Stoicism

The Philosophy of My Life: Stoicism #1

So I thought today I might share with you a bit about the philosophy of life that I have chosen to follow, Stoicism. Now to start off, I’m a shit Stoic, but the good thing is that with each passing day I am presented with a new opportunity to better follow my philosophy. Unlike religion, Stoicism isn’t about reaching a point of perfection, it is instead about striving to be the best person you personally can be, while realizing that perfection will always be outside your grasp. This allows for constant practice and bettering oneself throughout life.

So before I get very much farther into this article I’d like to discuss a few things that Stoicism is not.

  1. Stoicism is not a religion – Stoicism isn’t about pleasing a deity or about working towards a reward after life. The Stoics were materialists believing that only those things we can truly experience exist and things outside of that are “indifferent” to us, or in other words not to be worried about.
  2. Stoics are not cold-hearted – Today’s common usage of the word stoic shares little in common with Stoic philosophy. Stoicism is not about simply acting as if nothing bothers you but in choosing what things to react to and what things to let pass by. The ancient Stoics spoke of the quiet joy and cheerfulness that life as a Stoic could provide.
  3. Spock is not a Stoic and Stoics are not Spock. – Going with the last point is the idea that Stoics are chained to logic, living an unemotional life. As stated in the last section, it isn’t about living a life free of emotion but about understanding emotions to a better degree and stopping yourself from getting too emotional.

So anyway, with those few points made I will begin by stating that Stoicism had three branches initially to their philosophy, Physics, Logic, and Ethics. I will not be going into Physics and Logic as they are both topics that had basically fallen out of usage by the time of the three major Stoic authors that we have today. I will be dealing primarily with Stoic Ethics, though I might delve into the other two if it is deemed necessary to explain a point more fully.

So let’s get started…

“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.” – Epictetus

According to the Stoics all of life falls into two categories, with a few small subcategories for clarity, those categories are things within our control and things outside of our control. Stoic ethics is about how to live “in accordance to nature” by dwelling only upon those things within our control.

So what things do we have control? We control our opinions, our choices, our wants and desires, as well as our own physical actions. What don’t we control? Everything else.

Most modern Stoics would add to this the category of things not quite under our control as well as things not under our control but influenced by us. An example of something not quite under our control would be the final grade on a group project, since you could work your hardest but if the others don’t pull their weight the final grade could be poor. An example of something influenced by us but not under our direct control would be a national election in which we vote but have very little say over the end result.

The Stoics believed that much of human strife is caused by dwelling upon those things outside of our control. If we instead shift the mental focus inward and worry about only those things that we can control our life can reach a state of contentment.  Many of life’s ills can be avoided simply by realizing that no matter how hard we try to change a situation, the control is not ours and thus our efforts are futile.

Let’s put this into perspective with a few examples…


Example 1

For the last month three months you have eagerly anticipated a week off of work. You have made plans for that week to go to the beach, have a picnic, take a long bike ride in the country as well as other things in the outdoors. The week arrives and instead of the warm and sunny weather you were expecting, it is cold and rainy. What do you do?

Well you have a couple of choices.

  1. You could choose to carry on with your plans. Enjoy a rainy day at the beach, a rain-soaked picnic, and a long, cold, and wet bike ride. This could result in your health taking a turn for the worse and being forced to take even more time off of work.
  2. You could complain bitterly about how nothing ever works out for you, how the universe is against you and how life just plain sucks.
  3. You could have prepared in advance for the possibility of rain and had a separate schedule of things to do. Go to a movie, visit a museum, go to a friend or family members house.

Notice how none of those choices included snapping your fingers and instantly having the sun come out, the rain go away, and the week be as perfect as you believed it would be? The Stoics believed that most people go with choices 1 or 2, when in reality they should have gone with number 3, as it ensures them the greatest degree of happiness with the least amount of risk involved. Choice number three prepares you for if it is sunny or if it is rainy and allows you to enjoy the time off regardless of the weather.


Example 2

We would all like to believe that we are immortal and that life will continue to go on, as it is now, forever. However we know in the back of our mind that it will someday end. Death is an unknown and so to many folks it is a chilling thought. How are we to deal with it?

Once again we are given a few choices…

  1. We can live as if we are immortal. Pretending that there is always going to be time to do everything we want to do in life. Death? Not me, I don’t even think about it. The only thing on my mind is reaching retirement age so that I can finally start enjoying life!
  2. We can live in absolute fear of death. Never taking any risks and leading a life that is dull but safe. Death? I want to avoid it at all costs!
  3. We can accept that death is a thing that we all must one day experience and choose not to fear it. We can live today knowing that it could be our last chance to experience a sunset, listen to the rain, enjoy the kiss of a loved one, or feel the warmth of a fire.

Once again the Stoics would say that the majority choose 1 or 2 but the best choice, number three, is the way to go. Stoics saw death not as something to be feared but as an experience we all must accept and live with. Living without fear of death but also with the knowledge that life is finite allows us to enjoy our family and friends to a much greater degree than if our mind was constantly focused on simply living as long as possible.


As with the examples, Stoics realized that you could not control the weather or change the fact that you will one day die. They instead choose to plan ahead, consider alternate courses, and accept the end of life with dignity and courage. Life is far too precious to waste on those things that I have absolutely no control over.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this jaunt into the philosophy of my life. Remember, I’m a shit Stoic but I’m still a Stoic. You too can be a shit Stoic if you choose to be. Thanks for reading!

 

My Journey

My Journey Away From Faith: Part 27

For part 26 of my journey, click here.
To start at the beginning of my journey, click here.

“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.” – The Enchiridion of Epictetus

As I read through the paperwork the officer had handed me, I fell deeper and deeper into depression. She accused me of being both physically and mentally abusive, claimed that I was mentally ill, and said that I would definitely be a harm to the children if allowed to interact with them. I decided that I would fight this and went to the courthouse prepared to give my side of the story.

“I never deny a restraining order that has been sought in my courtroom…”

The day of the hearing arrived and I stood as the judge came in to take his place. We all sat and the first thing out of the Judge’s mouth was, “I never deny a restraining order that has been sought in my courtroom. We can either sit here and discuss this til we are blue in the face or I can simply grant it and we can be done with this situation for the next year.” I realized no argument I could make would change the judges mind, and she was there crying and acting as if I was crazy. When the judge asked me my opinion, I simply said, if that meant a year of no contact with her, I would be more than happy to agree.

I drove home with deep feelings of despair and foreboding. How was I going to survive an entire year without any contact with the kids that had become such a crucial part of my life? I was crushed and sobbed much of the next few days. My life at home was bad but only because I was in such a deep depression. The love of my life felt the brunt of it and didn’t feel as if I wanted her there. Sadly our relationship almost ended in those first couple of days after the restraining order went into effect. In such a sad state, I considered putting things on hold and told my love about it. She burst into tears and told me I needed to figure out exactly what I wanted and fast. The second I saw the pain in her eyes, I knew I never wanted to see that pain again and that I wanted to spend the rest of my life bringing joy to those eyes.

StoicismHowever, getting out of a depression is not an easy matter, it isn’t like turning a light switch on and off and I had to find my own way out of it. Luckily, my love, had an idea that might just help me. She had been a psychology major in college and had studied philosophy as well, knowing my love of philosophy, she encouraged me to look into some of the Stoic writers of the early first and second centuries AD. It was exactly what I had been looking for. For those that don’t know, modern CBT therapy is based on Stoic ideas.

Marcus Aurelius

The Stoics (Epictetus, Seneca, and Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius) taught that some things are within our control and others are not. That’s a very basic explanation of their philosophy but it is enough to get the general idea across. Those things that are within our control should be the things we dwell upon and deal with, those things outside of our control are things that we shouldn’t spend much time, energy, or thinking on. I read several of the classics as well as modern stoic works written by non-believers.(Stoicism was not based on a belief in god and so it fits well with the atheist mindset) I found within these works that you can love someone who does not currently love you back and still be fine.

I knew I had a year that I couldn’t see those kids and the thought had crushed me, but being able to see them was completely outside of my control. Being able to love them, even though I wasn’t able to see them was still fully within my control. I also had a deep love for the woman I was with and a growing love for her daughter as well. I decided that for the next year I would dwell, not on what I couldn’t do, but only upon those things that I could do. It took some time but my depression began to gradually subside.

Over time, my happiness and tranquility increased to a point that I was able to beat my depression and move forward with my life.  The fact that god and faith played no role in overcoming this depression made the results twice as satisfying. Not only was I just living life but I was truly enjoying the life I was living.

One day I checked the mail and got notice that the final hearing for my divorce was coming up.  Also in the mail that day was a letter stating that I owed some $10,000 dollars in back child support for the daughter of Jennifer. Confused, I contacted child support services and asked them why they felt I owed this. Come to find out, since Jennifer had her daughter while we were still technically married, the state of Iowa considered her my legal daughter. When I explained that they were living at my residence and that I was back in a relationship with her mother, they told me I owed nothing and that I could put in a request to have her status as my legal daughter removed. They said if I did nothing, she would still be considered my legal daughter.

I thought about it for only a minute or two before deciding that I would give her the final say in what occurred. Jennifer agreed and when she got home from school that day we sat her down and talked it over with her. She instantly said that she always had wanted a “real” dad and was really happy to find out that I was her real dad. That settled it, she is my daughter and always will be. I love her so much and she acts so much like me it’s hilarious.

Anyway, the day of the final hearing arrived and the judge signed the decree, I was now divorced once again. I felt a deep sense of relief having that period of my life over with. I still missed the kids a great deal but was fully capable of loving them without being able to see them. We went home and I went to work where my coworkers had bought me a cake to celebrate the end of my divorce proceedings. All in all it was a great day.

Deadbeat

We spent the next year just enjoying being around each other. We learned a lot about one another and our relationship continued to deepen. My faith had been removed but I still claimed a deistic/agnostic style of belief, claiming that either god doesn’t exist or he created everything and then took off to avoid child support payments to his newly created beings. I did however begin to read some scientific journals, things that would have been considered taboo while I was in the faith, and found great enjoyment in learning about topics like physics, the big bang, and evolution. Life was good but I still wasn’t ready to call myself an atheist just yet.

 

To continue on to part 28, click here.