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You’re listening to the Stoic Solutions Podcast – practical wisdom for everyday life. I’m your host, Justin Vacula with episode 86 – Happiness From Within. I explore finding inner contentment, a real sustainable happiness, through exploration of Cellar Darling’s new album ‘The Spell.’
What does happiness mean to you? Do you think about laughter; possessions; entertainment; people; money; or experiences? Stoic authors, reflecting on that which has the capacity to enhance our lives, talk about preferred indifferents – things we would like, but are not necessary to live a life of fulfillment and contentment. Externals, things which exist outside us, Stoic Philosophers say, are not good or bad in themselves, but rather on how we perceive and use them. Money, for instance, can enhance our lives and help others, but also can be associated with greed and harm towards others. People with massive wealth, particularly celebrities, for example, can be unhappy while a low-income person can be happy – it’s the quality of our thoughts, our desires, our expectations, and our levels of gratitude among other things which determine our quality of life.
People who rely too much on externals are setting themselves up for failure because externals, Stoic teachers noted, are liable to destruction, outside our control, and may change day to day. We’re to focus on finding happiness from within, be content in our own company, find worthwhile pursuits to occupy our time, find meaning in life, thrive despite hindrances, prevail amidst adversity, find courage in trying times, accept that which we cannot change and try to make the most of the situation, take appropriate risks rather than sitting on the sidelines, use our strengths to help others, and ultimately be an active participant in our own lives rather than waiting on others or chance events to come to our rescue. We need to come to our own rescue, take responsibility to improve our attitude and situation. For if others in tragic situations can be happy, we cannot we in better scenarios? Stoicism calls for us to modify our attitude for it is primarily mindset which determines our happiness.
Episode 63 of the podcast featured musicians from the band Cellar Darling whose first album titled ‘This is the Sound’ contained many Stoic themes particularly the song ‘Hullabaloo’ formerly titled ‘Tears of a Stoic’ which reflects upon an existential crisis, a situation which led one to experience intense negative emotions and reorient. Their second album, ‘The Spell,’ released in 2019, is a concept album about a woman, popping into existence without parents who takes on all of the pain and tragedy in the world. She wishes to end her life, yearning for death, falling in love with a personification of death, but discovers she cannot commit suicide. She wishes, she desires, she loves that which does not return love, does not meet her desire, and fails to change her mindset, discover meaning, and cannot experience contentment.
It’s a tragic story which parallels with our lives. Consider those, perhaps even you, who have had strong desires, high expectations, and were crushed when expectations fell short, when desire was not met. Only if we are to be more prudent, to select that which is worthwhile of our affection and focus, to reorient priorities, we could experience more contentment. Moderation is key! Love, well, in a certain way, could be a great thing – not an excessive reliance on another to the point of losing identity and continuing to chase someone who is not returning affection…keeping a sense of self and a life outside another, not placing your happiness in the hands of another! We can easily have an ideal unrealistic mental picture of someone and be left empty when expectations are not met. What priorities people have, too, placing so much time in the dating scene, online dating, and relationships especially those which have gone sour months and years ago! The single life, after all, can offer a great deal of contentment for some who may prefer to be in a relationship, but not depend on one for fulfillment.
Returning to the album, its second song, Death, may have the most Stoic of themes in the album. The audiobook corresponding with the song has singer Anna Murphy saying, “What connects us all is one encounter some fear and others long for, thus death is many faces and is a master in the art of manipulation – a most handsome face, a beauty unmatched for those who wish to confront him, but a skeletal horror in the face of those who wish for a long and prosperous life. As for his intent, well, he has none, he is simply fulfilling his duty […] to portray him as evil would be false, for he embodies the truest of necessities.”
Here, like the Stoic Philosophers, Anna states that death is no evil and is perceived in many ways by many people. Death is, in many ways, outside our control and is an inevitable end to life. Many will be unhappy, fearful and even terrified of death often failing to live the life they currently have – squandering time, experiencing dread, and not coming to terms, not accepting an inevitable ruin. Stoicism calls for us to cultivate an appropriate mindset of acceptance regarding death so that intense negative emotions do not haunt us. With practice, study, and reflection, we can come to see that death is something which can make life seem ever more valuable, provide us with inspiration to enjoy a good life not taking life for granted, taking calculated chances, laughing, and living the life we want to live rather than being held back by opinions of others, standard conventions, or life paths others want to impose upon us. Care little about the opinions of those we care little about! As Seneca says, be your own spectator, seek your own applause! Live a good life regardless of what others think for no matter what, we cannot please everyone and should not seek to!
The song ‘Love,’ perhaps the most upbeat on the album, seems to highlight an initial honeymoon spark and ideal version one can have of another. With such high expectations, though, one is bound to crash and burn as is the case later in the story or album as the song foreshadows, “When in love when in love with the darkness, all is lost to a bitter embrace. When in love when in love with the darkness, all that’s left of you will fade.” Stoic authors urge us to be careful of those whom we associate – we’re to surround ourselves with the best, carefully consider who we let inside our social circles, be careful of who we share information with as the vices of others can rub off on us. This is not, as has been criticized, an elitist perspective, but rather sensible advice which says nothing of the individual considering it – why surround ourselves with disreputable people? Select those who add value to our lives as friendship ought to be a two way street of benefits. We’re not only to receive, but also to give. Again, we’re not to wholly rely or overly rely on others, but rather we prefer to have good friends and still be able to keep our wits about us even if, as was the case in the times of the ancient stoics, exile from our country. People will come, people will go. We can be fortunate for those who are good friends to be lifelong, but this is rare…all the more reason to cultivate happiness from within rather than relying on others.
How many times will we fall off the hedonic treadmill, to seem so happy at first but later find that initial spark wear off, to have some short-term feeling fade maybe later even experiencing regret? We look for a temporary, quick fix in many cases and then find that this was a failure. What an opportunity to rail against vice as Stoic authors would do! Consider degeneracies of the age as Seneca would mention – those who may, as I see it, light money on fire when they can’t afford it and later complaining about being paycheck to paycheck or broke and then blame others or ‘the system’ taking on little to no personal accountability and perhaps feeling a sense of high entitlement. What horror I experienced when I recently listened to a daytime talk show with hosts talking about how child support should be able to provide women with a ‘good time’ of going out to drink when friends and have a nice meal. It was a video of criticism, not me actively watching the show, I assure you! The frugal life wins once again and entertainment, travel, and many nice things can be had at little to no cost. At home, I’m more than happy with my protein shakes and rice cooker meals. What more do I need? Why would I want much of anything else? Temper your desires and find a better quality of life.
Returning to the album, the title track, ‘The Spell’ has Anna singing, “Eternal life will haunt you,” an interesting concept also contained within Stoic texts with authors focusing on the quality, rather than the quantity of life, and warning that sometimes our hopes and dreams, our wishes, our desires, may not turn out to be a good end, a modern version being ‘be careful of what you wish for because you might get it.’ Perhaps an eternal life, especially that of inescapable pain, wouldn’t be worthwhile to continue assuming we have done what we can to ebb the pain. Stoic authors talk about suicide being a noble and sensible matter in certain situations, the open door, they say, remains open, as a self-imposed end could be fitting rather than existing and not thriving. We’re not to overly cling to life when it’s no longer worth living.
Finally, the song ‘Insomnia’ is more about the yearning the tragic character in the album has for death, a desire so strong, Anna sings, “I will not sleep until you hold me, for I cannot dream anymore of you and your absence so haunting, I won’t sleep, I can’t dream anymore.” Of death, she sings, “You are what’s constant, ever-flowing, the water to my fire. You are the answer in search of the void.” Death, those, ignores her despite the strong desire and insomnia talks hold. Instead, a contentment from within would avert disaster.
Stoic authors and the modern album from Cellar Darling warns us of creating a life in which we depend on others to prop us up, a flimsy support, for we can be helped and learn from others, but ultimately should work to be as self-sufficient as possible. We’re warned of extreme desire, high expectations, misplaced priorities, and the danger which comes with failing to find meaning in life. Indeed, value the presence of externals to enhance your life, but don’t overly rely on externals. Consider, if you’re finding too much reliance on others, to take on a new hobby, learn something new, explore, travel, play a new game, exercise, challenge yourself, read, play a musical instrument, learn a new language, watch a documentary…and don’t overly indulge in entertainment, some is okay, but let’s not binge-watch Netflix all day or make mistakes, as one Stoic has said, at the dinner table by overindulging. Moderation is key. Find happiness from within, a sure and lasting joy, or at least the most we can cultivate even in or especially in very difficult times. We can have sympathy for those in harrowing situations,indeed, and Stoicism offers a remedy. A drastic change may not happen overnight, Stoicism doesn’t offer a quick fix or miracle, but with some reflection and one small step starting a journey, one can find more contentment. There comes a time when, when life isn’t going as we would like, to experience humility and wonder whether we are our own worst enemy, that our attitudes about life are faulty. What have you to lose by adding more Stoicism to your life especially when so many have benefited? We cannot choose the cards we are dealt in the game of life and poker, but we choose how we play- to imitate those who play at dice as Epictetus said, to understand that many circumstances are outside our control, but we have a choice in how we respond,how we react, what we think about what happens. Some see disaster where others see opportunity. What will your decision be?
Thanks for listening and stay tuned for more content especially a second podcast project, in weeks to come, which will focus on credit cards, deals, and travel for next to no cost. I’ll be at Stoicon 2019 in Athens, Greece thanks to the wonderful benefits which come with credit cards – round-trip flight and five-night hotel stay paid for with points. See my website for a credit card questionnaire where you can answer questions to be guided in the right direction.
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Podcast music, used with permission, is brought to you by Phil Giordana’s symphonic metal group Fairyland from their album ‘Score to a New Beginning.’ John Bartmann offered free consultation and audio edits for episodes 51-63. Thanks to generous patrons and fans of this podcast who help support my work. Have a great day.