“You have power over your mind – not outside events.” – Marcus Aurelius, 1st-Century Roman Emperor and Philosopher
Imagine for a minute that you’ve been transported to the mid to late 1960s. Standing at an elegant bar is a handsome, well-groomed man with the subtle scent of English Leather cologne on him. He’s wearing a slim-cut black suit, crisp white shirt, dark tie, and black shoes polished to a soft sheen. He casually leans against the bar with his right forearm on the varnished oak countertop with a drink in his right hand.
Deep in thought, the gentleman takes a slow drag of a cigarette held between his left index and middle fingers as it softly sits on his pursed lips. He squints through the smoke looking into an empty space while he’s deep in thought. Any number of things that complicate his life could be swirling in his mind. Frank Sinatra, you say? Dean Martin, perhaps? Or could it be Don Draper?
The answer is none of the above. The image is how I remember my dad when I was about 4 or 5 years old. He looked like the quintessential man of the 60s, especially when he dressed up. My dad worked at the post office, so he didn’t usually wear a suit and tie. I think he owned 2 suits, 1 black and 1 charcoal, for special occasions. His normal dress code was a pair of slacks, a button up long sleeve shirt, and always shined dress shoes.
Family and close friends called my dad Lico. He was smart and read regularly, even though I’m not quite sure he ever graduated from high school. He served on an aircraft carrier in the United States Navy during WWII. He was articulate and charming, armed with a quick wit and a smile that could light up a room. He was also stubborn, sarcastic, and uncompromising. His condescending words and facial expressions of disapproval cut deeper than any spanking.
In many ways, my dad was a man of his times. He worked hard to provide for his family and unabashedly believed in traditional gender and parent/child roles. In his world, the man was king of his castle. Dad’s word was final, no discussion, no debate, no nonsense. He was a classic rugged-individualist who believed that no one – NO ONE – was responsible for his own success or failure other than himself.
In other ways, he was way ahead of his time, especially for a Mexican American father in those days. He didn’t want his children to work in “traditional” Latino jobs. He encouraged us to read, explore, and get a college education. He thought deeply and could be philosophical about the ways of the universe. Understanding that life was unpredictable and unforgiving, he always had a thoughtful response in any situation. He expressed these thoughts through what I call Licoisms.
He had a treasure trove of these sayings. Some of my favorites include: “we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it” (be patient), “it’s easier said than done” (don’t take anything for granted), and “get off of your high horse” (show humility). “It’s all in your mind” was my least favorite Licoism when I was a kid. Every time I thought life was unfair and looked for sympathy, that was his response.
When I was about 12 years old, I remember getting ready for a backyard party. It was a blistering hot day, and I was expected to wear slacks and a button up shirt because my dad’s relatives were going to be there. I complained endlessly to my mom about the heat. I wanted to wear shorts and a t-shirt. She empathized with me, but still told me I would have to take it up with my dad. Well, I knew that wasn’t going to fly.
Nevertheless, before guests started to arrive, I worked up the courage to ask him if he felt hot wearing long sleeves and dress pants. He turned and looked at me with his trademark sarcastic smirk. I braced myself for what I expected would be a flurry of cutting Licoisms flying my way. He asked if I knew what the temperature was outside. At least 100, I guessed. He followed up by saying, “it doesn’t matter what I wear, it’s still 100 degrees. The heat is all in your mind, mijo.”
As the years passed by, I began to appreciate the saying. After spending a summer in the ICU, it came in handy. My body lost all muscle function from being in a coma and lying on a bed for about 70 days. I couldn’t even lift a finger. Doctors said strength would return with rehabilitation. It sounded impossible. Although he had been gone for 15 years, I heard Lico’s voice telling me, “it’s all in your mind, mijo.”
Let’s face it. Let’s be real. Life isn’t easy. The past year serves to remind us of that. The pandemic, political division, isolation, the summer fires, smokey skies, and on and on. Added to all of that was the grind of daily life. Throughout my personal life, I’ve had my share of struggles. There was that hot summer day in 1975, the passing of my mom, dad, and a sister, a health crisis, and yeah, that every day stuff.
Did those things not happen? Yes, they did. Was it all in my and our minds? Of course not. It’s life’s way of saying that nature is in charge. We all experience unfortunate events and phenomena. They’re circumstances that aren’t within anyone’s power to control. Can they harm us? The short answer is it depends. Marcus Aurelius tells us that we have power over our own minds and not much more. That’s what my dad meant by, “it’s all in your mind.”
I don’t know where he came up with that pearl of wisdom. I’m sure life experiences, his intellectual curiosity, and catchphrases from his Depression Era generation all contributed to his thinking. Did he read the ancient philosophers? Maybe, maybe not. I wouldn’t be surprised if he did. One thing for sure is that he understood that suffering is mostly caused by our own thoughts, not by the chaos that surrounds us.
Although my dad was a wise man, he didn’t have the answer on how to tame the anguish that churns in our minds. His solution? There wasn’t much that a cigarette and a highball glass full of V.O whiskey and water on the rocks couldn’t resolve. I don’t think that worked for him. I’m pretty sure he suffered from depression and anxiety. I’ve followed a similar path, also with little success. Other people use the same strategy with food, shopping, sex, drugs, etc.
Whether it’s fear of an uncertain future or the inconvenience of kids learning from home because of a pandemic, life sucks if we allow the craziness around us to find a home in our consciousness. A plan to achieve long-term inner peace and some kind of happiness shouldn’t have to depend on any of the sensually pleasing distractions that temporarily relieve our pain. There has to be a better way to deal with nature’s whims.
Now imagine for a minute that you’ve been transported to a time in the very near future. Covid is still here making family and friends sick, your kids are driving you up the wall because they’re bored at home, your spouse is on your nerves more than usual, and California is in full-blown drought. That’s not even the worst of it. Your company is going belly up and you don’t know from one day to the next if you’ll have a job.
Despite all of that, you don’t feel stressed, sad, frustrated, or angry. You’re not thinking of giving up or murdering your entire family. While driving home in dreadful traffic, you whistle to your favorite song on the radio, rather than flipping the bird to some idiot on the road. You can’t control what’s happening outside of your car. It’s all in your mind. So, you feel calm as you inch through the freeway.
Is it even possible to feel at peace in this situation? I think it is and I’m intent on discovering the secret. Please keep reading ESEReport.com in the coming weeks and months. I’m going on an adventure to find the answer to inner peace and happiness. I plan to be brutally honest with myself and readers. I’m not sure I’ll get there, but the ride should be fun. I hope you find a few minutes in your hectic day to come along with me.