F**K Positivity: What I Learned From Knee Surgery, A Navy Seal and Stoicism

“Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

One way toward true happiness is to realize that the above quote is bullshit. When it comes to happiness, the world is indifferent. Look no further than the recent hurricanes, the earthquakes in Mexico and countless other disasters to come. The laws of nature don’t discriminate between black or white, rich or poor, male or female. It’s the height of arrogance to think that the world will, in any way, bow to us to see that our greatest desires are met.

By extension, our minds are wired not for happiness, but instead for survival. Every decision that we make is to ensure the propagation of our DNA. Richard Dawkins’ book title sums it up nicely: The Selfish Gene. Stripped down to our naked selves, we are survival machines with a capacity for happiness. This happiness can be realized by embracing reality, not blind positivity.

Three weeks ago, I underwent major knee surgery. In the time since, the daily activities that I once took for granted and the practice of mixed martial arts that left me euphoric are no longer doable. My life has been condensed to eating, sleeping, being forcibly lazy and working in a limited capacity. Apathy and anhedonia(inability to experience pleasure from activities usually found enjoyable) has set in. I’m dipping my toes in the waters of depression. But is this situation inherently bad?

In his podcast, retired Navy Seal and bestselling author Jocko Willink has a one word answer to all of life’s adversity: good. Got laid off from your job? Good, now you’re free to get a better one. Didn’t get promoted? Good now you have time to get better. Unexpected problems? Good now you have an opportunity to figure out a solution. Does it suck when shitty situations occur? Of course it does. But not finding the small bit of good in it makes it that much shittier.

So what’s good about being temporarily disabled? First and foremost, you gain a clear picture of who’s a close friend versus who’s merely an acquaintance. Secondly, every one of us will have our bodies fail us in the future. Being temporarily disabled acts as a dress rehearsal for something that will one day be permanent. Will we look forward to the things that we can do such as read, meditate, play chess and otherwise build our mental fortress? Or will we become resentful? Thirdly, once the setback passes, any forward movement takes on a whole new level of appreciation. And lastly, we may realize that the big house, the expensive car and the thousand dollar, dust collecting sculpture is absolutely meaningless.

The adherents of ancient Stoic Philosophy used to practice “contemptuous expressions.” The 10,000 square foot mansion is just plywood, sheetrock and sticks. The Mercedes is just a hunk of metal that uses the same air, spark and gas as other cars to move forward. There’s no legend behind these things. The Stoics would strip them away until only their objectivity lay bare. This line of thinking can be applied to our physical well-being. We are a collection of smoothly moving parts. This ability to move freely will be taken away from us one day. In this last stage of our psychosocial development, will we choose integrity or despair?

We can “know” that one day the ability to do something simple like make a cup of coffee, will be taken away from us. But knowing is not feeling. For this reason, I take an ice bath every morning, first thing, when I wake up. The warmth of a bed being replaced by the shock of the ice cold water rips you away from the grips of comfort. It allows you to viscerally feel that comfort is fleeting. Though I don’t suggest it, knee surgery has taught me the same.

In a world where we overdose from positive thinking on a daily basis, it’s more useful to contemplate reality. No the universe does not conspire to make our dreams happen. We need to get off of our asses to make them happen. While not easy, we need to realize that what happens to us is not inherently good or bad. It’s the meaning that we assign to it. Look no further than Stephen Hawking. When a shitty situation is thrust upon us, what’s good about it? How can we gain from it? The quote below is realistic and empowering. Don’t wait for the universe to conspire. It won’t happen.

“It’s not in the stars to hold our destiny, but in ourselves.”

William Shakespeare

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