The Philosophy of Perspective

"I have the power to act under reservation and turn circumstances to my own advantage." -Marcus Aurelius

It’s the start of a new year—a time when energy and ambitions are at their most palpable. It’s the time when we magically have the fuel to catalyze the reinventions we spent the second half of last year fantasizing about. Even more interesting is the mass perception of the new year as being cause for reinvention (though neither here nor there). I’m a firm believer in the idea that if you have a resolution, it’s one you should’ve made yesterday, or last week, or last month, or the second the desire was conceived. Any goal attached to the turn of a new year is as fickle as time itself. But we’re not here to minimize something as well-intentioned as goal-setting. We’re here to talk about a resolution so essential that without it, true flourishing is impossible.

The Stoics teach us that thoughtfulness (reason) precedes virtue (happiness). The quality of our experience begins with our interpretation of it. How we interpret our experience dictates the actions that follow. And thus, if there’s a resolution worth making—something truly worth resolving to—it’s the following: resolve to see things differently.

“Today I escaped the power of circumstance, or rather I cast all circumstance out; for it was not outside me, but within me, in my judgments.” -Marcus Aurelius

Imagine a world where at first signs of comprehension, children were told the following: attachment to anything external is a recipe for disaster. Your parents may fail you. Someone you love might die. You might lose your job. You might get sick. When you know that externals are fleeting, you can appreciate them more. You can relish in the presence of the ones you love, hanging on their every word like you may never get to hear them speak again. You can celebrate your successes because you know 10 more failures may very well follow. And because things are always changing, you can skip the periods of unproductive frustration and move right along to your next task.

"Here is the world,” Fredrick Buechner writes. “Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don't be afraid.” And yet somewhere along the path of our existence, we’re conditioned to forget that “terrible” part and expect only the beautiful. As significant and sensical as it is to protect ourselves and those around us from painful experiences, it might be even more helpful to expect them. And to tell our children to expect them. And so on, and so on until the expectation of suffering is so deeply woven into the human fabric that its actual occurrence is no match for us. The ability to hold this dissonance in our minds (hoping for, working toward, and wanting the best while expecting the worst) is what breeds resilience. Put simply, it’s what helps us bounce back when the not-so-beautiful inevitably occurs. It helps arm us against the lie that says our circumstances and ourselves are one and the same.

We’ve now arrived at our destination: every circumstance is intended for our benefit. Or rather, we must intend every circumstance for our benefit. As, what other way is there to live exactly? To paraphrase Ryan Holiday in his now staple text of modern Stoicism, why would we choose to feel anything but good? While we can’t always change our circumstances, we can always reframe them. This is where peace turns from something longed-for to something experienced. The right mindset fuels right action; the wrong mindset fuels wrong action. The person who understands that life owes them nothing, that they could’ve been born anywhere, as any person, to anyone, is able to see the fortune in everything, making thoughtful decisions driven by perspective.

Perspective is the thing that in the face of unwanted circumstances allows us to say, “It’s been worse,” or, “It could be worse.” In that moment, we’ve asserted mental dominance over the perceived oppressor. We overrode our default narrative, deciding how we would see it versus the it deciding for us. Or in the words of one of the great lyricists of our day Missy Elliot, we put the thing down, flipped it and reversed it. [I’m sorry.]

As Aurelius encourages us, every occurrence is meant to be turned to our advantage. Not in the at-the-expense-of-others way in which "advantage" is so commonly interpreted, but in the way that we instinctively see every scenario, negative or otherwise, as for our benefit. For our thriving. Whether actively engaged or not, we each possess this incredible gift called reason—the ability to choose how we see things, how we interpret the people and events that make up our lives, and how we act as a result. Because he can’t be quoted too much, Ryan Holiday effectively captures this concept in The Obstacle Is The Way particularly when he says, “Discipline in perception lets you clearly see the advantage and the proper course of action in every situation—without the pestilence of panic or fear.”

Discipline in perception. Not discipline in practice, or action, or anything else by which we’re used to “discipline” being an adjacent idea, but perception. Being disciplined in perception means that at first exposure to any situation, we’re immediately responsible for and in immediate control of the thoughts we form thereafter. It’s a level of self-accountability beyond anything we’ve been taught, and one that will avail us to experiences richer than any we’ve had. Discipline in perception reframes our past and invigorates our present, freeing us to decide how the uncontrollable affects us.

This is incredible news. This means that through the gift of reason, we can transcend the destructive emotions that often accompany non-ideal circumstances. It means that nothing outside of us disrupts our peace without our permission. It would do us well to heed Marcus Aurelius’ reminder to himself: For it was not outside me, but within me, in my judgements.

“All is change, yet not in such a way that we need fear anything new.” -Marcus Aurelius

All is change, and this truth deserves two cheers. What Aurelius essentially tells us here is that there’s nothing truly worth getting “worked up” over as, like the weather, our circumstances will inevitably change.

But the real beauty is this: Stoic principles tell us that we’ll be okay even if they don’t.

Even if they don’t. There may never be four words on this blog more important than these. I may never write four more important words in my entire life. If we don’t understand these four words, philosophy is worthless to us all. We must see to it that our peace isn’t contingent upon the end of a particular situation. Or the beginning of a particular situation. Because as we’ve iterated, attachment to anything external is a recipe for disaster. It’s us asking to not be satisfied unless that external is fulfilled. And why would we ever ask to be at a disadvantage should something out of our control go unfulfilled? Don’t rely on your circumstance changing. Rely on you changing.

Let’s say this together. Even if _______ doesn’t change, I will be okay. Because we deeply believe we are not less without that thing. That promotion, that marriage, that mended relationship. With that said, it’s okay to want these things. Being a Stoic or a philosophically-inclined person doesn’t mean we don’t feel. Hear Epictetus when he says that, "self-sufficient though he is, he still desires a friend, a neighbor, a companion.” I imagine he’d allow us to take liberties with the specifics of that list as it suits us. Where we err is when we view the fulfillment of said wishes as the only means of joy. A practical note: cut out whatever is visually making you feel this way, as what consumes your attention shapes your desires and always wins.

Resolve to see things differently. And perhaps, resolve to see different things.

The right perspective frees us to approach our future with both anticipation and content, eagerness without expectation. Right perspectives make sense out of seeming contradictions. When we see things accurately (read: beneficially), necessary actions follow suit. Philosophy is perspective.

And so, as we resolve to our individual aims this year, may the notion of perceiving our circumstances differently be one in which we collectively engage.

“…desire only that to be done which is done, and for him only to gain the prize who gains the prize; for in this way you will meet with no hindrance.” -Epictetus