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? Aren’t 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 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 I could never be so calm with something disastrous to my 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. This isn’t dangerous in most cases, though scary. Our son, Syrus, suffered one.

We didn’t know a thing about it. 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. They already called 911. 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 tranquil. And I realized that tranquility didn’t mean I felt great about the situation. It only meant that I was acting with a clear head.

The peace, tranquility, and happiness of the Stoics is far different from most people’s ideas. Happiness to the Stoics is more of an undertone related to their tranquility. It’s an easiness to what’s happening around them, not joy at everything that happens. I don’t have to like what’s happening 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, mostly. I got a lot of questions, mostly if he was all right. But the second most commonly asked was if I was all right.

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 revealed 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 looked like I didn’t care. But looks mean little. I cared, 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.

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, although 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 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 all right with doing so. It almost seems we need to be Stoic about being Stoic. Epictetus said that 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, mostly, 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 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 think, unless you constantly uphold your philosophy, you’re only pretending. The more commonplace a philosophy is, the more you can ignore or break the tenets with no one 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 really has a problem with our concept of tranquility, especially if you try to explain that it means the elimination of negative 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 was like worrying without the worry. Perhaps that’s the true compassion that Seneca (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?

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