The Only Philosophy That Changed My Life
It wasn’t the Stoics
Have you ever been blessed with an eccentric philosophy professor? You should consider picking one up on your next round of errands (free-range, the factory-farmed professors aren’t worth listening to).
I was blessed with a delightfully crackpot philosophy professor when I took literary criticism in my junior year of the teaching program.
A chain-smoking, rail-thin, fast-food-gobbling, trench-coat-wearing nutcase who looked like he might fall apart any second.
Listening to him would take you on journeys throughout history, time, and space, to the far reaches of the human mind.
His classes were old-fashioned. None of this newfangled “call and response” or “discussion.” Though it stressed out my type-A classmates, I loved it. (To be fair, I still have no idea what literary criticism is. I’m probably better for it).
One sunny day in April, he gave a lecture that became my favorite philosophical lesson. I hold this above all others.
It’s Not That Important
If you’re like me, you’ve tied your head in knots over the meaning of life until you’ve thought yourself into some cobwebby corners. Does anything really mean anything? Does the universe care?
By the time I reached this class, I had developed quite an annoying attitude towards philosophy during my liberal arts education.
The philosophy majors I met tended to be:
I enjoyed philosophical ideas, but I didn’t want to be broke and angry/depressed. I was seeking fulfillment and financial stability. I wanted to be secure and happy, Not scowling at the customers of the cruel world under the same beanie as I made lattes for $8 an hour, day after day.
Was That Where Philosophy Led? Count Me Out!
This was my mindset when I started Literary Criticism, on my path to becoming a licensed English teacher.
One day, my professor was speaking about an infamous debate between deceased Greeks that had left our (and his) mind tangled. He paused, stood still for 5–10 seconds, and looked at us.
“This junk will turn your brain to oatmeal,” he said. “If you want a reminder of what’s important, ask the squirrels!”
Then he hammered right on about the debate.
I went to a tree-stuffed university, the bike-friendliest campus in the U.S. There are squirrels everywhere. Fat ones that work together to steal sandwiches left out of arm’s reach. I was thinking about the lesson on the walk back to my bike. Chittering noises alerted me to a few squirrels in the trees above me.
I Tested My Professor’s Advice
“Hey, you!” I said, to a wise-looking squirrel. “What do you think of Plato’s allegory of the 832 Purple Pineapples?” The squirrel stared back at me, then ran up the tree.
The lesson sunk in. What liberation! What freedom!
It works with any bit of nature. Have a hard question about the meaning of life? Ask a dandelion. Look at a tree directly in the bark and ask it what it thinks about the allegory of the cave. Ask a river how it feels that the frog sunk in it with the scorpion on its back. Same result.
Try Applying This to More Than Philosophy.
It works if you’re freaking out about the news. Ask a puppy what it thinks about our broken (yet somehow endlessly discussed) political system.
A dog will gladly remind you that your anxiety and outrage aren’t helping you stay present. A duck won’t be furious which of the many nonsense-talking politicians is talking the most nonsense lately. Neither should you. Politicians universally talk nonsense.
Happiness-boosting information in the fear-mongering nightmare that is your newsfeed is hard to come by. The 24-hour news cycle makes billions cultivating anxiety and fear so that you spend money to alleviate that anxiety and fear.
Find whatever critter is closest to you and ask what it thinks about the latest outrage-porn-fueled issue. The organism’s will to survive (and the inevitable silence) will return you to a calmer baseline.
We live somewhere between the big questions and the small questions. At the end of the day, most of what happens will pass on, affecting very little. Give yourself the peace of mind that comes when confusion and outrage are not a priority.
Ask the squirrels.
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Thank you, Aaron. Your thoughts and dedication to this blog are inspiring! You have a fantastic writer's voice.
This is important to remember. I kind of think that the real meaning of life is learning to let go. I went through a time where Stoicism was really attractive. I’m now more transitioning to Taoism. I love your blog man. Keep going.