Downhilling with the Stoics

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Some good things happened today. Among them, I got to go downhill biking in Whistler for the second time, 6 years after the first. Also, I started to get into the meat of Oliver Burkeman’s book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. As I did so I had the feeling that, in his description of modern day Stoics and the way they seek joy in life, Burkeman was encapsulating the way I have come to feel about happiness, expectation and contentment.

The two came together as I sat alone at the bottom of the chairlifts in Whistler Village, waiting for the time when I could head over and get kitted out for my afternoon of biking. In the book, Burkeman discusses an approach to unhappiness based around confronting fears and concerns directly and actively considering what might be the worst possible outcomes. This is set against the prevalent doctrine of positive thinking, which advocates planning actively for everything going right for you, with the underlying promise that just wishing for the best will certainly make it happen.

It seems like some cursory rationalisation is all that’s required to pull apart the seams of this approach. Quite often, perhaps most times, the things we want to happen and the things we don’t want to happen, come to pass due to forces completely outside our control. Let’s say, as shorthand, they happen or don’t thanks to luck. If your outlook and the basis for your happiness is predicated on everything going right always then when something doesn’t, what recourse do you have? Pretend it never happened? Pretend you never wanted it to go any other way? Reassess your entire worldview? None of these are satisfactory. More practically if your approach to life is to screw up your eyes and wish for the best, when the worst happens, and it will, how can you hope to meet it and cope?

Negative thinking suggests instead that we contemplate the worst that might happen and that, through doing so, we will come to realise that even this is still survivable and that most undesirable outcomes are actually pretty trivial. 

This morning I read a chapter which dealt partly with social embarrassment. The point made through reasoning and personal exposure is that you may fear embarrassing or awkward situations but your belief that they will somehow cause you harm is actually the only significant problem you face. In practice, if you do the thing you’re afraid of, put yourself in the situation you dread or, as a practicing stoic might, think through in some detail the possible consequences of doing it, you’ll come to realise that nothing really bad is at all likely to happen. Other people don’t care if you behave differently. You aren’t somehow marked out as a pariah. No-one you meet subsequently will have received a news alert warning them to shun or secretly mock you.

I haven’t been downhill biking for years. I know enough to admit to myself that I can’t remember how to do it. W had a guid last time. He thought us three rules, all related to animals. I can remember that I need to adopt a stance like a fat cow, that I either should or should not be a flamingo, and nothing else. For a pursuit where a steering error can send you head first into a tree trunk, a sense of humility is no bad thing, at least in your opening exchanges. 

Since the last time we were here I’ve spent a considerable amount of my spare time pedalling bikes up hills. I get a lot of satisfaction from doing that. Riding downhill is a fun consequence, a by-product. I also love getting on my bike and exploring the countryside, going whichever way pleases or piques me. Downhilling is the opposite of both these. A ski lift takes you up the mountain and you follow a two foot wide trail all the way back down again. All reactions, no decisions and pedalling strictly a novelty.

I knew that I was back to being a total beginner. I didn’t know the code. I knew that despite being a very experienced cyclist I was heading straight for the novice green runs. As I looked at the queues for the lifts I craned to see how the riders ahead of me were loading their bikes onto the carriers. I thought about what would happen if I messed it up. I wondered whether the other bikers would look at me with contempt or pity.

Once I got up there, would I crash and friction burn? How would that look to the hard bitten men and women coming down behind me?

Then, instead of spending the next 30 minutes wondering whether the guy in bike shop would ask me a question I didn’t know the answer to, or whether it would be obvious from the fact I was wearing running shoes that I was the odd kid out on the lifts, I spent a couple of minutes thinking about what the consequences of those things might be. 

Answer: nothing. 

If you’ve ever worked in a shop, did you remember any but the absolutely wackiest customers? At the end of any day do you remember any of the strangers you clapped eyes on for less than five seconds, even those who looked a little out of place? Of course not. So why should I give a care about whether other complete strangers, strangers most of who will spend most of their lives living on a completely different continent, fleetingly think about me. In fact, to even expect them to notice is grotesque arrogance. If I had a problem on the lift, or got lost on the trails, the overwhelmingly likely outcome is that someone would help me and then forget about it. 

So instead of getting more and more anxious as I waited to begin, I drank my coffee and thought about how much I was hoping to enjoy it. And when I got to the lifts I commenced doing just that. 

I spent three happy hours pounding, by my standards at least, down that mountain, then being lifted back to the top. For the first hour and a half it felt as if I was going to spend the whole time on the beginners runs, because, Good Lord, downhilling is sketchy. One weight shift a half second too late and even on the easiest trails you can expect to be in the undergrowth with at least one or two skinned limbs. 

Ordinarily, this novitiate status would have formed a nagging sense of failure which would have hung around in the background of my day and left me feeling that even though I had felt like I might be enjoying it, I really was failing all along. None of that this time. I simply got up and got down with a smile on my face and increasingly numb tendons in my hammered forearms and wrists. I fell off twice and laughed about it. I barely spoke to a soul and by the end of the session I could have carried on for another three hours, had my hands not been frozen into claws. 

Confidence and positive aggression are important parts of downhilling. One of the lessons I relearned quickly is that letting the bike run at speed is often much safer than running with the brakes applied. But today I was able to prove that contemplating head on what might go wrong can give a major boost to good times.

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