Thursday, August 6, 2009

Don't Worry, Be Happy - Unpublished Selections Explained, Med. VIII.42

Meditation VIII.42 - Don't Worry, Be Happy - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil

It is not fit that I should give myself pain, for I have never intentionally given pain even to another.1


(1) Although this meditation will include self-inflicted physical pain, its primary focus is psychological. It really goes to the heart of the nature of worry. If we think closely about worry we might notice that most of our worries (be they about the past, present or future) turn on pleasure, pain, reputation or money. But in Stoicism none of these things should ever be a cause for worry. Each of these areas is self-serving and body focussed and in Stoicism the appropriate stance toward each is indifference. We may think that the good life is defined by a financial prosperity that ensures ample pleasure, freedom from pain and enduring reputation. But the Stoic understands that it is possible to be truly happy without these things. A Stoic has no reason to avoid the simple pleasures of life or not to take measures to avoid discomfort. But these ought not be the focus of our existence and they ought never prevent us from being good. Think about how this works. If life is about serving others, how can we do that if we are obscessed about making more money, worried about losing our jobs, or distraught about what our neighbors or friends think about us? In Meditation II.16 (p. 61 in the book), Marcus outlines five mental attitudes that alienate us from nature. In brief these are (i) irritability, (ii) antisocial behavior, (iii) excess passion, (iv) dishonesty, and (v) thoughtlessness. I've called these the "shalt not commandments" of Stoicism. Most of our worries fall into one or all of these areas. Because most of our worries are self-serving, they are by definition antisocial and therefore they alienate us from the community at large. Worry by its very nature makes us irritable and depressed.

The phrase "Don't Worry, Be Happy" was used by the Indian mystic and sage Meher Baba (1894-1969) and is the title and principal lyric of a song by musician Bobby McFerrin in 1988. The phase later became a target for parody and was occasionally played over scenes of war and terrorism. The parodies make a point, but also miss the point of what this phrase would mean to a Stoic. In Stoicism we are actually free to direct our attention to the injustices of the world only when we divorce ourselves from self-directed worry - and this is the real focus of the phrase as applied to Stoic philosophy. In Stoicism happiness comes from fighting for social justice. But, we can never fight for social justice when we are worried about ourselves. When we worry, we abandon others and this is both thoughtless and antisocial. When we worry we cause enormous pain to others (as well as ourselves) - even if it is not intentional.

Russell McNeil, PhD, is the author of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: Selections Annotated and Explained by Skylight Paths Publishing. The unpublished selections presented in this Blog are provided as supplemental material to the published selections which are annotated and explained in the book. The published selections are referenced in this Blog by page number and section.

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