Running Away Makes You Fragile — What the Ancients Knew

Every time I read a chapter from Seneca’s Letters From a Stoic, I feel a bit smarter.  I feel a bit lighter and more connected with the secrets of the universe.   I love reading Seneca’s letters because they are easily accessible.  You  can pick a passage,  get in and out of in 15 minutes, but it will leave you thinking all day.

Letter 28 is one of those.  In a concise and pithy three pages,  Seneca tells how why you cannot run away from your troubles, and how doing so actually makes you a more fragile person.  He had this figured out 2000 years ago!

He starts the letter ( to his friend Lucilius) by telling him:

“Are you surprised, as if it were a novelty, that after such long travel and so many changes of scene you have not been able to shake off the gloom and heaviness of your mind? You need a change of soul rather than a change of climate.”

He then goes on to quote Socrates:

“Why do you wonder why your globe-trotting does you no good, seeing that you always take yourself with you? The reason which set you wandering is ever at your heels”

It’s great. He’s basically telling his friend: Dude, you need to look in the mirror.

I feel we’ve all done or thought something like this. “This cold weather is making me depressed.  I’ve had it.  I need to move to California or someplace warm.  That will get rid of my troubles”.  Or “I’m done with this place.  The women/men here are all losers.”

It’s usually not true.  The change should begin within.

Okay,  so maybe you think this not so earth shattering.  You may have even thought this yourself – but what he goes on to say, really made me sit back and say “wow!”.

“You rush here and there, to rid yourself of the burden that rests upon you, though it becomes more troublesome by reason of your very restlessness, just as in a ship the cargo when stationary makes no trouble, but when it shifts to this side or that, it causes the vessel to heel more quickly in the direction where it has settled. Anything you do tells against you, and you hurt yourself by your very unrest; for you are shaking up a sick man.”

Awesome.  Your running around actually makes things worse for you!  Fragile!  But he goes on to say if you work on yourself, you become antifragile.

“That trouble once removed, all change of scene will become a pleasure; though you may be driven to the uttermost ends of the earth, in whatever corner of a savage land you may find yourself, that place, however forbidding, will be to you a hospitable abode. Where you arrive does not matter so much as what sort of person you are when you arrive there.”

I’m not sure what kind of therapy and self-help they had in ancient times,  but in today’s world that could mean reading self-development books,  talking things out with friends and family, getting therapy,  or attending a 12-step program.

The key is that mental health is truly one of the building blocks of a successful and happy life, how ever you define it.  We’ve known it for thousands of years.

 

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How to Live in a Big City

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Almost all murders occur in large cities. So too for most car theft, rape, pick-pocketing, and hellacious traffic jams.

Why do we live in them then?  Well, of course they also have most of the jobs, new ideas, universities, specialty grocery stores, wine bars, and cool new Spanish restaurants.

In other words, all of the good stuff too.  In fact, the bigger cities get the more of each (bad and good things) they get — at an increasing rate.  As a city doubles in size, it doesn’t just double the amount of schools, police, and hipster coffee shops, it increases by an extra 15%.  This is true for almost any thing:  flu cases, time spend in traffic, patents filed (new ideas), art galleries, yoga studios, wages, and wealth.

Watch this fascinating TED Talk video given by  theoretical physicist Geoffrey West of The Santa Fe Institute, where lays out his research on this exact topic:

 

 

This is the crux of why the suburbs are (still) so popular — people want access to the jobs, but they don’t want the crime, traffic, and anything else undesirable.  The problem with this is that while it may get you away from much  of the crime, it creates even more traffic problems for everyone, not too mention many of the good things, like convenient walkable neighborhoods and schools, corner coffee shops, funky bars, and museums become too far away.

The ideal situation — and most antifragile — is expose yourself to all of the good things about cities, but minimize the downside.  How to do this?  Well, many people are already doing his organically, some consciously and some unconscionably.  We’re seeing a revival in urbanism and movements by people and business back to the city center, but I think it’s helpful to think of it in a conscious and logical manner.    Here are some strategies:

  • If you don’t have kids and school systems aren’t an issue, live right in the heart of the city.  You can choose a condo, apartment, or possibly even a house.  The key is to make sure it’s a safe neighborhood, so you’re not exposed to much of the crime.
  • If you have kids and the public school system is bad, live in the closest safe’ish neighborhood to downtown.  Most big cities have this kind of “suburb” that’s really more like an extension of the city than a suburb.  Meaning, it’s got sidewalks, storefronts, and good public transportation.  It should be almost seamless to get downtown.
  • You could also just send your kids to a private school and stay right in the neighborhood you like, if you have the money to do so.
  • Live in a part of the metro area where your commute is reversed.  I can tell you first hand that this is a big deal.  I’ve had several jobs on the outskirts of the city while I lived near the city center (in a separate municipality), but the commute to work was more like 20 minutes instead of 40-60 minutes the other direction, because of the fact that everyone was coming into downtown during the morning rush hour while I was leaving it.  This can definitely help you keep your sanity.
  • Take practical precautions so you can get out and enjoy the city.  Make sure you don’t leave your door open when you leave.  If you’re worried at night but want to leave your windows open, get a window lock that make it impossible to open them from the outside.  Lock your garage, etc.   Anything that makes you safer and lets you still get out and enjoy all that cities have to offer.
  • Make friends. Join groups.  Not only will you enjoy your experiences more sharing it with others, but it also partially solves one of the safety issues.