I wonder, sometimes – increasingly often – if New York has ruined me. I moved here just a little over three years ago and have found that these years in America’s Greatest City have changed me in unappealing ways. Edges that I needed have been worn down, while edges I never wanted grew sharp and, for lack of a better word, stabby. I sigh loudly as people walk too slowly, shoot daggers from my eyes at people who stop abruptly on subway platforms or stairwells. I brace myself for too much cold or too much heat by putting on an armor of perseverance – head down, teeth gritted – which leaves little time or energy for loving anything.
Although my actual work day is confined to a fairly standard 8 hours, I leave my apartment by 7:30 every morning and don’t return until 11 hours later. Three hours of commuting to travel a total of fourteen miles. Much of that time is spent waiting. Much of that time is spent seething. I need to adjust my attitude.
While walking up Broadway, my head bowed into the wind (a bracing one from the north that accounts for “FEELS LIKE 8 DEGREES!” on the weather forecast) I press my lips together and barely restrain myself from shouting “I FUCKING HATE NEW YORK.”
That being said, I’m trying to invest in something I read about fairly recently – in a post on boingboing, actually. I found the concept captivating. I’ve spent a lot of the last year dredging myself through pain I don’t need to experience over and over, obsessing and spiraling and nudging myself into sadness. But these ideas, they seem, well… valid!
This, in particular, grabbed me:
I also started making use of the Stoic technique known as negative visualization: I would periodically contemplate the loss of the things and people that mean the most to me. Thus, when parting from a friend, I might make a mental note that this could conceivably be the last time I would see the friend in question. Friendships do end, after all, and people die suddenly. Doing this sort of thing may seem morbid, but the practice of negative visualization is a powerful antidote to a phenomenon that will otherwise deprive us of much of the happiness we could be enjoying: negative visualization prevents us from taking for granted the world around us and the people in it.
When they hear about negative visualization, people often get the wrong idea. They think the Stoics advocate that we spend our days dwelling on all the bad things that can happen to us. This, of course, would be a recipe for a miserable existence. What the Stoics in fact advocate is not that we dwell on bad things but that we contemplate them, a subtle but important difference. They also recommend that we engage in negative visualization not constantly but only a few times each day and for only a few seconds each time. Our negative visualizations, then, will take the form of fleeting thoughts.
Visualizing in this manner has the effect of resetting the baseline against which we measure our happiness, and it can have a profound and immediate effect on that happiness. As the result of negatively visualizing, we might find ourselves taking delight that we still possess the things that only moments before, we took for granted, including our job, our spouse, our health — indeed, our very existence.
The kind of depression I traffic leaves me particularly susceptible to “EVERYTHING SUCKS AND I’LL NEVER BE HAPPY AGAIN” kind of thoughts. But I’ve found this negative visualization thing to be amazingly effective in re-setting my spiral of negativity. It’s hard to be spiraling in abstract EVERYTHING SUCKS thoughts if you touch, briefly, on a real, concrete moment of something that would be truly terrible. Delight is not too strong a word for what results! It’s great!
Recently, I had a commute home that took three hours instead of the usual one and a half. Trains were stalled, or not running, or just stupid, and I ended up walking 20 blocks in 20 degree weather. It was windy and I was whiny in my head until just about two blocks before I got home. Then, I set myself to negative visualization and considered the fact that I could have walked those 20 blocks in a snow storm without appropriate shoes. It sounds trite, but immediately, I found the whininess ebbing away. Instead of an oh-so-obnoxious 20 block walk, it became a pleasure that I was wearing a jacket that’s nearly warm enough, that I had gloves, that I have the strength and ability to walk pretty much as far as I could ever want.
I’m a long way from being a joyful Stoic, but it’s something I’d definitely like to work on in 2011.