Is This Necessary?

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Marcus Aurelius has always been an interesting figure for me. One of the most prominent Roman Emperors, he ruled the empire for nineteen years from 161 to 180. He’s an endearing figure for many, both as a thinker and leader.

Although what is most endearing about him for me is his philosophical work called Meditations, written by him in his latter years. It is still regarded by many as one of the leading works of philosophy, and it paved the way for the progression of the ideas of Stoicism. Indeed, many referred to him at the time as the Philosopher King, and through the ages he has been known as the Philosopher Emperor.

It can certainly be said that his words of philosophy carried weight and real experience behind them. Aurelius himself led military campaigns defending the empire, and was an astute military commander with a wealth of experience. Here was a philosopher who wasn’t sheltered in empty palaces his entire life, removed from the real world. We can safely assume that he was exposed to his fair share of blood, guts, violence and the ugly side of human nature.

I own a copy of Meditations. Every now and then I page through it. Some of it, I’ll admit, doesn’t quite land for me. But there are certain sections and phrases which make this one of the more essential books in my collection, and for me this work should have its place in any collection.

I’m also a keen admirer of the philosophy of Stoicism, and for myself and many others, this work is the go-to guide on the philosophy, along with Seneca’s Letters From A Stoic. The ideas around the philosophy have always made a lot of sense to me. Ideas such as controlling what you can control and letting go of what you can’t, living at one with nature, using reason as your guide.

Yet there’s one line in Meditations which is the standout for me. It’s a line I contemplate often, and indeed try to live by. It’s also a great one-line summary of what Stoicism is. The line is this:

Ask yourself at every moment, “Is this necessary?”

A great primer into the ideas of Stoicism, but also possibly the greatest time management and efficiency advice you’ll ever read in one line.

Ask yourself at every moment, “Is this necessary?”

I try and fail. Perhaps one day I will master this. The line has made me realise just how much time in life we dedicate to things which ultimately are not leading us to a better life or the fulfilment of our goals. Things which are, once viewed though this lens, decidedly unnecessary.

The phrase could probably be expanded to “Ask your self in every moment, is this getting me closer to where I want to be in terms of vision, purpose and life goals? Is this making me happier and more fulfilled?” If not, why do it? How much time do we waste on the things that are ultimately useless to us?

This extends beyond action to our internal processes. Such as worry. Worrying about the results of a test. Worrying about a job interview. Worrying about the outcome of a pitch at work. At times of worry it is once again worth remembering the words of Aurelius. Is this worry necessary? Will it change anything? If not, why bother?

I can think of countless examples of where it might be worth asking the question. And notice Aurelius didn’t say “Ask yourself every now and then?” No, he said, “Ask yourself at every moment.”

Of course, I understand that downtime and recreation are important to retaining a balanced lifestyle. But again, the question can be applied. Is this necessary. i.e. Is this leading to happiness and relaxation? If it is, great. In moderation. Yet how many things do we do day to day that don’t bring us closer to our goals or don’t bring happiness? Plenty.

Mindlessly playing video games when important tasks need to be done, or when your house is a mess. Binging on alcohol for no particular reason. Continuously scrolling Instagram seeing paid models living the high life in exotic locations. Spending quality time with a friend that brings negativity and who sucks your energy out. All of these actions are worthy of the question – Is this necessary? And the answer is usually no. Absolutely not.

Or, a more relevant example, and one I see too often in this modern world – dedicating one’s free time and energy to politics. Specifically in the act of engaging in endless political squabbling online. I see it day in day out. People using their free time to get into endless Twitter arguments over their political beliefs. Arguments which will change nobody’s mind, and alter nothing in the greater scheme of things. Continuously throwing out their angry political opinions their closed circle of Facebook friends. Changing profile pics and social media names to reflect a political viewpoint. Almost as if that political stance now has come to define that person. Why?

A certain type of possession seems to have overtaken so many people in this modern society of ours. Bereft of any sense of purpose or fulfilment in their lives, they turn to politics, and here they find a home, clutching at something to believe in and ignite a passion within them. I pity these people, not merely because of this possession, but primarily because they’re engaging in something utterly futile to their own lives, happiness and general direction. I would even hazard that this obsession with politics is making people more miserable, since politics is a beast which takes and doesn’t give.

Of course, you can understand people who engage in this who actually are in politics or political media, whose livelihoods depend on it. Yet more and more I’m seeing ordinary people in ordinary jobs reduced to a level of obsession I’ve never seen before. In our hands we have incredibly powerful smartphones. The entire history and knowledge of the world is in our pocket – the greatest learning device we could imagine. Yet I see people using it to play stupid games or argue about politics on social media.

Once again when I see this I ask, is this healthy? And more pertinently, is this necessary? Certainly not. It goes without saying that we should remain informed, particularly around politics. But to find happiness and fulfilment in it is futile.

Is this necessary? I’m a big believer in questioning everything, but the longer I live, I find this particular question is playing a more and more important role in my life and happiness.

Find ways of randomly bringing this question into your daily life, activities and thoughts. You may find it will clean up your life significantly.


But I don’t think of you

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One of the most profound lines I’ve come across in literature is a remarkably simple one – “But I don’t think of you.”

About half way through Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, our ‘hero’ and antagonist, by chance, eventually come face to face for the first time outside a building at night.

Ellsworth Toohey, the antagonist we’ve come to distrust immensely by this point, is a scheming media personality who’s developed fame and a large, positive reputation through his writings and teachings of selflessness, brotherhood and altruism. He teaches that happiness can only be found in serving others, and seems hell bent on control over people. He goes to great lengths to destroy individuals and professionals who think differently or show real ability against the grain. He is ultimately a bully whose goal is dominance, yet is loved by all as some sort of saintly figure of virtue.

Howard Roarke, the protagonist of the novel is a contrast to Toohey.  Roarke is an achiever who finds meaning and fulfilment in his work and doing what he loves. His happiness is found in serving his own purpose first and foremost. He’s utterly uninterested in any negative public opinion of him. A man who refuses to bow down to what was popular or the fashion of the time. He isn’t afraid to be different and never compromises on his own values. He lives his life and crafts his work the way he sees fit, not by the demands of society.

When they eventually come across each other and exchange words, Toohey finally asks Roark “Mr. Roark, we’re alone here. Why don’t you tell me what you think of me? In any words you wish. No one will hear us.”

Roark replies “But I don’t think of you.”

And so the conversation ends. I stand corrected, but I recall it being the only conversation between the two in the book.

I’m fairly familiar with the essential themes of the philosophies of Stoicism, Zen and Objectivity. All three have very useful lessons and ideas to incorporate into modern life. Of course, they all differ from each other and none of the three are perfect. Yet in this single short response – But I don’t think about you – Roarke had, in my opinion, expressed the best aspect of all three philosophies and successfully found the sweet spot where all three meet.

At the cornerstone of these philosophies is this idea that your happiness can be derived from no other place than within yourself. They just express this a little differently. In simple layman’s terms:

Stoicism – control what you can control – don’t stress about the rest

Zen – be mindful of the current moment and what you are doing and feeling now – nothing else matters

Objectivism – pursue your own happiness as your highest purpose and moral aim

Toohey had slandered Roarke in the press and actively worked against him for years, yet Roarke found no reason to waste time thinking about him. Roarke was too busy pursuing his own goals and devoting himself to the things he loved. How many of us look for happiness from external influences rather from within ourselves? How many of us spend ages thinking about people we don’t like – even enjoying the feelings of anger, jealousy or bitterness that arise? And what good does it do? How much time and thought do we devote to things that are not essential to our happiness or the achievement of our purposes in life?

I’m as guilty as the next person when it comes to falling into these traps of the mind, and I’m still figuring life and living out as I go. I’ve made a habit of continually asking myself the simple question “Is this worth my time and thought?” You’ll be surprised at how often my answer is “No” and how much clutter I can throw out of my life and mind. I’m still learning.

Maybe one day I too can stand in front of everything I oppose and say “But I don’t think of you.”