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When All Moments Have Equal Value

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A young Austrian bodybuilder arrives in America and starts looking for work.

He can find only menial labor that pays almost nothing. Cleaning up construction debris. Lifting crates onto trucks.

He does this work with a grim face and without complaint. His employer, a small, apprehensive man, sometimes apologizes when he asks the bodybuilder to do particularly unglamorous tasks.

When he’s asked to haul thirty splintery wooden crates up to the second floor:

“It is fine. I get to strengthen my biceps, and enjoy how strong they already are.”

When he’s asked to gather all the scrap iron from a factory floor and put it into a bin:

“It is good. I get to strengthen my back, and enjoy how strong it already is.”

After a year or so, he’s able to find a better paying job as a security at a roughhouse bar. This comes with new challenges, however. He has to deal directly with people, often drunk and belligerent ones. The owner gives him one piece of advice: “Stay mean. Don’t give an inch or they take a mile.”

Despite the bodybuilder’s imposing physical presence, or perhaps because of it, conflicts in the bar rarely become physical. He is able to defuse altercations with words alone, almost every time. Sometimes he even gets the involved parties to shake hands, or at least nod in truce. The owner is surprised at this.

“You’re too nice to be a bouncer,” the owner tells him. “You shouldn’t have to deal with these sorts of people.”

“It is all right. I am doing what I came here to do. Every time I have to talk to someone, I get to practice my English, and enjoy how strong it already is. Every time someone is aggressive, I get to practice my patience. Every time someone is upset, I get to practice my kindness. It is all strength training to me.”

“Don’t you want a break from ‘training’ all the time? It sounds like you’re making a hard life for yourself.”

“No. Every other way to live is harder.”

***

I’m starting to see the unifying principle behind all the philosophies that really appeal to me (e.g. Buddhism, Stoicism, Arnold Schwarzenegger). They view all of life’s moments as having equal value, at least where it counts, and what counts is your skill in embracing the moments that make up your life.

It’s a genius idea, possibly the smartest thing human beings ever came up with. Embracing all moments as a rule transforms every day into precisely what you’re looking for: an interesting variety of experiences, every one of which offers you what you value, regardless of what happens in particular.

This is a dramatic improvement over the prevailing mammalian strategy – desperately trying to make certainties out of favorable possibilities, and impossibilities out of unfavorable possibilities. It’s a losing game by definition, so playing it makes us unhappy. The bigger our brains get, the more obsessively we try to map out every contingency, and the more of our lives we spend suffering possibilities in our heads instead of appreciating the actualities around us.

All moments can be appreciated, on a basic level at least, when you value the two opportunities each one offers – to respond skillfully to what’s happening, and to experience being alive for another moment. When this is what’s valued – rather than the fleeting bubbles of pleasure or ease they might bring — an unpleasant moment is just as good as a pleasant one, sometimes better.

For at least a few thousand years, curious individuals have occasionally stumbled upon this brilliant principle. Like all the best ideas, people discovered it independently, in different times and places. It’s so powerful they sometimes start philosophy schools or religions around it. The Stoics worked on using each moment to practice patience, rationality, and fortitude. The Buddhists used their moments to practice meeting reality without desire or aversion. The Christians, the Daoists, and probably many other traditions, all had their own version.

Even more people, probably most of us, have stumbled on bits and pieces of this sort of wisdom just by living life and gravitating towards what seems to work better. You figure out at some point that rain is actually okay, or even enjoyable, when you don’t resent that it’s raining. As you get older, you start not to mind disagreements or criticism so much, as long as you handled yourself well.

It’s such a superior way to pursue happiness that, given enough time, I suspect we’re guaranteed to spiral in towards it. It’s too useful to not to eventually figure it out and build our lives around it, the we couldn’t help but discover that food can be cooked, and that we can grow it instead of always having to go find it.

I’m trying to lean into the spiral. As always, there are days when dutifully I treat each moment as a practice, and days where I habitually discount most of my moments because they contain unfavorable content.

What’s new is that the habitual discounting approach is starting to become harder. It’s less rewarding and starts to feel absurd after a few days of it.

It’s such a relief to get back to the dutiful practice approach. Operating that way takes some vigilance but the reward is that it doesn’t matter too much what happens. It still matters, but it’s not what matters most.   

***

Photo by Kelly Sikkema

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Tony Z. May 18, 2021 at 11:29 pm

Wow, thank you for the great reminder to treat life as practice and find the good in each moment. I loved this article!

Accidentally Retired May 19, 2021 at 4:57 pm

Yes thank you. Brilliantly written and I enjoy how you hit on how stoicism, Buddhism, and other philosophies and religions intertwine. Most of all we all just need to remember to lean into our unwanted content and find the good in them.

Olimpia May 19, 2021 at 2:20 am

It’s such a simple idea yet we always gravitate towards making life more complex than what it really is.
I love this article. I want be like Arnold, humble, open to the experience and confident that those little, insignificant steps taken every day will get me to where I want to be; patient with my daughter, loving with my partner.
Your words bring me comfort. Thank you David.

Susan Isabel Dworkin May 19, 2021 at 2:39 am

Had to comment since I too once again from the midst of despair arrived at this revelation for the gazillionth time in my life yesterday. It is even more powerful when it sweeps over you from the highs or lows of life and you realize that everything is just fine, feels like liberation. This too shall pass.
Thank you.

boksir May 19, 2021 at 2:49 am

Beautiful article.. I also found a bit of similarity with “Growth Mindset” by Carol Dweck.. though the context there is a bit different..

David Cain May 19, 2021 at 10:14 am

It’s definitely compatible, although you are right that the context is a little different. This angle operates a little more on the phenomenological side — right down to moments or individual instances of sensory experience. Although I guess it works on many levels at once. Buddhism focuses on a very granular sensory level, while Arnold is maybe doing it on a more of a self-talk/thinking level.

Myles May 19, 2021 at 2:54 am

What a brilliant article. Just what I needed to read before starting my day. We hear about “living in the moment” a lot until this becomes a cliche we don’t think about. This approach of actively giving equal value to each moment is one I haven’t come across before and now I will put it into practice. Thank you, David.

David Cain May 19, 2021 at 10:21 am

Thanks Myles. One issue with timeless good ideas is that they become cliched phrases like “live in the moment,” and then they have no effect on us. By that point I think it’s time to find new or at least more specific ways to say it.

Andreea Masec May 19, 2021 at 2:54 am

Hi! Thank you! I needed to be reminded of that. So important to take things as they are, with presence and gratitude. It reminded me of a story I love much: The three questions by Leo Tolstoy.

David Cain May 19, 2021 at 10:24 am

Ah I actually hadn’t heard of this story, but I’m going to find a copy.

Marian Lund May 19, 2021 at 3:22 am

This resonates with me. But need to find a mantra to keep it in mind. From the text: ‘Embrace all moments’. I think that will do nicely. Thanks David.

Natacha May 19, 2021 at 3:30 am

So often we think that later will be better, once we tick all the boxes, whatever they are for us: studies, family, job, fitness… And then we are not happier and we wonder why.
A lot of us have this midlife awakening: it will not get better than this, so we’d better enjoy this moment!

David Cain May 19, 2021 at 10:25 am

I think reaching midlife is informing my topic choice :)

Xin Hu May 19, 2021 at 5:26 am

Happiness seems to be an elusive thing. Only when I stop pursuing it, could I feel it. It is around me every moment. Accept and enjoy whatever happens to me is happiness.
Thank you.

David Cain May 19, 2021 at 10:31 am

That is one of the famous ironies of life. You don’t have happiness as long as you are seeking it, because that means you’re defining it by what you don’t have. It can only be found in what’s already happening. It’s not obvious how to do that, which I guess is why the Stoics, Buddhists and other schools of thought came up with the practices they did.

Nova May 19, 2021 at 6:28 am

This is so great! It actually makes so much more sense to me than sinply “live in the moment”, which I admit I’ve never quite gelled with. I’m going to think of Arnie happily hauling crates the next time I’m feeling bored or discontented.

David Cain May 19, 2021 at 10:32 am

I like that image too. Thinking of Arnold Schwarzenegger always makes me happy.

Chris May 19, 2021 at 7:15 am
David Cain May 19, 2021 at 11:14 am

Hey thanks Chris!

Charlotte May 19, 2021 at 7:30 am

This is just what I needed. I am trying to force myself to think or be only positive and to shove all my stressors away. But aftrer reading this I had one of those aha moments when I read-All moments can be appreciated….-that helped me see it’s okay to live the not-so-good moments as it is the good. Thank you.

Marie Barger May 19, 2021 at 8:09 am

I love Arnold! But this is teaching me a good lesson. Thank you!
marie

Erika Coburn May 19, 2021 at 8:15 am

Such a great article for me! Thank you for sharing your thoughts and wisdom with us! I have been reading and loving your work for over ten years now and I am always encouraged and gain insights from your writing. Thank you!

Christina May 19, 2021 at 9:21 am

Your posts (I receive your newsletter) are always so valuable for me. Sweet reminders.

Thank you!

Valerio May 19, 2021 at 9:30 am

I found the correlation between Buddhism, Stoicism and Arnie’s views on life truly brilliant. You’ve managed to both make me chuckle and teach me something very valuable at the same time. Very good work, once again.

David Cain May 19, 2021 at 11:17 am

I would like to see how these map on to Taoism and Christianity once I learn more about them. But the basic theme is definitely pervasive across traditions that did not influence each other. So there’s something important here.

devo May 19, 2021 at 9:46 am

what would this process be like for you if you could experience it with no opinion?

David Cain May 19, 2021 at 11:15 am

This sounds like an interesting thought… can you elaborate?

George Bartlett May 19, 2021 at 11:19 am

Such insight! And brilliantly articulated! Thanks I needed this today…

Anna Bardon May 19, 2021 at 11:44 am

Are you into Katie Byron at all? I find doing ‘the work’ for negative thoughts about something that’s happening or about someone’s behavior, helps me find peace, acceptance and i feel so relieved that actually i don’t need to change the situation or personne in order to feel happy or free.
My favourite quote of all time from dear Shakespear..
Nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so!
Thanks for your inspiring articles :-)

David Cain May 19, 2021 at 3:19 pm

I have had brushes with Byron Katie’s process but never really explored it. It sounds like it would be helpful for training oneself to meet each moment with the perspective that it is useful.

Louise A Olafsson May 19, 2021 at 11:48 am

Love this article. Just what I needed to get through difficult times. Thank you.

Karen Wilson May 19, 2021 at 12:54 pm

Thank you again David for your insights. Instead of beating up on myself for having pain, this reminds me to appreciate the great strength my body does have in every moment

John Norris May 19, 2021 at 1:06 pm

>> It’s such a superior way to pursue happiness that, given enough time, I suspect we’re guaranteed to spiral in towards it. <<

I agree, it's a superior way. Are we guaranteed to find it before we die? I suspect most people won't. But maybe the hope is that the percentage of people who find it is increasing? You may need to be a progressive to believe that :)

Thank you David, as ever.

David Cain May 20, 2021 at 9:34 am

We’re not guaranteed to find it before we die no. I mean that it is inevitable on a species level, if we stay around long enough.

Brian May 19, 2021 at 2:50 pm

A housefly appeared mysteriously in my bathroom last night; I haven’t seen flies for many months. Instead of swatting it I said out loud “Hey, buddy, what are you doing here? What message do you have for me?” Nothing. Houseflies can be so reticent. It was still there this morning. I greeted it, asked again. Nothing. When I pulled out my moisturizer it landed on the handle; when I put the bottle in the cupboard it landed on my watch. Persistent little bug(ger). I finally got the message: be present moment by moment, be accepting, respond instead of reacting. Thanks fly!

David Cain May 20, 2021 at 9:37 am

More and more I’m interpreting mundane events something like that. Not necessarily that there is an explicit message, but just the fact that something is happening at all is kind of miraculous. Everything that happens is a reminder that life is going on now, and it will not always be.

Rusty Southwick May 19, 2021 at 2:53 pm

David, this caused me to hearken back to an Eckhart Tolle truism:
“Accept — then act. Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it. Make it your friend and ally, not your enemy. This will miraculously transform your whole life.”

Not previously being familiar with Stoicism, I hadn’t thought of Tolle in that vein until now. But I think his great work “A New Earth” may have actually served as the catalyst which unknowingly gravitated me toward Stoic thought. I recently bought “The Practicing Stoic” (Farnsworth) and works by Seneca, though I haven’t started them yet. I have others on my to-get list by Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius.

And “A New Earth” speaks to one of the theme’s of your post, as Tolle describes that humanity is in the process of coming back around to understanding these simple truths and implementing them, which is the new earth.

I’m now interested in looking at your earlier musings on your 30-day log. Don’t mind me if I tag along for the ride a bit…

David Cain May 20, 2021 at 9:39 am

There is a stronger overlap in all of these different philosophies than I ever suspected, and Eckhart Tolle has done a good job of finding those common threads and making them accessible in a nondenominational way. I should revisit his books; it’s been a long time and I’m a different person now.

Brady May 19, 2021 at 7:47 pm

I feel like Neil Pascricha’s ‘1000 Awesome Things’ popped into my mind reading this. We often discount (and therefore miss the benefit) the value of the little satisfying actions or fleeting moments like ‘wearing warm clothes straight out of the dryer,’ ‘hitting a bunch of green lights in a row’ or ‘roasting the perfect marshmallow.’

David Cain May 20, 2021 at 9:42 am

Neil is a friend of mind and I believe that was his idea with the 1000 Awesome Things. He started writing it when his life was at a very low point. He was very wrapped up on the narrative level of life — bad things are happening, and so life is bad. Focusing on details helped him see that life is constantly offering gifts regardless of what’s happening.

Lee May 22, 2021 at 7:02 am

It’s funny, I had a similar experience this winter where a change of perspective made all the difference. I live in the northeast, and despite the fact I have a nice, powerful snow blower, these last few years I’ve hired a company to snow plow. A day or so before the first storm he informed his customers that he was no longer plowing residential drive ways. I scrambled to find an alternative, but then I thought, ‘I’m healthy, I have a nice snow blower, and think of the money I will save by cleaning my own driveway.’ That little change in perspective made all of the difference. Since I typically paid $75-$100 per storm, I started to keep track of the money I was saving, telling myself, I’d buy something nice with the money I saved when the spring rolled around. From that moment on, I couldn’t wait for a snow storm. It wasn’t long that I started to take pride in cleaning my own driveway and would look at the weather report hoping for a storm!

anna bardon May 23, 2021 at 12:11 pm

for a while i got the family to do family meetings every sunday. I brought up the problem of the younger two screaming alot. i asked if anyone had a solution because it was driving us mad. My middle child said we should put money in a pot every time someone screamed and we should go to the zoo with it. I accepted because i was just so amazed they came up with an idea. People i told about it were really shocked because they said rewarding them for bad behaviour would only encourage them more. screaming became a happy event… i was grateful for every scream and even told them…. well done for screaming and gave them money to put in the pot. Within a couple of weeks there was no more screaming happening at all!!! We went to see the crocodiles and it was our best trip ever. I gave them the money to buy a little gift in the gift shop. Reading your comment made me think of this. :-)

Nick May 22, 2021 at 8:44 pm

Some interesting and valid points – but aren’t you concerned that by entering this mindset, you risk seeing everything with pure indifference and neutrality..? No longer feeling pain, but also, no longer feeling pleasure..? To want all moments to be treated equally, suggests that everything is the ‘same’, a zombie-like existence. No thanks.

I feel that pleasures in life when also ‘useful and productive’ – are ideal, but not always possible – but can occur often enough and should be sought out. While once in a while, the occasional letting loose and pure pleasure, is also fine. While during life’s difficult moments – to strive to put things in perspective and take some positives and aim to learn / gain something from the experience, should be the objective.

But absolutely, to focus on the immediate moment and enjoy life’s intricacies and nuances and subtle details – for sure, that is excellent advice!

In any case, always an interesting read and gives me something to think about and ponder.

David Cain May 23, 2021 at 2:09 pm

There is a distinction between this perspective and indifference. We aren’t able to choose not feeling pain or pleasure. What I’m talking about is disregarding our reflexive judgments to deem a moment bad because it contains difficulty or pain. What really matters is how you conduct yourself in response, and every moment offers an opportunity to do that well.

The Stoics had language for making this distinction. They were concerned about conducting themselves virtuously regardless of what happened, but also recognized that they would prefer certain events to others (e.g. not getting sick is better than getting sick). However, getting sick didn’t deny you your ability to make the best use of your life and its moments, so they would call not getting sick a “preferred indifferent” — it is preferable not to get sick, but it is not intrinsically bad, as our reflexive judgments might suggest.

Jorge May 23, 2021 at 6:40 pm

Love this post; thanks David.

Where do Schwarzenegger’s stories come from? His autobiography, Total Recall? I would like to read more from him.

suvashplus May 26, 2021 at 4:57 am

Nice, I will definitely recommend this site to other because of it legit.

Pipsterate May 27, 2021 at 6:58 pm

I don’t believe in stoicism, at least not fully, because embracing it too much (or incorrectly) can lead to passivity. But it sounds like Schwarzenegger is doing it right. Setting ambitious goals, and using stoic methods to accomplish them.

I think most Americans might be doing it backwards- chasing pleasure in the short term, while being directionless in the long term. It’s better to live with discipline, and you can have happiness in the moment, but that happiness can come from accepting the moment for what it is and needs to be, and knowing that you are working towards your future, instead of just making that one moment as pleasurable as possible.

Sherel July 17, 2021 at 9:09 pm

This calls to mind the poignant scene in Thornton Wilder’s play, “Our Town”. The ghost of young Emily, who recently died in childbirth, longs to revisit “one ordinary unimportant day” in her life. But it doesn’t take her long to realize “Live people don’t understand.” She knows she didn’t when she was alive: “I didn’t realize all that was going on and we never noticed. Good-by, world. Good-by Grover’s Corners… Mama and Papa, Good-by to clocks ticking… and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee and new-ironed dresses and hot baths… and sleeping and waking up. Oh earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.”

But we can try. Sometimes we can even succeed. And as we gather moments of clarity, we can hope to get better at it. You’ve certainly helped me to get better at it, David. Thank you for your sharing your thoughts.

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