It’s Not a Bug; It’s a Feature

This past Saturday, I got up early because I had a Zoom meeting with a Pointless Overthinking colleague who lives on the other side of the planet.  Despite my best efforts, I’d gotten up a touch late and was in a hurry to get breakfast eaten so I wouldn’t be tardy for our online rendezvous.

For quite a long time now, right after breaking my fast in the morn, I’ve been consuming a bit of ginger and turmeric.  On the morning of the aforementioned meeting, just as I was preparing to spoon down the latter, I spilled the bright orange powder all over the counter and floor.  I uttered a few unmentionable expletives and shook my fist.  What a time for this sort of thing to happen.  I was in a hurry, and now I had a bit of cleanup that was bound to slow me down.

While I began wiping and mopping, a thought flashed into my head.  I had had exactly the wrong sort of response to this occurrence.  It suddenly became perfectly clear that hardship, struggle, and mishaps are not bugs; they are features of life.  It’s so easy to think things like:  “Why have I had this bad luck?  The world is out to get me.”  To be honest, the “world” couldn’t care less about whether or not you have an easy time of things.  In the case of the spilled turmeric, I turned the bottle over improperly and gravity did its thing.  Nothing was out to give me a hard time.  The natural world is actually pretty indifferent to human suffering.  That’s why bad things happen to good people.  Hell, bad things happen to all sorts of people—the good, the bad, and the ugly.

There are a number of folks who write for this site who are attracted by the thinking of the Stoics.  (I am one of them, by the way.)  The Stoics teach us to expect difficulty and to respond to it dispassionately.  To try to keep an even keel when we are tossed about on rough waters.  By the way, it is silly to blame the sea for occasionally being rough.

Far too many Americans—this may be true of others living in other countries too—try to “engineer” difficulty out of their lives.  They crave comfort (above everything) and think that all one needs to do is think positively when struggles arise.  (Thinking that we can do away with hardship by simply filling our minds with positive thoughts is a type of magical thinking.)  They see struggle not as part of the natural order but as something that occurs when things go awry.  Actually, difficulty arises when things are working as they were intended to work. 

When we realize that hardship is life and that life is hardship, we can begin to make important changes in our thinking and behavior.  For example, we can begin to respond with less anger and frustration.  We can embrace the idea that “shit happens.”  When we expect shit, we are never surprised when it shows up.  We take it in stride and behave as the Stoics would.

When we realize that hardship is life and that life is hardship, we can free ourselves from the paralyzing notion that some power out there doesn’t love us and is, in fact, giving us a hard time for some unknowable reason.  Don’t get me wrong, there are malevolent forces (and people) who do horrible things to those who are utterly innocent and completely undeserving of such.  There are victims and victimizers in this world.  But spilling my turmeric at the wrong time was not the result of some grand conspiracy being played out against me.  Dark forces weren’t at work to make sure I was late for my Zoom meeting.

I look forward to hearing your responses to this blog.  Am I wrong?  Am I right?  What say ye?


Note:  The header image is one of my own photographs.

If you like my writing, you can find more here; although, my personal blog certainly needs to be updated.  Plus, if you look around a bit, you can find my writing in many places on the internet.

19 thoughts on “It’s Not a Bug; It’s a Feature

  1. I’d just leave the turmeric there and get back to it later. It isn’t going away. Zoom meeting takes priority.

    There is such a thing as toxic positivity. Some people are addicted to that kind of self-help message and offer it up whether it is relevant or not. It is annoying.

    I find that as I grow older I am shifting from a Stoic POV to an Epicurean POV. The Epicureans are even more misunderstood than the Stoics. I’m not as committed to Asceticism as the original Epicurus was.

    “…pleasure was to be obtained by knowledge, friendship and living a virtuous and temperate life.”

    1. Quite a few years ago now, Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a book called Bright-Sided Thinking. She wrote it when she was diagnosed with cancer. Many people were telling her to just have positive thoughts and things would work out. I suppose this sort of approach came about during the rise of pop psychology and the accompanying “think positive” moment. Thanks, Fred, for your usual interesting response.

  2. I have to say I love how this post makes me pause and think. It’s very easy to let insignificant frustrations affect my mood. I’ll try to keep this in mind going forward.

    1. Hi, Feyheart. We both suffer from that tendency to overreact. (I share that foible.) I guess it helps to remember that there is great wisdom in the old saying “Don’t cry over spilled milk.” Thanks for the comment.

  3. My utterly unscientific theory about this is people are hardwired to worry, because it’s a terrific evolutionary skill. However, most of us don’t have to worry about being attacked be an animal or other tribe and so those impulses will attach themselves to whatever’s handy. It varies a lot, but I’d say many of us are not built for ease and contentment.

    1. You’re right, Jack. Worry is something that was hardwired to help us survive. I guess we need to be able to distinguish between worrying about something that really poses a serious threat and those things that are really silly, like I wonder if people think I’m handsome. There is something about the modern condition that makes it harder for us to make these sort of distinctions. Am I right? Interesting question. One I need to think about. Thanks for the comment.

      1. The human psyche is perfectly designed to sustain life in a stone age environment but not so good in what we have today. All that wiring to avoid life threatening events that you had to face every day is of little use when most people in western countries never face a sudden life threatening event. Most death is a slow death of disease and aging.

        All those physiological reactions to existential threats are just sitting there, almost begging for a stimulus. Problem is (at least for most of us) there are no big predators waiting to pounce on the unwary but we react to relatively trivial concerns with the same anxiety our ancestors reserved for lions and tigers and bears. And unlike keeping a watch out for predators and your spear handy, the things we worry most about today are things we can’t do a damned thing about.

  4. You are absolutely right, Troy! If you view life’s little inconveniences as being directed against you by malevolent forces, you are adopting a victim mentality. You will never be content. <3

    1. Agree, Cheryl. Also, to think that the world is “against” us is an overemphasis of our importance in the overall scheme of things. Nature is indifferent. Thanks for the comment.

  5. I love this post.
    I like, “When we realize that hardship is life and that life is hardship, we can free ourselves from the paralyzing notion that some power out there doesn’t love us and is giving us a hard time for some unknowable reason.”
    I agree with you that acceptance of “hardship” is the key to developing strengths to fight the, “Why me?” attitude.
    Best wishes.

  6. What a lovely post. We do like to take things to heart.

    I knocked over a plant stand the other morning. Three pots upended, dirt everywhere. It was so massive that there was no point in even getting angry. I was reminded then of Stoicism. I need to work on that kind of equanimity with smaller stuff.

    “The natural world is actually pretty indifferent to human suffering.”

    I love this point. It’s true. We anthropomorphize easily. I apologize to the table when I bump it. It’s in our nature to assign human qualities to the things in our world but it’s also pushed on us. Listen to the news. The storm is coming for you. The shark stalked the swimmer. The wildfires attacked a nearby town. I get irate when I hear it.

    1. Thanks for such an insightful comment, Michelle. I hadn’t thought about the language we so often use to describe our interaction with life forms in the natural world. Those examples very nicely illustrate how we can so easily fall into the trap that things are “out to get us” when things are simply doing what things are designed to do.

  7. Well, this is how I used to feel and react which makes sense now. After all from blaming to be a watchful self is a game which must be focused and institutionalised.

    1. Blaming things and others makes us feel better. It’s always good to think that one isn’t at fault for one’s only calamities. In most cases, “fault” is the wrong lens to look at the world through. Thanks for the great comment!

  8. One of my mantras is “Anger is weakness.” A reason I say this is because our anger blinds us to the reality that it is not the events themselves that anger us, but our perceptions of the them. Your post illustrates that concept perfectly. Seneca wrote, and I’m paraphrasing here, “We suffer more in our imagination than we do in reality.” Struggle are part of life. They don’t have to equate to suffering. Camus encouraged us to “imagine Sisyphus happy” as he watched his stone roll back down the hill. As the Stoics said, “We don’t have to do this think called life; We get to…” Great post, Troy.

    1. Thanks so much! I’d add that almost all “emotional” reactions to things are certainly a form of weakness. One of my greatest self-projects is to cultivate delayed responses to stimuli, especially if those stimuli are the sort to be bothersome in some way. The impulse is to lash out. One should react in the coolness that comes after the face has stopped flushing with anger/consternation/etc. This also is true about moments of giddiness. To make a decision or response when one is overwhelmed with extreme delight is almost certainly the first step towards regret. I know this makes me sound like a robot. There’s too much Stoic and Buddhist in me to be anything machine-like.

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