Think Most About the Joy of Each Day

Summary: when we invest our time in thinking most about the things that will give us joy, we will feel more calm, energy, and strength to move forward.

When you think of philosophy, you might think of esoteric questions like, “Is the chair really there?” or “If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” Those questions are more important than may appear at first glance, but most people are not really that interested in them. What people are interested in is finding a way to live better and make it through the struggles of life. The Stoics and many other philosophers in the time of Christ made that their focus. The philosopher Seneca made a surprising statement about what our most important task was. He wrote to his young apprentice Lucilius, “Above all, my dear Lucilius, make this your business. Learn how to feel joy” (Letter XXIII). How about a philosophy class that started out that way? Our first priority will be to help us all feel true joy.

It’s a business or a task, though, because joy is not always easy to come by. There’s a lot that can keep us from feeling joy.

To begin with, we do not work on it. Have we ever made it a goal? How many of us want to become people of great joy? How often have we prayed for it? Continue reading “Think Most About the Joy of Each Day”

When Overwhelmed, Ask, What Do I Need to Do Today?

Keeping sane and productive in an insane world, principle #8: When overwhelmed, ask, what do I need to do today?

When the world seems big, it’s O.K. to make it small. You can do that by focusing on today.

You have a million things that will confront you in the future. You have a million things that you can imagine will confront you but will not. So, what do you do when the future of your kids, your job, your church, your friends, and your health overwhelm you? You can set it aside and focus on today.

What does that look like? I have had plenty of times where I have felt overwhelmed. When I started worrying about relationships, my children, or the church, I just started asking, “What do I really need to do today?” My list of worries was large. My list of actions for today was relatively small. My answer would be something like this, “I need to pray, exercise, spend time with my family and friends, do certain tasks related to work.” As I got about doing these tasks, I would feel less overwhelmed. I would be more sane and productive.

If you think about it, this is a good practice even when we are not overwhelmed. Focusing on what actually needs to get done today is a great way to organize our mind and hearts and ground them in what matters. You can imagine the future, but you can live today.

The Roman philosopher Seneca was captivated by this idea. Seneca asks, what harm is there in looking forward to tomorrow? “Infinite harm; for such people do not live, but are preparing to live. They postpone everything” (Letter XLV). Worse is when people look forward to living in a far off time when they can settle down to “a life of ease” (Letter CI).

So, what should we do? Seneca says, “let us so order our minds as if we had come to the very end. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s account every day. . . . Therefore, my dear Lucilius, begin at once to live, and count each separate day as a separate life” (Ibid.). This will enable us to see tomorrow better, too. “If God is pleased to add another day, we should welcome it with glad hearts” (Letter XII). This will focus our energies where we need to focus them and keep us from worrying about things that we do not need to worry about.

This is what Jesus taught as well. “Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof” (Matthew 6:34). Focus on the tasks you have today. Tomorrow will take care of itself.

I remember running on a rural road in Pennsylvania. We were staying in a remote cabin. We had literally no internet service. No wi-fi. No cell connection. It cleared my head. I started thinking, what would I do if I only had this day without any connection to the outside world? What would I do? The answer came back: I would run. I would enjoy the beauty of God’s creation. I would spend time with my wife and children. I would accept the good God had for me. That’s what I had: today. That’s what I had, and that was good.

Asking, what do I need to so today is a principle that we can use to get us grounded at any time and especially when we are fully of anxiety and overwhelmed. Thank you for taking the time to read this post. I pray that it will be a blessing to you the next time you feel overwhelmed. If you liked this post, please share it on social media or subscribe below. You can also read some of the other principles that I have used for keeping sane and productive in an insane world here. I hope to see you hear again.

Philosophical Resources for Suffering Well

It is not only Christians who have seen the value of suffering and suffering well. Philosophers and teachers throughout the world have provided us with a variety of helpful ways of processing suffering. Here are a few that I have studied over the past year.

I want to present two lists of quotes from two different philosophers. The first list is from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations (read more here).

  • Misfortune gives us opportunity to grow in and exercise good character, which is a great reward in itself. “Remember, too, on every occasion that leads you to vexation to apply this principle: not that this is a misfortune, but that to bear it nobly is good fortune” (4.49).
  • If people do us wrong, we can preserve ourselves by not responding in kind. “The best way of avenging yourself is not to become like the wrongdoer” (6.6).
  • If we get our way, that’s good. If we don’t, we have an opportunity to learn to be content when we don’t. Learning that is a great good. “Let us try to persuade men. But act even against their will when the principles of justice lead the way. If, however, any man by using force stands in your way, have recourse to contentment and tranquility, employing this hindrance as a spur to the exercise of some other virtue; and remember that thy attempt was limited, that you did not desire to do impossibilities” (6.51).
  • It is our mindset not necessarily the thing itself that makes things so bad. “But I unless I think that what has happened is an evil, am not injured. And it is in my power not to think so” (7.14).

The second list is from the Roman philosopher Seneca’s letters to his student Lucilius.

  • We don’t really know what we are made of until we have had to undergo many trials. “For our powers can never inspire in us implicit faith in ourselves except when many difficulties have confronted us on this side and on that, and have occasionally even come to close quarters with us” (25). He goes on to compare those who struggle in life with those who fight in the arena: “The only contestant who can confidently enter the lists [i.e., engage in the conflict] is the man who has seen his own blood, who has felt his teeth rattle beneath his opponent’s fist, who has been tripped and felt the full force of his adversary’s charge, who has been downed in body but not in spirit, one who, as often as he falls, rises again with greater defiance than ever” (Ibid., 26).
  • Things are often worse in our fears than they are in reality. “There are more things, Lucilius, likely to frighten us than they are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality” (Ibid.).
  • There is no reason to reject present happiness because of the possibility of future unhappiness. “Why, indeed, is it necessary to summon trouble–which must be endured soon enough when it has once arrived, or to anticipate trouble and ruin the present through fear of the future? It is indeed foolish to be unhappy now because you may be unhappy at some future time” (XXIV, 57).
  • Recognize that all relationships are temporary and prepare accordingly. “Let not the eyes be dry when we have lost a friend, nor let them overflow. We may weep but we most not wail” (LXIII, 148). How are we able to do this? “For I have had them as if I should one day lose them: I have lost them as if I have them still” (LXIII, 149).
  • Past unhappiness does not necessitate present unhappiness: “What benefit is there in reviewing past sufferings and in being unhappy, just because you were once unhappy?” (LXXVIII, 220).
  • Whoever does wrong to someone else does more evil to themselves than to their neighbor. “When we do wrong, only the least and lightest portion of it flows back upon our neighbour; the worst and, if I may use the term, the densest portion of it stays at home and troubles the owner. My master Attalus used to say: ‘Evil herself drinks the largest portion of her own poison” (LXXX, 234).
  • Losing things does not mean that we cannot continue to enjoy them. “What resource do we find, then, in the face of these losses? Simply this–to keep in memory the things we have lost, and not to suffer the enjoyment we have derived from them to pass away along with them. To have may be taken away from us, to have had, never” (XCVIII, 353).
  • Don’t worry about what you don’t have. Enjoy what you do. “To have whatsoever he wishes is in no man’s power; it is in his power not to wish for what he has not, but cheerfully to employ what comes to him” (CXXIII, 455).

Both of these books provide numerous other thoughts that contain resources for suffering well. Seneca and Marcus Aurelius suggest that the way we think about suffering is a large part of our suffering. This is something we can change, and many thinkers, like these two, can help us do so.

How to Find Lasting Joy

Life can so easily get us down. Most of the time we ask, how can we survive? Lasting joy seems utterly out of reach.

The Stoics were a group of people in the ancient world who sought to find lasting joy while living a normal life. They wanted to move past depression, anxiety, anger, worry, and all the other negative emotions that often dominate our lives.

The Stoics were not, contrary to the common misconception, proposing that we be emotionless. They wanted to experience the blessing of positive emotions and minimize the impact of negative emotions. As the Stoic Seneca (4 B.C.–A.D. 65) wrote in his Letters to Lucilius: “Above all, my dear Lucilius, make this your business. Learn how to feel joy” (Letter XXIII, 55).

In this article, I want to explain how the Stoics suggested that you could find joy and then compare and contrast it with a biblical view of joy based on 1 Peter 1:3–9.

With so many hard and even awful things, how did these ancient writers think that you could find joy?

1. Let go of unnecessary negative emotions. According to the Stoics, there are many things that keep us from lasting joy that do not need to. For example, most of the things we worry about never happen and are not even likely to happen. We get nervous even when things are going well. As Seneca said: “The mind at times fashions for itself false shapes of evil when there are no signs that point to any evil” (XIII, 28). Even if bad things could possibly happen, “It is indeed foolish to be unhappy now because you may be unhappy at some future time” (XXIV, 57).

2. Don’t seek your joy in changeable things. People, pleasures, and places can bring us joy. However, if they are the ultimate source of joy, then we will inevitably lose that joy when we lose those things. Seneca put it this way: “For his joy depends on nothing external and looks for no boon from man or Fortune” (LXXI, 190). For example, if our joy depends on our business doing well, we will lose our joy when our business fails. If our joy depends on laboring honestly, then we have a source of joy that is independent of circumstances (or fortune).

3. Re-interpret suffering and hard things. The Stoics did not seek out suffering. They believed that one could live a virtuous life in spite of suffering. They also saw that living rightly in the face of suffering could actually strengthen a person. Seneca compared learning to live virtuously in the face of suffering with training to fight well:

The only contestant who can confidently enter the lists [i.e., engage in the conflict] is the man who has seen his own blood, who has felt his teeth rattle beneath his opponent’s fist, who has been tripped and felt the full force of his adversary’s charge, who has been downed in body but not in spirit, one who, as often as he falls, rises again with greater defiance than ever (XIII, 26).

Responding well to suffering strengthens our character, and that is just one of the many ways we can reinterpret suffering to de-fang it.

4. Find a source of joy independent of fortune or circumstance. For the Stoics, that source was within oneself. Seneca said: “Do you ask me what this real good is, and whence it derives? I will tell you: it comes from a good conscience, from honourable purpose, from the right actions, from contempt of the gifts of chance, from an even and calm way of living which treads but one path” (XXIII, 55). Living rightly and responding well to what happens is something you can always do and that fortune and circumstance can never take away.

I think there is much to commend the Stoic perspective. We should let go of unnecessary worries, not found our joy on changing things, see the benefit of suffering, and find a joy independent of our circumstances. In my view, there is a large overlap with the Christian perspective, but there are important areas where our faith takes up the good insights of Stoicism and provides a much more solid context for lasting joy. Consider this in light of 1 Peter 1:3–9.

1. Christianity like Stoicism calls us from placing our joy in changeable things. Peter recognized that this world would bring us suffering and take away from us things that we value and find joy in: “You may have to suffer grief in all kinds of trials” (1:6).

2. Christianity reinterprets suffering in a way similar to Stoicism. Suffering builds character. 1 Peter 1:7 is a bit difficult to translate, but the point is that suffering is like fire that makes your faith shine forth. When Jesus Christ is revealed, it will result in praise, glory, and honor.

3. Christianity finds joy in our character. We rejoice in the salvation of our souls, of who we are as human (1:9). We are being re-made, and this is something the world cannot take away from us. What is truly valuable that we possess? Our faith. It is of greater worth than gold (1:7).

4. Christianity finds joy in a relationship with Jesus. Here is where Christianity puts us on much better ground than Stoicism in finding lasting joy. There is a relationship with someone that is not changeable and is a source of continual affirmation and love. “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy . . .” (1:8).

5. Christianity finds joy in the hope that all things will turn out well. Again, Christianity here redeems the insights of the natural world. It promises a world where the suffering we experience will be eliminated. It provides us a certain and unalterable hope that does not change based on circumstance. We have been born again into a new hope and an inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade. “In this, you greatly rejoice” (1 Pet. 1:6).

Stoicism represents one of the best human attempts to find lasting joy, and it is one from which we can learn much. As the Church Father Tertullian said, “Seneca is often one of us.” However, our faith provides us with a source of joy that is far better than anything the mind of man could have imagined: virtue based on God’s powerful transformation, a relationship with someone who will always love us, and a hope that will not disappoint. That is a sure ground for lasting joy, if we can learn to see it.