Friday, September 27, 2013

On The Road Again...

So, tomorrow I'm leaving for my grandparents for a few days. Vacation is always refreshing, but it also brings that feeling of regret, that unwillingness to return to your life and haunts most people, I think. This disruption of our tranquility is never fun and I think it sort of takes away from our enjoyment of the vacation. Is there any Stoic advice that can help us stay with our vacation?

Do you suppose that you alone have had this? Are you surprised, as if it were a novelty, that after such long travel and so many changes of scene you have not been able to shake off the gloom and heaviness of your mind? You need a change of soul rather than a change of climate. -Letter 28, Seneca

The above passage opens Seneca's letter 28, a letter that addresses our very question. Indeed, these opening remarks show that discontent during, and even after, our travels is nothing new.

We often take vacations as a means of escape. In fact, we often see this in adverts for travel agents and airlines: escape into paradise. We're made to feel that taking a vacation is enough to alleviate our woes. The reality, though, is far from this.

"Why do you wonder that globe-trotting does not help you, seeing that you always take yourself with you? The reason which set you wandering is ever at your heels." -Socrates, quoted by Seneca

Often, we use travel as a means of leaving our lives. We often use the phrase "getting away" when we talk about it. "Oh, it'll be so nice to get away from it all." The problem is, as Socrates points out, is that your not really getting away from anything if you're coming along.

We tend to believe that our problems are external of ourselves. Our jobs sucks because it just does. Our lives are boring because nothing new is going on. But as the Stoics would point out, this really isn't the case. It isn't that our jobs suck, it's that we think our jobs suck. It isn't our lives are boring, we think it's boring. And that's the problem. Escaping work for a few days isn't going to change how you feel about work. Rather, it could make you feel even worse about it as you have to confront those feelings all over again. It's nice to put those feelings aside when you can, sure, but that's like moving clutter to another side of a room and thinking you've fix the issue. hurt yourself by your very unrest; for you are shaking up a sick man. -Letter 28, Seneca

Perhaps even stranger, we often find we have more problems with our lives during our travels. Why? Because we start comparing the rest of life with the (supposed) relaxation and joy of our vacation. We start asking why our lives can't be more like this. We may begin hating our lives instead of just being discontented. To use vacation as a means of ending our troubles, it seems, is a very dangerous thing to our tranquility.

But how does any of this help us? It almost seems travel is the wrong course of action. This isn't the suggestion, mind you. Seneca says that a wise man, though he could live a peaceful life even in a crowd, would still choose someplace quieter if he could. It would follow, I assume, that if he could get a quieter place, even for a little bit, he would.

What we want, then, is the ablilty to travel without having our peace of mind distrubed. This is easier said than done, as most things are, but there are a few things we can do that'll ease our minds.

Before you even plan the vacation, you should ask why you want it. Thinking that it'll spice up your life or make your problems melt away is only going to set you up for a worrisome trip. Instead of vacation, you need a change of vocation. If your life is missing something, perhaps you should spend some time reflecting on your life rather than trying to get away from it.

Of course, sometimes, we just a quiet place to get to so we can do just that: think about our lives. We often call these sort of trips "retreats". I think it's a wonderful term. Most of us have a hard time thinking clearly in the muck and mire of our own lives, to "retreat", as it were, into our thoughts. It's hard to make changes when you're stareing right at the problem sometimes. Getting away for a bit so you can look at the larger scope of everything isn't a bad idea, though to rely on it without cultivating this ability in everyday is a mistake.

So, let's say you decide to go on vacation to just enjoy yourself. Your life isn't missing anything, or at least nothing that you feel you're trying to avoid, and work isn't the problem. Yet there's often something else the plagues us in our attempts for enjoyment: perfection.

On a workday, we often run into minor annoyances. Things like traffic, spilt coffee, ect. -- these things often cause minor irks, but most of the time we accept them as par for the course. But when we're trying to get away?

Traffic becomes a personal attack. Spilt coffee becomes something time-consuming, taking minutes away from our time off. We often put more work into not working. Quality control isn't normally a exciting job to begin with.

We have to remember that we're not escaping from reality. Though we'd like it to, the universe isn't going to go any easier on us just because we're going off, but on the flip side, it also isn't going any harder on us. Traffic isn't usually worse than normal just because we're going off to vacation, we just think so.

It's key to remember the basics of Stoicism here: most things simply aren't in our control. This is great, mind you, because in remembering that, we free up a lot of worry and anger. Weather, car problems, all that jazz? Sure, they may put a hamper on some of your plans, but by remembering you can't control it, you might be able to ease your mind and find a way around the problem (unless you're already a better Stoic than I, which in that case, you'd already knew something like this could happen and already planned around it). So, step away from prefection you wouldn't demand from the rest of your life and move on.

Seneca writes that all that's really set in stone is our pasts, but this is great because we can visit it anytime we want to. Here's the thing, though: we need to fill that past up with something we'd like to revisit in the first place. Now, we can spend our time fretting about controlling every aspect of our lives, even the supposed enjoyment of our relaxation, or we can, in a way, let go of that micro-management that doesn't exist anyway and control our thoughts so that at least, if we aren't physically enjoying whatever's going on, we can at least carry with us the tranquil mindset that we can look back on and remind ourselves that, yes, we have gotten past these minor problems before and we can do it again.

Or, you know, we can just remember that vacations are for relaxing and just do that instead.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Do we have a problem with tranquility?

When Seneca found out his son died, he replied, "I know I sired a mortal."

For most people, this seems wrong. A father coldly accepting his son's death just isn't kosher. Heck, we might we think he was responsible for the death to begin with. But I wonder why we feel this way. Do we have a problem with tranquility? I'd like to imagine a conversation with Seneca and a modern person today.

Modern Person: Seneca, I'm so sorry to hear about your son's passing.
Seneca: [not reacting] I know I sired a mortal.
MP: Wait, what? He was your son! Are you the least bit upset?
S: I held no expectation of him outliving me. Death can strike us at anytime, no matter our ages.
MP: So you don't care your son is dead.
S: I enjoyed the time I had with him while he was here, to be sure. But tell me, will grief make my son come back?
MP: No.
S: So what then? Do you assume my lack of grief means I did not love my son?
MP: Well, most people would a be a lot more upset.
S: So you have a problem with me being at peace? That my tranquility isn't disturbed?
MP: Yeah. I mean, whose this calm after their child's death?
S: Tell me, what's the point of grief?
MP: To help people find closure! So they can find... [here, MP pauses, a sudden realization dawning] ...peace.
S: So, my being peaceful isn't the problem. It's because I didn't come to it like everyone else did.

Do people, perhaps even Stoics like ourselves, judge people like Seneca? I believe we do. I used to think that I could never be so calm when it came to something disastrous to my own son. But you know how it is. You don't know how you'll act until you're actually in a high-stress situation.

Febrile seizure. Perhaps of everything you could teach a parent, this should top the list. Apparently, young children, should they have a fever that spikes quickly, can have seizures. Surprisingly, this isn't dangerous in most cases, though scary nevertheless. Our son, Syrus, suffered one.

Of course, we didn't know a thing about it at the time. So when I get a call at work that my son's eyes are rolling into the back of his head, his body shaking, and no one could tell if he was breathing or not, it struck that I saw him for the last time that morning.

Not a conductive thought for feelings of peace.

And yet, driving up to what I thought would be the worst, I felt strangely calm. So something was happening to my son. There was nothing I could do from where I was. 911 was already called. Panic would have neither help him nor myself with whatever was going on. If he was gone, my tears wouldn't have made him come back. It wouldn't have made me feel better.

Strange as it seemed, I was completely tranquil. And I realized that tranquility didn't mean I felt great about the situation. It only meant that I acting with a clear head.

The peace, tranquility, and happiness of the Stoics is far different than most people's ideas. Happiness to the Stoics is more of a undertone, related to their tranquility. It's a easiness to what's happening around them, not joy at everything that happens. I don't have to like what's happening in order to be tranquil. I only have to act with reason.

When I got to see my son, he stayed close to me. Perhaps it was because he was scared and felt safest next to me or maybe it was because, unlike everyone else, I kept my head level. Maybe that's what he needed.

It's still a little strange to admit the feelings and a lot harder to explain it.

At the hospital, I never left his side. He slept on my chest for the most part. I got a lot of questions, mostly if he was alright. But the second most commonly asked was if I was alright.

I was more afraid to admit I was fine than I should have been. Everyone told me they were there to talk to, but I didn't need it. And to this day, I don't.

Syrus is fine and hasn't had one of those attacks since. But it turns out, my calm didn't go unnoticed.

A few days after what happened, my wife confronted me about my state. She asked me if I was okay with everything, if I needed to talk, so on. When I told her everything was fine, she seemed a little upset about it. Our next fight reveled why.

I can't remember how the fight started (really can you ever remember how most fights start?), but somehow it turned to that day. The problem? I didn't care, she said. Syrus could've died and I didn't look like I cared.

She had a point. I *did* look like I didn't care. But looks don't mean much. I did care, just in a different way. It's hard to describe, but the best way that I can think of is to say I was both present with my son and with the situation. Because I had already done the hypothetical, I didn't spend my time worrying about what could happen. Instead, I was just mentally there.

Of course, with everyone asking about how I was and telling everyone I was fine, something stranger happened. I felt guilty. Like I should've been more showy of my feelings, despite the fact I wasn't feeling the same as everyone else. Was there something wrong with me? Or was there something wrong with being Stoic?

I realize now that it isn't so much a problem with Stoicism, but our society. We live in a world where outward expression of our feelings is not only a good thing, but passionate expression is often praised (or condemned, depending on what you're passionate about). It would reason, then, that any lack of it shows just how little you care, or perhaps how "manly" you're trying to be (maybe "stiff upper lip" is better). Not showing emotion, it seems, is a sign of unhealthy emotions. And the attitude that is it so is infectious. To not show emotion might very well bring guilt, anger, or sorrow to a person. It's almost funny: if you don't feel bad one way, you'll just feel bad another way.

I think this could very well be the biggest problem Stoicism faces today: not if our goals are reachable, but if we can be alright with doing so. It almost seems we need to be Stoic about being Stoic. Epictetus said that in order to improve, we be thought foolish. But nowadays, we could very well be seen as uncaring and impersonal, monstrous some might say. To weep with the world, or cry out in anger, or anything is considered a good sign. As we Stoics understand it, no emotion is "good" and so the expression of said emotions, or lack of it, can't be said to be good or bad, either. And yet we seemly live in a world that would say otherwise, almost as if to say we're bad people if we don't express ourselves the way other people want us to.

The other problem is that, for the most part, we're not exactly great at achieving calm in dire situations. One problem we can face without showing the least bit of worry. Yet another, often times lesser problem, will cause great anxiety and worry. This gives some people the idea of Stoics being hypocritical. "Well, so much for being Stoic." This isn't what it is in most cases, though. But people tend to think that, unless you constantly uphold your philosophy, you're only pretending. For some reason, the more common place a philosophy is, the more you can ignore or break the tenets without anyone noticing. Break one from something obscure and watch people call you out on it. (The same, I've notice, happens to atheists and other minorities like Pagans. It's almost like people think you're living the life you lead just so you can go against the grain, not actually because you feel it's right.)

So it would seem that the world we live in today really does have a problem with our concept of tranquilty, especially if you try to explain that it means the elimination of negitive emotions and keeping only the positive ones. This gives people the impression that Stoics are happy or jovial all the time, even if someone they love dies. And while the Stoic should very well feel happy during positive times (such as when loved ones aren't dying), it's a little harder to explain what it being happy means in darker times. And even after having experiencing it myself, it's still hard to say how it feels. It's was like worrying without the worry. Perhaps that's the true compassion that Sencea (and, oddly, Buddha) talk about. Maybe.

But I want to know what you guys think. Have you ever been in a dire situation and yet remained calm, even when it seemed you should have no reason to?

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Sage in Pain

Pain is strange. Couldn't the body have figured out a better way to tell you something's wrong? Why is pain the only alarm we have? Not even bleeding is enough to tell you something's wrong, as you might not feel that happening. And what's the point of suffering chronic pain? Pain is the way your body says something's wrong, but what if that something wrong just so happens to be endless pain? What's the point?

Maybe asking these questions is the wrong thing to do. See, I began to think about what a Stoic Sage might say about pain. And why not? Stoics are no strangers to pain, physical or otherwise, chronic or minor.

Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, was shipwrecked, though if he was the one actually stranded or just an unlucky business man is up for debate. Seneca suffered from asthma his entire life, possibly other illnesses, and then committed suicide at the orders of Nero. Epictetus's leg was broken when he was a slave and suffered the rest of his life. And Marcus Aurelius had to watch nearly all his children die, then suffer cancer, which caused him to decide to starve himself to death. These are only the names of the older Stoics at that and even then, only the more famous ones. Who knows how many unnamed Stoics suffered similar or worse pains for their entire lives. Even modern Stoics today, such as Keith Seddon who suffers from chronic fatigue, deal with their pain philosophically.

But how can we just starting out in Stoicism deal with pain?

I decided to do an thought experiment: ask two different Stoic Sages – one theistic, the other atheistic – about pain. Here's what I got.

Okay, so, why pain?

Theistic Sage: The gods saw it befitting for man to experience pain as the means of telling us something is the matter. And though we're reasoning creatures, it isn't up to us to question why the gods would allow pain. Perhaps the gods weren't able to prevent it, in which case we cannot be upset with them. Perhaps there is a greater purpose. In that case, we should feel honored. Besides, as good people, the gods would rather keep testing us than let us become soft like bad people. It may not be the favor of the gods you were looking for, but know that by enduring it well and keeping yourself good, you stand beside the gods as kin.

Atheistic Sage: Evolution helped this happen. Those that felt pain were more likely to seek help or avoid doing something that could kill them, so really, pain is more of a survival thing. It kept our ancestors alive, so in some way we should be grateful to feel pain, otherwise we would have died off a long time ago.

What can we do when we have pain?

TS: Simple. Realize it actually isn't hurting you as a person, just your body. And what is your body but a vessel for your soul?

AS: Well, besides the soul junk, I agree with my fellow here. Who we are isn't being hurt. And we don't normally define ourselves by our bodies.

TS: Correct. We don't consider it good when we or other people judge who are person is by their looks – their bodies, really – alone. So to say that our bodies affect us wouldn't be good, either. By this reasoning, we shouldn't let what happens to our bodies, such as pain, affect who we are.

But that's talking about the person we are at our cores. Let's face it, we might not be our bodies, but we can feel what's happening.

AS: Of course. We're merely outlining our thoughts on pain. It's something more practical you want.

TS: But this, too, is simple. Pain is out of our control. Lamenting about it isn't going to make you feel better. In fact, it can make you feel even worse about the pain. Suffering is the problem here.

AS: And all you have to do is realize what you can do about your can and what you can't do.

TS: Right. You can't control when it happens. You can't control if a pain pill or some movie is going to help take away the pain. You can only control your thoughts about the pain.

So it isn't about making pain good or bad? It's about making your suffering less?

TS: Yes.

AS: Pain is unavoidable. Sometimes, it's part of our daily lives. Trying to run away from pain is only going to make it that much worse when it actually gets to you. Instead of running, we should think differently about pain.

But it doesn't work all the time.

TS: It would if you were a sage.

AS: And, let's face it, we're not, either. You made us up.

TS: No one is perfect. It isn't about getting it all the time. It's about being able to when you can.

I have more thoughts on this, but I'm going to leave it off for now to better develop those ideas.

Friday, September 6, 2013


Early this morning, I met with one of the ways Nature tells you a limit broke. It wasn't one of the more glorious limits.

If you remember back to the first post, I mention that my vice is overeating. Well, this morning around three, my body reminded me of the “out the front door” policy my stomach has.

I remained philosophical about it all. I thought about how amazing it was our body has limits. I mean, we have built-in sensors that tell us we've had way too much. Even more amazing is the fact we have the ability to ignore these sensors, to tell our bodies that it doesn't know what it's talking about. We can go past our limits, make ourselves last longer.

Of course, this also means we're a bit cursed.

See, I began thinking how some limits are easier to break than others. Take overeating. Nowadays, that's a real easy limit to go past. Some of us perhaps can't even feel it anymore. We can eat sunup to sundown and never stop shoveling food into our mouths. If you think about it, it's quite a feat. You can make your body several times bigger and still move around. You can weigh hundreds of hundreds of pounds more than your body should and still live.

But take another limit: exercising. That's hard. Tuesday, I couldn't jog more than 58 seconds at once. Not because I couldn't keep going, but because I quit. I hit my limit, so I stopped. And I didn't move too much more since then.

Until Friday morning's offering to the porcelain god. Somehow, this made me realize that people look at our bodies' limits backwards. We break the easy limits and completely ignore harder ones. After all, it's a lot easier to eat a box of doughnuts than it is to jog for more than a couple of minutes.

So, wait, how does this relate to Stoicism? I mean, it's all well and good, but the heck, man?

Stoicism teaches that discomfort isn't all that bad. It's more of a nothing. It's also says the same thing about pleasure. The limits we're choosing to break has more to do with what we believe to be good and, as I often say, pleasure rarely means good.

Yes, I do take a lot of pleasure out of eating. I do. I suppose that's not so bad because I enjoy toast with jam as much as I do most any other dish. But, let's face it, I think it's the act of eating I enjoy more than the food. And I broke the threshold of how much I should eat for years. It took a toll. And though I feel pleasure eating, I often feel bad about it, even during the act.

But now I'm finding that breaking the tough limits is a heck of a lot better for me. Pushing past the pain, this discomfort, the urge to quit, I jogged my butt for five minutes. Broken up in 30 second intervals within 10 minutes, but still, that's more than I ever did before. And I took a quick stock of how I felt. Not that bad. A little heavy in the feet and sweaty, but nothing that wiped the smile off my face.

We need to face up to our discomforts. It's a simple fact if we want to go through life. As we get older, we realize more the hardships of life. In fact, the ages we can reach is just proof of our amazing ability to break limits. But it comes with problems, many that I don't see too many people ready to go up against. Breaking the easy limits, like how much you can eat or how long you can sleep in a go, aren't going to make your olden ages golden. But, beating aches and pains, a little sleep deprivation (don't go wild. I'm not looking to kill you, just uncomfortable), and little more discomfort and you can live those years golden.

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