to be a distant shore. It can be a bigger house, a younger wife, a better job, whatever. The principle laid out by Seneca applies in all of these situations. Before seeking happiness externally, assess your own internal condition.

How can you experience joy if your heart is joyless? How can you love another if you don't love yourself?

After setting yourself straight, you will find yourself suddenly surrounded by blessings.

"Where did they come from?" you will ask. They were crowding around you this whole time; you simply lacked the ability to see and appreciate them.

/rant over

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