As some of you know I grew up in the desert southwest. My love of sunshine continues to this day but unfortunately, my skin has paid a price. In my pursuit of the perfect tan, my skin (particularly on my forearms) has become ridiculously thin so that it often bruises and sometimes bleeds at the slightest injury. By the same token I was listening to a podcast this week that asked, “Are we all becoming very thin-skinned and fragile these days?” It went on to ask if our pursuit of comfort and convenience was making us “bruise or bleed” at the slightest inconvenience, threat or annoyance. Regrettably, those questions struck a bit too close to home. Everywhere I look (especially on Facebook!) people are bruised and depressed about how awful things have gotten (climate change, no gun control, schools, etc.) and how mean and impatient other people have become. And don’t even mention religion or politics! Fortunately, there is a cure. Just like using a powerful sunscreen on my arms helps—enhancing our antifragile selves could allow us to live more peacefully in our stressful world.
What do I mean by antifragile? First coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author, mathematical statistician, risk analyst and professor—antifragile is the opposite of fragile. Although most of us think that an opposite is resilience, Taleb argues that while resilience might allow us to bounce back from adversity or stress, antifragility is the ability to grow stronger and better when faced with challenge. He explains that like the Phoenix it is good to be resilient and important to rebuild ourselves from the ashes of destruction. However, antifragility is far better. Antifragility is like the Hydra of Greek Mythology. If you cut off its head, two or even three heads grow back allowing it to become much stronger after the ordeal. In other words, be the Hydra, not the Phoenix.
A large focus of Taleb’s work concerns children. He repeatedly sites research that shows that children need a certain amount of stress, unpredictability and failure to grow into strong and capable adults. The current trend however is to protect children and is actually creating overly sensitive children both biologically and emotionally. To protect them we keep them inside, so they won’t catch anything and end up making their bodies weaker and more susceptible from germs. And certainly, don’t criticize them or require them to do something they don’t like to do, or you will damage their self-esteem. If that was working well, we likely wouldn’t have an epidemic of depression and suicide among young people these days.
But it isn’t just kids. As a culture we have become overly focused on convenience, safety and ease. However, we all know that if you lay around in bed all day your bones and muscles turn to mush. We need exercise and resistance for our bodies to stay strong, and yet we seem determined to get rid of anything that challenges us or makes us uncomfortable. Example? We drive our car to the gym and take the elevator to the floor where we spend time on the treadmill!
Then there is our emotional sensitivity. Again, our culture seems largely focused on catching our attention, entertaining us, and then manipulating our emotions in ways that serve those seeking to earn our support. Our current midterm elections are a perfect example. While there are lots of important issues as stake, the goal of many seems to be to scare us and force us to fight for the sake of one side or another. Instead of asking us to think deeply about the consequences of which way we vote and how that vote aligns with our values—we are being emotionally manipulated into doing what those in control insist we do. And while you are at it, would you donate money as well or all will be lost! Meanwhile we righteously criticize the anyone who disagrees with us and are shocked if they respond accordingly! And in case you are wondering—I’m mainly talking about myself here!
Looking back over my life I don’t believe I have ever been as emotionally hardy as I would have liked. I’ve often used the excuse that I would rather be sensitive than stoic. But you know what? I think I’m ready for a change. As I age, I am growing weary of being at the mercy of external influences rather than following my own internal guidance. I am tired of hearing some news or reading something on Facebook that gnaws at my soul and keeps me awake at night. But make no mistake, I’m not giving up on other people, my country or the world, I’m just planning to grow a thicker skin and embrace my antifragility. I’m not sacrificing my feelings—I’m just not going to let them rule my life.
Fortunately, there are lots of great teachers out there for me to learn from. The stoics offer amazing advice. For example:
- Marcus Aurelius: “People are not disturbed by things, but by the views they take of them.”
- Epictetus: “Man is not worried by real problems so much as by his imagined anxieties about real problems.”
- Seneca: “We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”
By the same token the Buddhists and Taoists offer similar ideas on the thoughts of inner strength:
- The Buddha: “Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without.”
- The Buddha: “Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think. Suffering follows an evil thought as the wheels of a cart follow the oxen that draws it.”
- Lao Tzu: “Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.”
- Lao Tzu: “If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. if you are at peace, you are living in the present.”
And because Thom has been rereading the work of Michael A Singer, here’s one from him in his book, The Untethered Soul:
“If you want to be happy, you have to let go of the part of you that wants to create melodrama. This is the part that thinks there’s a reason not to be happy. You have to transcend the personal, and as you do, you will naturally awaken to the higher aspects of your being. In the end, enjoying life’s experiences is the only rational thing to do. You’re sitting on a planet spinning around in the middle of absolutely nowhere. Go ahead, take a look at reality. You’re floating in empty space in a universe that goes on forever. If you have to be here, at least be happy and enjoy the experience. You’re going to die anyway. Things are going to happen anyway. Why shouldn’t you be happy? You gain nothing by being bothered by life’s events. It doesn’t change the world; you just suffer. There’s always going to be something that can bother you, if you let it.”
There are thousands of other authors who have written about becoming more antifragile. The challenge for me is not that there isn’t plenty of instruction—but rather in maintaining the actual practice of it. I confess I’ve gotten a bit lazy about fortifying my inner world so that I am stronger and more able to deflect the circumstances around me. Need an example? I’m thinking of the Dali Lama who lives in the same world we do and certainly has a past filled with challenges and struggles. But what does he do? He laughs. Of course, he is actively engaged in influencing the world around him but still he laughs. When I think of being antifragile, the Dali Lama exemplifies it.
Just like I know how important it is for us to exercise and do bone strengthening exercises as we age, I now know that enhancing my antifragility is even more important. Because I want to stay active and engaged as long as I can, I want to know that mentally and emotionally I can withstand circumstances in the world no matter what happens. I also want to know that although it can be unpleasant to witness certain activities in the world, those situations won’t devastate me—I can and will carry on. I want to be able to handle disappointment and loss if it comes rather than let it cripple me. And I want to be strong enough inside to be able to be of support and help to other people and causes in the world around me. Sure, I might have let my physical skin become very thin, but with intention I believe I can strengthen my inner skin from here on out. Perhaps it is SMART for us all to remember at our core we are antifragile.