'Resolute Dreaming: How Stoics Hope' by Andrew Overby

Resolute Dreaming: How Stoics Hope

by Andrew Overby

A Stoic take on the now classic Obama 'Hope' Poster. Sourced here.
A Stoic take on the now classic Obama ‘Hope’ poster. Sourced here.

In the world of one’s own thoughts and dreams, the world can sometimes take on new and surprising dimensions: things can be brighter, more interesting, more elegant, even more fun and enjoyable. It’s great to be king. Things move faster and few real-world issues appear in focus enough to darken the pristine imagery of imagination. Dream speeds on as a hare, the world plods along like the slow-going tortoise. To mind the gap in between, human beings need philosophy.

The real world, where time can be measured in centuries or eons, is a place crystalline and perfect imaginings emerge as imperfect wooden forms even under ideal conditions. Hardly surprising is the fact that disillusionment is often the result. This is where the Stoics are uniquely qualified to help.

The Stoics wrote that the world is a place we happen to inhabit for a time, not a place we are destined to lord over or one whose direction we should expect to dramatically influence. It is better, they maintain, to know that while things happen, they do not necessarily happen to us.

Yet Stoics also profess a belief that human beings can and should take an active part in public life, whether as a leading figure, a military general or an administrator of some type, or simply as a concerned citizen upholding his or her own small end of an implicit social contract to better the public good, to paraphrase Seneca’s letter to Lucilius, who oversaw ancient Rome’s vital grain supply but worried about himself and devoting all his energies to public work. Whatever the role, just do the best possible with what you have control over.

A practical example might illuminate how Stoics rectify these ideas that seem to contradict each other. How do we actively live in the world without being ensnared by it?

To echo American general-turned-president Eisenhower, who believed no prewritten battle plan survives first contact with the enemy, how do we keep dreams alive upon contact with the real world?

Consider the now-famous Stockdale Paradox: Vice Admiral James Stockade of the U.S. Navy was held as the highest-ranking POW naval officer in North Vietnam for more than seven years.

Before his deployment, he had studied some Stoic philosophy, which meant he was better prepared for this struggle than many of his fellow POWs. Many consoled themselves with the thought they would be home by Christmas, or by spring, or before next winter, or that the war would surely end soon, or maybe there would be a prisoner exchange. Day by day, their expectations went unmet and their dreams were whittled down to nothing.

In large part, they didn’t survive, their mental health consumed by soul-crushing despair as year after year passed by without relief. This tells us something about what the denial of desperately held dreams can do even to strong and resilient men.

Stockdale had faith in his dream of returning home again but didn’t allow himself to tie his hope to an external circumstance over which he had zero control. Instead, he turned inward and focused on keeping his mind free and resilient even if his body was trapped in a cell.

This is how he kept his head above water and his spirit strong for the better part of a decade. The Stoic teacher Epictetus would be proud.

What Stockdale possessed was not quite optimism, but a profound sense that he would ultimately realize his dream, whether that time was near or far off. Other POWs in Vietnam may have been optimists; Stockdale was firm in his hopeful equanimity.

In 1992, when Stockdale was the vice presidential nominee on a third-party ticket with Ross Perot, his resolute dreaming surely helped him as well—his story of Stoic dreaming probably inspired many of the voters who made this effort the strongest third-party showing America had seen in nearly a hundred years.

Consider also any “overnight success story”making its way around today. Whether it is a newly famous musician or a sports figure just coming into public view, whether it is a famous example like the carmaker Tesla Motors led by serial entrepreneur Elon Musk, or even an entire field like the relatively new industry of 3-D printing, “overnight”really means years of work and patience other people are now finding out about. Like Stockdale, individuals like these labored long and hard to unite world with dream.

In fact, Mr. Musk’s other company, SpaceX, the most successful of the companies seeking to democratize access to space and which was the first company to dock with the International Space Station, provides a contemporary example of striving despite setbacks and of resilient hope in the face of opposition—in other words, a Stoical resolve to see a dream through to its fruition.

SpaceX failed in its first three rocket launch attempts, bringing it very close to its demise and giving truth to its naysayers’criticism. Just before it would have folded, the company’s fourth launch in 2008 was a soaring success and SpaceX was back in business, still relying on a “first principles”logical approach derived from probabilistic reasoning that would be right at home among philosophers in ancient Greece, one which says an important task must be done even if the odds of failure are high. Certainly nothing will change if nothing is tried.

SpaceX is currently trying to launch a reusable rocket from a barge at sea (which it has done) and then land the rocket back down on the barge, something that has yet to accomplished by anyone—ever. The company has endured several failures to achieve this goal already.

Instead of concluding that companies have no business competing with governments in rocketry or that it simply cannot yet be feasibly done, the company learns from its failed attempts and immediately sets about preparing for the next one. Its engineers and employees know that each step brings them closer to fulfillment of their mission and they continue to have faith. SpaceX, too, dreams resolutely—like Stockdale, like the Stoics—giving us a live-action view of philosophy in practice.

These examples are not the passing whims or wishes that must be separated from real dreams. They are not idle contemplations, but desperate hopes to increase the crawling tempo of this world. As Seneca wrote, you have time for what is most important in your life, but not including those many temporary things that can cloud your vision. These are not those.

Both Stockdale and SpaceX show us the importance of taking the long view—the longer your time span, the smaller problems feel and reality is easier to accept. In the long run, more desirable outcomes are probabilistic more than they are zero-sum deterministic affairs. Taking the long view can remind us that the cogs of this world most often move slowly.

These examples make clear what Stoics can offer: they give hope and calm in a world often full of trepidation and uncertainty, a sense of peace amid disorder. They represent a path for learning how to handle fear, failure, and rejection. The Stoics teach us how to do everything we can in pursuit of a goal, but to then let go of it.

Whether a prisoner’s release date or a company’s success is near or far, firm convictions and faith in the eventual outcome can carry the day.

The Stoic knows the fickleness of fortune but refuses to let this become an overwhelming barrier. The Stoic sees obstacles rise but refuses to stop trying to realize change, knowing that this is how things change, at whatever speed change may come. It is a cheery and rationally optimistic kind of resignation.

Where world and dream merge is in how a Stoic dreams: he or she dreams not by attaching expiration dates to perishable dreams but by patiently accepting that dreams must be held steadily while the world catches up.

Apart from time in New York City, where he attended university, and elsewhere, Andrew Overby has lived mostly in his native Texas. He spends his time thinking about technology, politics, and psychology. As a personal project, he’s reinventing the commonplace book for modern readers eager for deeper dialogue with the authors and wisdom they find most meaningful.

The Epictetus Club: Part Four

In our final extract from Jeff Traylor’s book, the inmates explore the art of good mental boxing, or how you can make a productive ‘counter-punch’ to negative thoughts….

“The prison had been abuzz for days about the escape. Rumors abounded on the grapevine about how Crime Wave had gotten out. One story had him tunneling under the wall, another had him carving a hole through the wall, and another had him climbing over the wall. The most likely method was that he had managed to hide himself in a garbage truck that left the prison earlier that evening, avoiding a search by stashing himself in the garbage bin of the truck. However he did it, the prison would probably be closed by the time the answers would be found. Anyway, it was old news by the time the next Epictetus Club meeting rolled around. Zeno had stayed focused that week and had hung a new frame on the wall that I especially liked:

Round Four

The Prayer of Epictetus

Lead me, Zeus and Destiny, whithersoever I am appointed to go. I will follow without wavering; even though I turn coward and shrink, I shall follow all the same.

The meeting came to order promptly at seven, with Zeno welcoming the members and then moving on to the night’s topic. “A half-hearted spirit has no power, according to Epictetus. And power is a very important part of change. We can have good intentions, but without any

power to carry out our plans we will not succeed. Mike, what is the main way that your stock car might lose serious power?” asked Zeno of one of the men.

Mike, an experienced stock car driver and mechanic, answered that one of the ways was by having a blown head gasket. “You can have all the horses in the world under your hood, but if you don’t have the compression, you don’t have the muscle. Some of your power is blowing out through the hole in the gasket instead of being directed toward powering your car toward the finish line.”

Continue reading “The Epictetus Club: Part Four”

The Epictetus Club: Part Three

 In our third excerpt from The Epictetus Club, the inmates’ discussion turns to how best to approach emotional and mental wounds from the past….

” At seven sharp the meeting began. Zeno again welcomed all of us and gave a quick review of our last meeting. “Who remembers what ‘fail’ means?” he asked.

Eddie spoke up. “Fear, Apathy, Inertia, Lack of Vision. These are the four walls that keep us in the box.”

“Right. Tonight we’re going to talk about getting past these walls – or to use Animal’s terms, to leave the well and go to the ocean. And we’ll start with a campfire by the water. I’m going to paint two scenarios for you and I would like for you to choose the one you would prefer. In the first scenario, you are walking by the campfire and you trip and fall and your hand goes into the fire. In the second scenario, you are walking by the campfire, you trip and fall, and your head hits a rock and knocks you out as your hand goes in the fire. Which of these two would you prefer?”

The men looked puzzled for a moment, then one of them said, “The first one.”

“Why?” asked Zeno.

“Because I could pull my hand out right away.” Some of the others nodded in agreement.

Another man said that he would prefer the second scenario “because I wouldn’t feel the pain if I was knocked out.” A few others shared his opinion.

The first man then said, “Just because you don’t feel the pain doesn’t mean that damage isn’t being done. What will happen to your hand if you don’t pull it out of the fire?”

The second man then admitted that it would probably burn off, and he asked if he could change his answer to the first scenario.

“Pain and consequences have a good purpose,” explained Zeno, “but only if we pay attention to them. They can motivate us to make changes, to pull our hand out of the fire, but only if we are aware of them. Consequences without awareness are ineffective.” By now everyone was agreeing that the first scenario would be the better choice – that it would be better to feel the pain for a moment to avoid long term damage.

Continue reading “The Epictetus Club: Part Three”

The Epictetus Club: Part Two

In our second excerpt from The Epictetus Club, newly arrived prison counsellor Jeff Traylor now finds himself the advisor to ‘The Epictetus Club’ a group of inmates which meets every week to discuss the teachings of Epictetus. This excerpt describes the first meeting he attended, and the story of how one of the inmates (nicknamed Zeno) first came across Epictetus’ Encheiridion (Handbook)

I arrived for the meeting promptly at 7:00 PM and began by introducing myself to the dozen men who had gathered for the Epictetus Club meeting. As I did so, Zeno and I exchanged quick glances, asking nonverbally if the other knew where the chair and photos had gone, but neither of us had a clue. The walls were blank except for the outlines where the picture frames had hung just hours ago, and the platform that held the electric chair was also empty. The answers would have to wait, though, since it was time to get started.

I was one of three new faces at the meeting. The prison grapevine is faster than fiberoptic cable, so everyone already knew that I was the new club advisor – and also the new furlough counselor. Each man seemed acutely aware that my job was to screen suitable candidates for early release on furlough and forward their names to the parole board for final determination. Naturally, everyone was very polite and courteous.

After all the men introduced themselves to me and handed me their passes, I turned the meeting over to Zeno and sat down outside of the circle. Zeno began by thanking me for offering to be the advisor, and suggesting to the men that they not use the meeting as an excuse to lobby for furlough. “Send a kite to Mr. Traylor if you want to discuss furlough, and he’ll take care of it during regular business hours. None of us are here for that on Friday nights.” That was the last mention of furlough at any of the club meetings.

Zeno went on to describe the group rules, which were few and simple: respect your fellow group members by paying attention when they speak, only one person speaks at a time, and what is said in the meeting stays in the meeting. He then gave some background on the Epictetus Club for the benefit of the new members and myself.

The Club had been meeting for about five years, and had been started by Zeno and another inmate named Doc. Doc was not actually a doctor, but had been a medic in the army before coming to the penitentiary on a second- degree murder conviction. Doc had served ten years at the Walls and had been transferred to the medium security Marion Correctional Institution a little over two years ago, leaving Zeno to organize and lead the groups himself. It was actually Zeno who had first discovered the teachings of Epictetus and tried them out.

Continue reading “The Epictetus Club: Part Two”

The Epictetus Club: Part One

This is part one of our two-week series from The Epictetus Club, an account of how prison inmates used the philosophy of Epictetus to help turn their lives around.

In this excerpt, Jeff Traylor, a newly arrived prison counsellor, reflects on his meeting with an inmate, nicknamed Zeno…

Epictetus Club: Extract One

I had been thinking about what Zeno said at our last meeting – that people were not upset by things themselves, but by what they told themselves about those things. At first I had my doubts. But I was also open to considering it, so I decided to pay attention to my thoughts the next time I was worried, upset or angry. It didn’t take long to find my first opportunity. Driving home that evening after work, someone cut me off on the freeway, and then had the nerve to give me the “we’re number one” sign. My instant reaction was to think, “Who the hell does he think he is? I’m going to pull up beside him and tell him a thing or two.” Then I thought of what Zeno had said, and tried something new. I told myself, “That guy is obviously having a bad day, and I don’t need to make him a part of my day. I’ll just take a deep breath and go on listening to the radio.” To my amazement, and just as Zeno predicted, my feeling about the situation changed from anger to minor annoyance and then to complete indifference about the other guy. I felt more in control of my feelings and actions than I ever had! I couldn’t wait to talk with Zeno again.

When Friday rolled around, I stopped by Zeno’s House (I preferred thinking about it that way) for our chat and found him reading a little book with the strange title Enchiridion. He promptly laid it down on his stand, and it was then that I noticed a snapshot in a matchstick frame sitting on the stand. In the photo one could see Zeno smiling broadly, surrounded by boxing promoter Don King, former heavyweight champion Joe Louis and someone I didn’t recognize. Zeno explained that the photo had been taken about a year earlier when Don King brought ABC Wide World of Sports to the prison to televise some professional bouts on national TV. King’s entourage included Joe Louis, one of America’s greatest heroes, and an unknown young boxer named Larry Holmes. “Don told me to be sure to get Larry in the picture. I didn’t know who he was, but Don said that he would one day be the heavyweight champion of the world, so Larry was kind enough to get into the photo with me. We’ll see if Don was right or just blowing smoke from one of his big cigars!”

Zeno paused to look at the photo, and then said that he used to do some professional boxing in Akron. “At the time I didn’t know how important that would be to helping me survive in the pen, but it has literally saved my life.”

“How many fights have you been in with other inmates?” I asked.

“At first, a lot, but none for the past ten years.” he said with a wry smile. “My boxing skills now help me avoid that kind of trouble.”

He went on to ask if I remembered what he had said about the importance of our thoughts, and I described to him my incident of road rage on the freeway and how I had calmed myself down just by changing what I was telling myself.

“You’d probably be a good boxer,” he said. “Thinking skills and boxing skills are very similar. Think of yourself as in a boxing ring with an opponent, but your opponent is not another person – your opponent is your own thinking. There are some thoughts that can take you out for the count, like your thought of ‘Who the hell does he think he is?’ I see it all the time in here. Of course, the thought that has knocked out nearly everyone here is ‘I won’t get caught.’”

He laughed, and went on. “A good boxer is able to recognize and anticipate what his opponent is going to do, is able to recognize the punch that is coming, block it, then throw a counterpunch. In our thinking, if we can recognize self-defeating thoughts as they come up, block them, and then respond with a productive counterpunch, we can avoid trouble and live a good life. If we can’t do that, we will have a life of pain and turmoil. But just like in boxing, it takes practice, practice, practice. Good thinking is not a haphazard enterprise, or something that some are born with and some are not.”

“Are you saying that thinking well is not a question of intelligence, but a matter of skill?” I asked.

“Exactly. And it is also a question of bravery.” “Bravery?”
“Yes, bravery. The ancient Greeks said that learning

to think well is a moral virtue they called courage, because it takes commitment and effort. They also said that those who do not take pains to learn to think clearly are committing the moral vice of cowardice. Just as someone on a battlefield who runs away out of fear of getting hurt is a coward, so are people who refuse to take the necessary pains to change their lives also cowards. Those who do take the pains and effort are demonstrating courage, just as much as the person on the battlefield who overcomes fear of injury and fights for a good cause.”

“How does one develop these skills?”

“The way we do it in here is to get together at the Epictetus Club.”

“The Epictetus Club? What’s that?”

“It’s a group of inmates who meet once a week. We are open to everybody who would like to come, regardless of age, race, religion, or criminal offense – or even whether you are an inmate or staff member. The prison chaplain is our staff advisor, but he mostly just provides the space for us to meet on Friday nights. I like to think of it as Friday Night at the Fights – but our fights are with our own thoughts and attitudes. Remember, thinking is like boxing – identify the thought, block it, and counterpunch. Speaking of the Epictetus Club, I better start getting ready for the meeting. Have a good weekend and I’ll see you Monday at the gate.”

The next extract will be posted on Wednesday. 

About the book:

The Epictetus Club: Lessons from the Walls is both an inspiring story and a unique thinking skills teaching tool written by Jeff Traylor, a former prison counselor and award-winning program developer. Set in the Ohio Penitentiary, the book follows a group of inmates who meet weekly to study the teachings of the ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus, a former slave and prisoner who used adversity to become wiser and more compassionate. The group is led by an unforgettable lifer named Zeno, a former professional boxer who points out that our greatest opponent is our own thinking. Zeno compares thinking skills to boxing skills, and teaches the men the ABC’s of Inner Boxing and the Ten Rounds to Self-Mastery. The reader sits in on life-changing group sessions where the men discuss finding a sense of purpose, “knocking out” excuses, turning adversity to benefit, converting entitlement to gratitude, identifying consequences of actions and how others are affected, handling provocation, dealing with stress, and many other key life lessons. The Epictetus Club is an easily read 155-page paperback book divided into short chapters that encourage reading and discussion. Popular in prisons and universities around the country, the book is great for self-study or in a discussion group (discussion guide available). A 270-page, 16-session cognitive skills course manual called The Epictetus Self-Mastery Program is also available.

N.B. If you would like to have a free PDF copy of The Epictetus Club in full, please email the author (epictetusclub @ aol . com – minus the spaces!). He will be happy to send you a copy. You can also buy a physical copy of the book here.

About the Author: 

Jeff Traylor has a wealth of corrections experience, ranging from implementing the furlough program at the maximum security Ohio Penitentiary to serving as the cognitive skills instructor at a community based correctional facility. His experience also includes substance abuse counseling and program development, and he has worked in the psychological and social services departments in Ohio prisons. He is the creator of the Shoplifting Diversion Program that earned a national award from the National Council of Community Mental Health Centers and was adopted in more than 30 U.S. cities. He has served on the faculty of the Michigan Judicial Institute and has trained hundreds of professionals ranging from parole officers to social workers. He earned his graduate degree from The Ohio State University and is the author of a series of Ohio travel books called Life in the Slow Lane. See his website here

With thanks to Jeff for allowing excerpts from his work to be published here.

New Series Tomorrow: Epictetus in Prison

From tomorrow, we will be running a two week series of excerpts every few days, from prison counsellor Jeff Traylor’s Epictetus Club. The work is a powerful and inspirational example of how Epictetus’ philosophy has been used to help prisoners turn their lives around. Jeff wrote the book from his experiences of teaching Epictetus’ philosophy in prisons, and did so primarily to provide a recap of Epictetus’ philosophy to those who took the course, and to provide a book that could be of use in other prisons around the US.

Jeff writes: “This novel is inspired by real events and real people. It is set in the old Ohio Penitentiary, and the descriptions of the institution are factual. Some events described as having taken place at the Ohio Penitentiary actually took place at Marion Correctional Institution. The inmate characters are fictional composites, and the names of staff have been changed. Epictetus (Epic-TEE-tus) was a real person.

My primary purpose when I began this book was to provide a refresher for the men who have completed a course in cognitive skills that I teach in a community-based correctional facility. By the time the men finish the course, they have studied many of these ideas, and this book is a practical and informative way for them to review the lessons as they prepare to return to society.

As the writing progressed, a second use for the book evolved – to provide these concepts and ideas to probationers or inmates at other correctional facilities who do not have access to these kinds of groups.”

The book starts with the Epictetus Rap: 

The Epictetus Rap

My name is Epictetus, here’s what I’m puttin’ down,
If you ain’t got your cog skills, you’re nothin’ but a clown. You know I was a prisoner, you know I was a slave,
It took all of my mind to control how I behave.
But I used my brain to live, I used my brain to get through, I let go of entitlement, thinking I was due
Whatever I wanted, whatever anyone had,
I learned to focus elsewhere, then I didn’t feel so bad.
I took my better feelings and opened up my mind,
I saw I used closed thinking, I saw that I was blind
To all my choices, all my options, all my possibility
And I made a vow right then that I knew I could be free
In my mind and in my heart
And in my thoughts is where to start.

So let me tell you what to do if you truly want to live
A life you can be proud of, a life where you can give Instead of taking all the time, doing booze and drugs and crime.
Clear your head, clear your conscience,
Clear your record, clear your mind,
Ain’t no satisfaction in immediate grati-faction.

Now I know you think your circumstance Is the reason for your victimstance,
But you know it ain’t like that
You can survive like a cat.

Turn it on its ear, turn it upside down,
Instead of being crushed, ask how you can turn it ’round. Don’t just do the time, don’t be a stupid fool,
This here is a place where if you play it cool,
You’ll be stronger in your thinking, stronger in your heart,

When you come up out of here, you’ll now know where to start
To live a life of purpose, to live the life you need,
To let go of your past, your demands and your greed.

Instead of robbin’ in the hood, but sayin’ you are good, Get yourself on home, forget that Robin Hood syndrome. Don’t be makin’ no excuses, don’t be blamin’ no one else, Take responsibility and be Master of Yourself.

© 2002 by Maximum511

Look out for more from the Epictetus Club on the blog over the next two weeks.

About the Author: 

Jeff Traylor has a wealth of corrections experience, ranging from implementing the furlough program at the maximum security Ohio Penitentiary to serving as the cognitive skills instructor at a community based correctional facility. His experience also includes substance abuse counseling and program development, and he has worked in the psychological and social services departments in Ohio prisons. He is the creator of the Shoplifting Diversion Program that earned a national award from the National Council of Community Mental Health Centers and was adopted in more than 30 U.S. cities. He has served on the faculty of the Michigan Judicial Institute and has trained hundreds of professionals ranging from parole officers to social workers. He earned his graduate degree from The Ohio State University and is the author of a series of Ohio travel books called Life in the Slow Lane

With thanks to Jeff for allowing excerpts from his work to be published here.