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David Cain

Post image for The Last Time Always Happens Now

William Irvine, an author and philosophy professor I’m a big fan of, often tries to point people towards a little-discussed fact of human life:

You always know when you’re doing something for the first time, and you almost never know when you’re doing something for the last time.

There was, or will be, a last time for everything you do, from climbing a tree to changing a diaper, and living with a practiced awareness of that fact can make even the most routine day feel like it’s bursting with blessings. Of all the lasting takeaways from my periodic dives into Stoicism, this is the one that has enhanced my life the most. I’ve touched on it before in my Stoicism experiment log and in a Patreon post, and I intend to write about it many more times in the future (but who can say?)

To explain why someone might want to start thinking seriously about last times, Bill Irvine asks us to imagine a rare but relatable event: going to your favorite restaurant one last time, knowing it’s about to close up for good.

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Post image for How to Recover from Pandemic-Induced Mind Fog

In the first months of the pandemic, many people suddenly had trouble focusing on work, finishing books, and staying awake during meetings. Others reported instances in which they forgot their own phone numbers, put the clean laundry in the washer, and got into the shower with their glasses on. Ceiling-staring and aimless scrolling reached an all-time high.

It happened to me too – a sort of “mind fog” that made it more difficult to do almost everything. I became slower, drowsier, less motivated, and less focused. (And I wasn’t very focused to begin with.)

Experts in newspaper columns gave us a quick explanation: anxiety. Stress and anxiety can cause this sort of mental haze, and they’re a normal response to such an abnormal situation.

I always found this answer suspicious. It seemed too simple, and it was usually expressed without doubt, despite the “unprecedented” nature of the situation. It particularly made no sense in my case, because by spring 2020 I was experiencing far less anxiety than I had for the previous eighteen months. At that time I had just emerged from dark period of my own, and by April my anxiety had dropped to almost nothing compared to its peak. But the mind fog was new, and it was unmistakable.

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Post image for Nothing Really Has a Name

I always liked those weird exploration games from the 1980s and 90s, like Zork and Myst, where you wake up in a strange environment, with no idea where you are or even who you are. You have to gather the context from the inside out, by wandering around, pushing buttons, peering behind wall paintings, and reading notes left by strangers who were here before you.

I like those games because that’s exactly what it’s to be a human being, if you think about it.

Your life began with a kind of singularity. A personal Big Bang. Without warning, you emerged from unconsciousness into a sea of light, color, smell, faces, feelings, and other completely unexpected phenomena, and there was nothing to do but attempt to navigate it. It was the ultimate “cold open” – no context, no explanation, just things happening.

At this early stage you know nothing about the world except what you feel in each moment. The feelings are new, intense, and definitely real. It’s a torrent that keeps coming, and at some point you realize it isn’t going to subside. This strange condition of being tossed in a sea of sensations, which you will one day call “existence,” or “life,” comes no reference point, just one implicit job: make sense of all this.

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Post image for How to Get out of Your Own Head

I often go with my friend and her chihuahua Abby to Abby’s favorite place in the world, which is a large open prairie field at Beaudry Park. It’s the only place she can run around all she wants without encountering her least favorite things: other dogs, and human children.

Sometimes there’s a line of cylindrical haybales at the edge of the big field. One time, my friend stuffed a chicken treat into one of the haybales, low to the ground so Abby would find it. After retrieving it, Abby went straight to the same spot on the next haybale, looking for the chicken that all haybales apparently contain.

We laughed, but humans are the same. Every time I go near the Assiniboine Park neighborhood, I’m helpless not to think of a nearby ice cream parlor called Sargent Sundae. In fact, I can’t even think about that area of the city without entertaining the possibility of working an ice cream sortie into my day. I suppose that’s natural; remembering food locations is undoubtedly one of the main reasons our minds developed the tendency to make such quick associations.

The human mind is a high-horsepower free-association machine. Walk down a street you lived on as a child and notice the memories flood in, in astonishing detail — not just what grade you were in, who your friends were, and what you did on Saturday mornings, but the threadbare armrest on the basement easy chair, the sun-discolored cassettes that lived on your sister’s windowsill, and your pink-and-turquoise bouncy ball – the one with teeth marks in it — that ended up in the eavestrough.

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Post image for How to Remember You’re Alive

One way to appreciate virtually any moment of your life is to pretend that the whole thing is already over.

Your life came and went a long time ago, but for some reason you’ve just been sent back to this random moment, here in this office chair, or in line at Home Depot.

It isn’t clear why you’ve been sent back. Maybe it was a cosmic accounting error, or a boon from a playful God. All you know is that you’re here again, walking the earth, having been inexplicably returned to the temporary and mysterious state of Being Alive.

Any moment will do for this experiment. In fact, the more mundane the moment, the more profound the effect. You might find yourself, in this instance, pushing a cart through the frozen foods aisle. Or maybe you’re seated in front of a bowl of cereal at the speckled Formica breakfast table you bought on Craigslist. Or you’re carrying a bag of recycling down the back stairwell on a muggy night. It’s definitely your life though, and at least for now, you get to be alive again.

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Post image for How to Get Things Done When You Have Trouble Getting Things Done

Some people seem to be natural doers. When there’s something that needs doing – a table to be cleared, or a flowerbed to be weeded — they get uncomfortable and start doing it.

Natural doers are mysterious creatures to me, but I have met and observed many of them. Doing seems to be their most natural response to existence. Even if the task is in some way objectionable, its not-doneness is apparently more objectionable. So they start the doing process and this appears to give them some relief. The gravity in the doer’s inner world seems to draw them in the direction of action.

Of course, everyone understands the rewards of getting things, by whatever means, to a state of doneness — even those of us who live in an inner world with reverse gravity. Doing is vital. It’s the only way to express ourselves, maintain our households, and create things that improve people’s lives.

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Post image for When All Moments Have Equal Value

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.”

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Post image for The Ancient Art of Using Time Well

I don’t remember anything about the 188-minute film Magnolia except one line. A dying man bitterly expressing his regrets says to his nurse, “Life ain’t short, it’s long. It’s long goddammit!”

I remember simultaneously hoping that this unusual opinion was true, and realizing that I didn’t want to spend any more of my life watching this particular movie. I’d like to believe I stopped watching right then to plant a tree or call my mother, but I know I didn’t.

However much time life is prepared to offer, not wasting any more of it has been at the top of my mind recently. I just turned 40, or it feels like I just did – I’m already closer to 41. I also recently discovered the source of my lifelong difficulty in getting everyday things done, which I am now learning to work with. Thirdly, there’s the purpose-clarifying effect of the pandemic. Aside from its direct threat to our lives, the virus has suppressed and delayed “living” as we know it for a full year and counting.

Given these developments I can’t think of a better use of my time than learning to make increasingly better use of my time. If there were some kind of religion devoted to making the best use of one’s precious time on this earth, I would convert immediately.

There sort of is, and I sort of am. My periodic infatuation with the ancient Stoics has become more like a persistent shoulder-tapping. Their emphasis on living each moment purposefully makes too much sense to ignore, given my temperament and particular bag of issues. Wherever I go, online and off, aphorisms spoken by bearded marble busts keep appearing to me, like Scrooge with his Christmas ghosts.

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Post image for A Lot of the Woo-Woo Probably Works

There’s something I miss about the days when most people I knew thought meditation was nonsense. In the early 2000s, I was a hardline skeptical type, but I did this one woo-woo-ish thing, because its benefits were obvious enough to me.

My fellow skeptic-heads couldn’t imagine how it might work, therefore were certain it didn’t. Sitting on the floor, watching your thoughts drift like clouds can’t possibly have meaningful effects on your health and well-being. How could it?

I liked the feeling of being on the other side of the woo-woo line for once. It helped me understand that it’s not a dependable boundary for determining what works. It just marks the place where we start dismissing instead of inquiring.

The other day I read an article that brought back that feeling, entitled, Reiki Can’t Possibly Work. So Why Does It?

It’s a read worth every minute of your time, but the gist is that some therapies long deemed pure woo-woo by Western science are starting to seem like they might not be.  

The article didn’t convince me (or its author) one way or the other about Reiki –- a kind of “energy healing” — but it did get me thinking about the idea of woo-woo, and the flippant and unscientific way we often assume we already know what is woo-woo and what isn’t.

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Post image for What Raptitude Has Always Been About

NOTE: This post is a very personal one, even for this blog. It describes a major revelation I recently experienced (a positive one) and what it means for Raptitude readers. It’s the longest post I’ve written in years. There is also a small chance it will lead to a similar bombshell discovery in your own life.

***

In the Truman Show, Jim Carrey’s character is a reality TV star but doesn’t know it. Every person he interacts with is an actor. His hometown is a set.

Truman nearly reaches middle age without finding out, despite many indications that something is going on. A stage light falls from the sky onto the street beside him. His wife excitedly recommends certain household products, even when there’s no one around to hear her. His plans to leave town are always thwarted by sudden storms or road construction.

His life has been characterized by such missed hints. To Truman, however, they’re just unexplained quirks of normal life, which other people presumably experience too.

Ideally, you wouldn’t know any of this before you watch The Truman Show, so that you could experience some part of Truman’s paradigm shift along with him as he finally realizes what’s been going on.

Although I didn’t make the connection at the time I saw the movie, I’ve frequently had a similar sense that I’m experiencing life differently than almost everyone I know.

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