Quest for forty: Parsing the negative.


Wow. Holidays, all done. Life back to normal with school and work and a quiet Monday-house to myself for the first time in weeks. Sadly, I am working today to make up a stat, but at least I can do it from here without having to wade through the gloom that is Vancouver monsoon season. Since I had cough-related insomnia last night, I happen to know that it did not stop raining hard for the entire overnight period – and it continues unabated.

I have been struggling with this cold for a week now, and while I am definitely moving through to improved health, it’s taking far too long for my liking. As per one of my new year’s eve ruminations and a book that I’ve been reading on modern Stoicism (A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy
by William Irvine), I’ve been attempting a Stoical approach to it all – which means actively engaging in “negative visualization” (imagine pneumonia! this isn’t so bad!) and contemplating gratitude. One of the major thrusts of Stoicism is to eliminate negative feelings in order to live with a kind of tranquility (not to be confused with inaction or even physical restfulness) – and so illness and adversity are to be fully experienced in order to embrace the times of respite, and be settled with what one has.

But it also encourages an investigation of negative feelings when they do arise. To note them and try to figure out where they arise from in order to show oneself how insignificant, or not controllable, their origin might be. Out of our control and we just have leave them alone as best as possible, recognizably insignificant and we might be able to laugh them off and discard them for good, in our control and we can make changes.

Yesterday, I worked this philosophy in a last-minute decision before the start of my new school semester. As I lay in bed in the morning I was reflecting on how everything I thought about the course I was enrolled in, I felt angry and resentful about it. I did not like the way it was structured (including group work portions and pass/fail assignments), I felt the readings were a big drag, and I was worried that the prof was a tad too disorganized for my liking – plus all the students in the course are a good fifteen years my junior*. Instead of addressing those in the last few weeks, however, I was pushing myself to continue into the course and feeling angry about it. On investigation, I had the sudden epiphany that I was not required to take the course and could simply switch out before the start of the semester (this had not occurred to me before). Additionally, I recognized that as a graduate student I have the right to question pedagogical methods (groupwork/pass-fail assignments) and put my academic energy into courses where I felt more confident about the program itself. So feeling angry and resentful were taking up a lot of mental space, when really what I needed to do was figure out where those feelings were coming from and what I could do.

But then I came downstairs, and as I vocalized my thought about switching into another course to B., I found myself getting very upset again. Instead of the angry/resentful feelings I had about taking the course, now I was having failure/regret feelings about dropping it. And specifically, the failure/regret feelings were rooted in how I feared my partner would see me – something that is mostly out of my control since we cannot dictate how others view our actions. For his part, B. was mystified by why I was upset about making this decision at all, which quickly helped me see how “silly” the negative emotions that had arisen were – based in unfounded conjecture.

All of which opened up the space in which I could go onto the SFU registration system, sign up for a different class entirely, and drop the one I had enrolled in. Yes. Simple, right? Especially because as I’ve been reading a little modern interpretation of ancient philosophy, it’s also brought me back into what I appreciate most about my program. And so I am taking a course about Scientific Revolutions and Human Values which promises much philosophy and no group work, and I have banished that set of negative feelings that has been nipping at me for the past few weeks (intensifying all the while).

This is not the first time in the last year or so that I have had the oh-so simple realization that as an adult, I do get to make decisions for myself. I get to choose supportive over critical friends, disregard the parental critique of my life and decisions, and engage only in the projects that inspire me rather than entering into organizations because I “ought to”. Of course once it dawns on me that it’s okay to act in my own interest, it’s a bit of a “yeah, duh” moment for me – but at the same time I’m curious as to why it’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve come to that realization. An ah-ha moment which is in many ways linked to the realization that who we are and what we do is just not very important to other people – and I mean that in the most positive sense, the liberation of the self from the gaze of others.

It’s a set of realizations I wish I had come to a lot sooner in life, but now that I’m here I am attempting to work with some coherent philosophy for myself. If we don’t live for other people’s expectations, then what do we live for? Which is the next installment on my quest to turning forty! I think I’m finally figuring that out too.

* No, there is nothing wrong with taking classes full of people much younger/less experienced in the world than myself, and I would gladly do so if the course were better organized. But I will say that I find it difficult to take a classroom of 22-25 year old *philosophy* students very seriously when I’ve been working with much older students for the past two years. What I’ve come to realize about my program is that it is a very special combination, and the age diversity is something I have come to value as I realize how much I do have to learn from the 70-year-old across the table from me, not to mention how the nature of reflection changes with the decades. Programs with more age-homogeneity do not offer this.

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