Some Senecan Realism About Happiness by Paul Stanley

Leading up to Stoic Week this year – which runs from Monday, October 1 to Sunday, October 7 – we are publishing a series of shorter weekday posts, focused on the theme of “Happiness”.  Are you interested in writing a 300-600 word post, well-informed by Stoicism, on that topic? Email your draft to me, the editor of Stoicism Today.  We have posts running up to Stoic Week, but if we get more in, we’ll run additional short posts during Stoic Week as well.  And now, Paul’s post!

When you were first learning to write at school, did your teachers steer you away from the adjective “nice”? Mine did. “Try to find a better word!” they said. “Don’t just say that on your holidays you went to a nice farm, and ate some nice ice cream, and saw a nice goat, and had a nice day. Try to find some other words.”

For “nice” you could substitute any number of jack-of-all-trades words: “great”, “awesome”, “enjoyable”. “Happy” risks being one of those words. We sort of understand what it means, and it generally seems like it must be a good thing. But it’s a slippery word, and because it means so much it also means very little.

In everyday thinking, happiness is associated with a variety of positive emotional states (pleasure, joy, contentment, laughter) and the absence of others (pain, depression, tears). And those states are associated with things that happen in the world: the things that make me happy or sad. The “happy ending” means a wedding; a funeral makes a “sad ending”.

Stoic thought calls this a trap. After all, the “happy ending” is not an ending. After the marriage, what? Well, after the marriage, at some point, illness, misfortune and – yes – in the end, the funeral. As Seneca puts it (Letter 59):

In everyday speech we say that we derive great joy if someone close to us becomes a consul or gets married or if his wife has a child. But these are not really joyous, but often the start of future sorrow.

It is in this sense that Stoics “believe pleasure is a problem”, as Seneca puts it. If we think of happiness this way, we can’t be happy for long. If we chase emotionally pleasurable states we are in a bind, because this sort of positive emotion is like an ice-cube in the sun: it always melts.

We can get off the roller-coaster if we stop understanding happiness as a pleasurable emotion kindled by external events, and aim instead for a sort of calm maintained from within. When Seneca says, later in the same letter, that the wise person is “full of joy, happy, and calm, untroubled” he is not imagining an odd emotional cocktail which combines joy (in the sense of pleasurable excitement) with calm. Instead, he is proposing that viable happiness is calm, not just an emotional high that depends on particular events, achievements, or emotions.

Perhaps that is true happiness? Seneca seems to think so, since he contrasts it with the “false joy”. But I’m not sure that true and false are the right words here. The important point is that calm happiness is maintainable, whereas – thanks to the “facts of life” – the see-sawing emotional highs that depend on external events needs must be intermittent and temporary. The only sort of happiness that we can reasonably rely on is the sort that comes from learning to approach the various things that are bound to happen to us in such a way that we can be inconcussus (the word I have translated as “untroubled” above, but which could also be translated as “not shaken” or “not knocked sideways”).

Of course, how we cultivate the attitudes and reactions that will enable us to achieve this (truly) happy state is another question. But it’s important to know where we should be headed.

Paul Stanley is an English lawyer who has been increasingly drawn to stoicism over the past two years, largely through this blog. He first read Seneca when studying Latin at school, but has only gradually come to see that he is more than a sanctimonious Roman aristocrat, and that our humanity can build bridges to distant antiquity which can still support the weight of our experience.

A Blazing Fire by Evan Oakley

Leading up to Stoic Week this year – which runs from Monday, October 1 to Sunday, October 7 – we are publishing a series of shorter weekday posts, focused on the theme of “Happiness”.  Are you interested in writing a 300-600 word post, well-informed by Stoicism, on that topic?  Email your draft to me, the editor of Stoicism Today.  And now, Evan’s post!

 

Everything suits me that suits your designs, O my universe.” (Meditations 4.23)

To accept whole-heartedly all that life presents one with, not just the positive, but the difficult and distressing, is the essence of amor fati: love of fate.

When first encountering this concept, so counter-intuitive to what I often thought and felt about my life and the lives of others, it annoyed me. Reading about “human greatness” in Nietzsche was one thing, his style is evocative, but I didn’t take it seriously.  Later coming across it in the plain speaking Epictetus, who I did take seriously, I woke up a bit:

Don’t demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do happen, and you will go on well. (Enchiridion, 8).

However, when I say “woke up,” I don’t mean in a good way—in fact, I scoffed. It seemed tautological, “like what you get, and you’ll get what you like.” A meme for rubes. But I woke up in the sense that I remembered and couldn’t let it go.  Later, when reading Meditations, the concept’s recurring appearance was hard to miss. I began to feel convicted by the idea. Reading Marcus’ pep talks to himself, and sensing the nobility of his vision, I admitted that I wasn’t and hadn’t been accepting, let alone loving and leaning into, what the universe had dished out. I resented much of it. And because of this, I was missing out on . . . everything.

This was no epiphany, it was a long time coming, and I had to absorb a lot more of Stoicism before the idea took root. There kept springing to mind the dismal turns in my own life, and I needed only to think of those I knew who had lost children or who had been victimized as children. Love that?   

Even today I think amor fati is one of those concepts that Epictetus would counsel shutting the hell up about, especially if talking with those who are suffering or not of a philosophical bent. It is a concept tailor-made for his maxim, “Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it.”

Amor fati is a discipline for my own life, not an advice to deploy on others.

Amor fati, for me, is a correction and orientation, especially in days of duress. At the core of it is gratitude. It transfigures my experience of both present and past. Far from making me passive, it helps remove impediments to action—fear, anxiety, resentment, recede when I adopt something more than just resignation to events. The grief and quiet desperation that Thoreau remarked on is diminished. The potential for happiness increases.

But to be frank, it is no box of chocolates: it requires me to consciously adopt more courage than I actually have. Too often, I begrudge the exercise of saying, Okay, love this. I hate it like I hate a cold shower, sometimes. I grouse, Well here it is, gratitude, O Universe, you bitch. But like a cold shower, if I manage it, I will then make my damn bed and face the day with more comportment, and maybe, sometimes, even be glad when I step out the door and really feel the sun. For a moment. Bit by bit reclaiming moments of joy that would have been lost without it.  And I am now alert to those of whom it can be said:

A blazing fire makes flame and brightness out of everything that is thrown into it. -Meditations

 

Evan Oakley lives in Colorado, where he makes 20 minute brownies in 10 minutes, participates in full contact origami, and writes Petrarchan sonnets. He is a father, disability advocate for HearStrong, and Chair of English at Aims Community College. 

The Creative Stoic – An Artist’s Adventures with Marcus Aurelius by Scott Perry

It’s in looking back and reflecting that one’s life journey is sorted and makes sense. Marcus Aurelius knew this. The entire first book of Meditations is a review of the people that shaped him. A process in which he expresses sincere gratitude to family, friends, colleagues, and teachers.

What is creativity?  Creativity is a fundamental human impulse. Along with our capacity for reason and social instinct, it’s a defining characteristic of the human animal. Creativity is the simple human act of bringing something forth into the world that did not heretofore exist. You employ your creative inclination every time you send a message, prepare a meal, make a mess, or make amends.

What Is Stoicism?

Stoicism is an ancient philosophy of life that, like any worthwhile metaphysical pursuit, answers the questions, “What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be happy? And, how can I be more of both?”

Stoics suggest that our rational and social nature are defining human traits and that developing and employing both cultivate excellence of character. They believe that virtue is all that is required to live a good life. Stoics further assert that clarity of what is and what is not within our control is essential to maintaining our sense of happiness.

Regarding life’s inevitable challenges and misfortunes, the Stoics suggest that if we employ ourselves purposefully where we have influence and do so for the common good, we can maintain a sense of flourishing even as we accept what fate bestows.

But, what the heck does Stoicism have to do with creativity? It’s where the art of living converges with the creative process. Stoicism encourages me to be a more purposeful and flourishing creative and creativity helps me approach the meaning of life with a greater sense of craft and appreciation.

Marcus Aurelius sums it up succinctly and eloquently:

Love the humble art you have learned and take rest in it. Pass through the remainder of your days as one who wholeheartedly entrusts all possessions to the gods, making yourself neither a tyrant nor a slave to any person. – Meditations, 4.31

Marcus, of course, is referring to the art of living. The responsibility of being a human being, and an individual, in service to our fellow human beings through the roles we play and the work we do. This is the path to equanimity, tranquility, and happiness through all of life’s challenges and celebrations.

In this art of living, we all possess the capacity to cultivate and encourage this “smoothly flowing life.”

At every hour, give your full concentration… to carrying out the task at hand with a scrupulous and unaffected dignity and affectionate concern for others and freedom and justice, and give yourself space from other concerns… You see how few things you need to be able to live a smoothly flowing life. – Meditations, 2.5

And creativity is one of the primary human motivations we can employ toward this end.

Marcus was my introduction to Stoicism, the philosophy that informs and influences my life and my work as a creative. Marcus’ delivers the virtues and values of Stoicism through metaphor and an aesthetic perspective that resonates especially deep with creatives. What follows are thoughts and reflections about my journey thus far as a creative and a “student” of Marcus.

My  Journey Begins

My adventures in Stoicism began in a 7th grade Latin class where I was introduced to Marcus through translating passages from Meditations from Latin to English from my textbook (although Marcus originally wrote them in Greek). Encouraging my interest, my teacher gave me his copy of Meditations. I read and reread it until the book was tattered.

At the time, I didn’t know I was reading a definitive ancient Stoic text. I just loved the way Marcus spoke to himself. It was the same way I talked to myself. This is one thing purposeful work can do, it can connect people disconnected by time and place.

Another interest that developed at this time was playing guitar. In this adventure, I failed to meet a worthwhile guide until I went to college. However, once I connected with this teacher, I was “ruined.” Music frequently “interrupted” my studies and eventually my career as an academic.

Upon graduating, I taught at a few private schools you’ve probably heard of and tried my hand at sales and restauranteuring. But soon, I went all the way to “the dark side.” I became a professional musician. Again, Marcus spoke to me.

Everything, a horse, a vine, is created for some duty. For what task, then, were you yourself created? A man’s true delight is to do the things he was made for. – Meditations, 8.19

The Stoics speak of the four roles or personae. Cicero writes of it in On Duties. We are simultaneously living as human beings, individuals, members of society, and the role we choose for ourselves. I’d found my purpose. My calling. Or at least my calling for the moment. A vocation as a performing musician was work at the intersection of my values and talents that enhanced the lives of others.

The Stoic Guitarist 

Making a living as a guitarist is not for the faint of heart, but earning a living equal to that of your average academic was a pretty low bar to meet. I managed to build and sustain a music career while holding on to the woman of my dreams and raising two happy and healthy boys.

Fame and fortune eluded me. But that was not the point. I was happy to make a living doing work that was fulfilling. After all, Marcus reminds:

Does anything genuinely beautiful need supplementing? No more than justice does – or truth, or kindness, or humility. Are any of those improved by being praised? Or damaged by contempt? Is an emerald suddenly flawed if no one admires it? – Meditations, 4.20

To explore and develop my craft and be able to share my work with others. To serve the song, the audience, and my collaborators on stage. This was reward enough.

There were, of course, plenty of challenges. Disreputable club owners, irresponsible bandmates, indifferent audiences, nights traveling long distances for short money, and worse. But Marcus taught me to mitigate the impact of these misfortunes on my equanimity.

The thing ordained for you – teach yourself to be at one with those. And the people who share them with you – treat them with love. With real love. – Meditations, 6.30

It is easy to become bitter and jaded at any level of the music business’ pecking order. I certainly experienced instances of falling into these unhealthy states. But over and over again Marcus pulled me out with this reminder. The work was the reward. The work as a musician, sure. But also the task of being a human being striving for excellence through loving others and serving them through my work.

Receive without pride, let go without attachment. – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 8.33

Marcus helped me approach my musical craft and career with greater intention and gratitude. Becoming a professional music maker is not work I have to do, its work I get to do. And for a long time, it was the work I felt I was meant to do.

Mindfully engaging with my craft, remaining present, and focusing on the reasons for my work rather than attaching myself to external rewards and results. These practices helped me navigate the ups and downs of a career in music while maintaining a love for the work, a sense of wonder and curiosity, and a desire to excel and experience a feeling of prosperity and even abundance.

The Stoic Creative 

Around my fiftieth birthday, I found myself returning to Marcus’ Meditations frequently. More aware than ever before that my days are numbered, I felt the urge to make whatever was left count.

Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now, take what’s left and live it properly. – Meditations, 7.56

I felt I’d shined a light, but felt I could shine brighter, with more purpose, and with a more significant impact.

To see the nature of a sunbeam, look at light as it falls through a narrow opening into a dark room. It extends in a straight line, striking any solid object that stands in its way and blocks the space beyond it. There it remains—not vanishing, or falling away.

That’s what the outpouring—the diffusion—of thought should be like: not emptied out, but extended. And not striking at obstacles with fury and violence, or falling away before them, but holding its ground and illuminating what receives it.

What doesn’t transmit light creates its own darkness. –Meditations, 8.57

My career as a performing musician and guitar teacher felt like it had been “a good run,” but increasingly, it also felt like a race I was ready to abandon. But what was next?

Our sons grown and gone, my wife and I sold the farm where we raised them and moved to town. I built up my lesson studio practice and dialed back on gigging. I began thinking about the what the next thing might be, and the words of Seneca kept ringing in my ears.

What ought to be done must be learned by one who does it. – Seneca, Moral Letters to Lucilius, Letter 18

These words informed my next steps. I enrolled in Seth Godin’s altMBA program. Through it, several epiphanies came to me and I re-acquainted myself with my love for writing. I blogged my way to some clarity about a book idea and during another Godin workshop, The Marketing Seminar (TMS), I wrote and published The Stoic Creative.

The Stoic Creative is a book about where the art of living collides with the creative process. It’s based on the assertion that struggling creatives are driven by passion and thriving artists are driven by purpose. TSC shares concepts and tools based on Stoic principles and practices to help creatives elevate to artists by sharing work that matters with those that need it.

Toward this end, TSC shares many quotes from the ancient Stoic literature such as this one from Marcus Aurelius.

First, do nothing inconsiderately or without a purpose. Second, make your acts refer to nothing else but a social end. – Meditations, 12.20

We have our duties to pursue and fulfill as human beings, individuals, and members of society. But it is in the roles we choose for ourselves that we can enhance ourselves and those we connect with. Employing our creative capacity with intention provides us the opportunity to act as artists in the way we live.

This can, of course, be facilitated by heeding this admonition from Marcus’ favorite Stoic teacher, Epictetus.

Progress is not achieved by luck or accident, but by working on yourself daily.  – Epictetus, Discourses, Book 3

Seth Godin, the altMBA coaches, and the altMBA alumni community became my teachers, guides, and fellow travelers. I developed a daily writing practice. More important, I published this work on my blog and in an unofficial altMBA alumni publication called It’s Your Turn.

In addition to becoming a better writer and teacher, my work with Seth Godin and other collaborators helped me see the wisdom of some of  Marcus’ most pointed advice.

Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one. – Meditations, 10.16

Learning, personal development, study, these enterprises are all well and good in and of themselves, but it’s in the doing and sharing that transformation occurs. The process of the altMBA and the work I launched thereafter, along with my continued Stoic practice, helped direct the shift I sought. I began moving from work as a musician and guitar teacher to that of an influencer and change agent in the creative sphere.

And my adventures in aligning my creative impulse with my love of Stoic philosophy are far from over.

Creative On Purpose

My book met with enough success to encourage me to further develop this new enterprise. My experience in the altMBA and TMS led to an influential mastermind group and a coaching position working alongside Seth Godin and several other impressive leaders in The Marketing Seminar.

I’m still developing my potential and delivering on my promise as a creative and teacher. I seek more connection and collaboration through meaningful endeavors. And daily, Marcus reminds me:

People exist for one another. You can instruct or endure them. – Meditations, 8.59

All of us teach. It is woven into our role as both human beings and members of society. We influence and instruct through our words and deeds. If we do so with an empathetic motivation, a clear and beneficial intention, and a generous aspiration, we elevate our teaching to artistry and initiate a transformation that elevates and enhances those with whom we engage.

Toward this end. I recently launched Creative On Purpose, an online “home” and gathering spot for those wishing to cultivate excellence through work that matters. Work done with and for others to enhance the lives of those it touches.

The Journey Continues

Throughout the ages, thoughtful human beings have sought to answer these questions. “What does it mean to be human?” “What does it mean to be happy?” And, “How can I be more of both?”

Marcus Aurelius found answers in Stoic philosophy which asserts that what distinguishes us from other living things is our capacity for reason and our social nature. For the Stoics, happiness depends on our ability to control our impulses, adopt a courageous posture, serve the common good, and cultivate wisdom.

Marcus found the path through the three disciplines of perception, action, and will.

Everywhere, at each moment, you have the option: to accept this event with humility, to treat this person as he should be treated, to approach this thought with care. So that nothing irrational creeps in. – Meditations, 7.54

In engaging our creative capacity in any enterprise worthy of our time and talents, we would do well to heed Marcus’ personal entreaty. Developing our will and accepting what comes from our work in our current situation. Taking action that is aligned with our values and those of who we seek to serve through our work. While we frame our perception intentionally and rationally.

Although it has an aspiration, creativity occurs in the present moment. Again, Marcus advises us to follow the three disciplines.

All you need are these – certainty of judgment in the present moment; action for the common good in the present moment; and an attitude of gratitude in the present moment for anything that comes your way. – Meditations, 6.52

In addition to presence, generosity, and acceptance, creativity is enhanced by focus and prioritizing. Struggling or suffering creatives are led about by their whims and passions. Thriving creatives advance their craft as artists and as human beings by “pruning” distractions and the unnecessary from the task at hand.

“If you seek tranquillity, do less.” Or (more accurately) do what’s essential – what the logos of a social being requires, and in the requisite way. Which brings a double satisfaction: to do less, better.

Because most of what we say and do is not essential. If you can eliminate it, you‘ll have more time and more tranquillity. Ask yourself at every moment, ‘Is this necessary?’” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.24

The peace of mind and a general sense of prosperity brought about by mindfully remaining in the “here and now” is enhanced if we also embrace our work and the art of living with a sense of curiosity, gratitude,  and wonder. Marcus, arguably the most powerful man of his day, fought against self-corruption by cultivating this mindset.

“Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 7.47

Confidence and certainty undermine our creative capacity, which relies on curiosity and the courage. To create is to embrace the unknown and the possibility of failure. Curiosity and courage help us face these, and other challenges without abdicating our happiness or equanimity.

Stoicism promises that we can experience a greater sense of flourishing, tranquility, prosperity, and overall well-being in any situation or circumstance. Creativity is the tool we all possess that helps us fulfill this promise by being creative on purpose.

I’d like to thank my friend Chris Gill, Emeritus Professor of Ancient Thought at Exeter University (and a Modern Stoicism team member). Chris generously shared his time and expertise with me in an hour-long chat about Stoicism, Marcus, and creativity to help me with this piece.

Scott Perry is a husband, father, teacher, and musician from Floyd, VA. In addition to his work at Creative On Purpose, Scott is a coach in Seth Godin’s The Marketing Seminar. Scott’s book, The Stoic Creative, is available on Amazon. 

Modern-Day Stoicism – Searching for Happiness and Meaning by Jim

Leading up to Stoic Week this year – which runs from Monday, October 1 to Sunday, October 7 – we are publishing a series of shorter weekday posts, focused on the theme of “Happiness”.  Are you interested in writing a 300-600 word post, well-informed by Stoicism, on that topic?  Email your draft to me, the editor of Stoicism Today.  And now, Jim’s post!

 

In a few days’ time, I will start my 10th year as Primary School Headteacher by taking whole school assembly and retelling children the traditional story of ‘The old woman in the vinegar bottle’

In this story, the old woman’s continual aspirations for a bigger home and bigger and better material possessions are dashed and she ends up back where she started, in the bottle! Perhaps, an age appropriate theme on the stoic virtue of temperance? If not, certainly an opportunity to reflect on life, hopes and dreams.

I take pride in the fact that in my Primary School we seek to engage children in activities that will get them reflecting on some of the stoic values like justice and courage in their learning. Over ten years, I have sought to embed the more important life skills of problem solving, reflective thinking and emotional literacy into the curriculum alongside providing a nurturing environment. There are mentors to support pupils with emotional issues, ADHD, autism, training for staff on mental health and attachment, parental workshops and engagement programmes. Of course, it is never enough. A large majority of children come from vulnerable families, have child protection issues, witness domestic violence, experience mental illness and social deprivation.

My job is a busy one. It gives me meaning but it is challenging, and I have learnt to develop perspective and resilience.

I have also needed to draw upon these qualities in my personal life.

My mother died of cancer when I was seven. Both my wife and sister suffered from cancer and recovered. My brother has, at 50, developed terminal cancer. My sister’s adoption of two children has resulted in emotional turmoil. My wife and I also have 2 adopted boys who are now teenagers. Despite experiencing significant challenges, themselves and challenges for us as parents, we now watch them grow into adulthood with good health, remarkable resilience and emotional stability.

From one perspective, my work and personal life have been and continue to be emotionally tough. I am not alone in sometimes asking ‘Why me?’

The stoic response, is of course, a good one. ‘Why not me?’ The only thing that we can control is our attitude and perception to events. We have to look inwards not blame or put responsibility on external events.My family and close friends all demonstrate remarkable virtuous behaviour – they are kind, sensitive, temperate, self-sufficient and unmaterialistic. Have you noticed how many of those people who have suffered deeply, have virtuous dispositions?

My own children and the children in my school show remarkable resilience and appreciation to overcome adversity. It is these qualities we need to acknowledge and emulate and vital that we learn from them.

The Stoic archer (an example from Antipater) is a wonderful metaphor for life. We take careful aim, we seek to do the best in our personal and work lives but accept that any blast of wind can blow us off course and fate will take over.

If we were to write a book about our lives for others to read, the important thing is surely that our intentions were good, to do the right thing rather than whether we were ultimately successful.

Our attempt to be happy in our lives is clearly about practising and learning virtuous behaviour. It is quite some ideal to strive for!

Whilst not usually labelled as a Stoic, I’m attracted to the ideas of Victor Frankl whose ‘logotherapy’ is based on the motivation for life being ‘meaning’ rather than happiness. In many cases, of course, what makes us happy is what we find important, our commitments, our passions and a dedication to a cause.

For me happiness and meaning lie in learning: learning to regulate our thoughts and emotions, learning to reflect deeply on life and the obstacles we face, learning to practice acceptance without resignation.

Learning is a life -long process of discovery.

Jim is a Headteacher of a Primary School in the South West. He has developed a renewed interest in Stoicism. He is looking forward to attending Stoicon 2018 in September.

 

London Stoics Meeting – September 13th

London Stoics have a talk on September 13th at 7pm in Senate House Library (Room 102) to prepare for Stoic Week, and Donald Robertson from the Modern Stoicism team will be there.  More information is available on the Facebook page for the event.

London Stoics Meeting

Details

We are very lucky to have a special guest at the London Stoics this month: Donald Robertson. Donald is one of the founders of modern Stoicism & Stoic Week and is also a psychotherapist, specialising in CBT. Donald has contributed a great deal to the modern resurgence in Stoic philosophy, with numerous talks at Stoicon, blog posts, online courses and he also runs the main stoicism Facebook page! He has also written several books related to Stoicism and CBT including “Stoicism and the Art of Happiness” and “The Philosophy of CBT”. Donald will be talking to us about modern Stoicism and Stoic Week.

In this session we will discuss the annual Stoic Week, and look forward to this year’s event, which is 1st-7th October. Stoic Week is run by the modern stoicism project, and each year they produce a handbook and series of exercises and activities for participants. Stoic Week is the ideal introduction to the practical aspects of Stoic philosophy. But it’s also a great refresher if you’ve already started down this path.

Learning to Suffer Nobly by Victoria Neilson

Several friends of mine also have children. They are normal, healthy children, seemingly perfect and without any defects. My friends laugh and play with their children every day, posting beautiful photos on social networks, filled with joy and happiness.

There were times that I’d go to bed wishing that tomorrow my child would miraculously be healed by a divine intervention. Wishful thinking such as this only led to that heavy disappointment and dread when I woke up, finding my child still crippled.

I suffered quietly.

Dr. Viktor Frankl in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning” compared suffering to gas in a chamber:

If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the “size” of human suffering is absolutely relative.

My suffering is nothing compared to what Dr. Frankl had to go through: a long period of living in concentration camps, treated like an animal, suffering through hunger, diseases and emotional abuses. All I must endure is to look after a child with Cerebral Palsy. Still, my suffering fills me up, makes me teary and afraid of the world. Why has such misfortune happened to me?

Discovering Stoicism seemed accidental at the time, but later it became apparent that I was destined to find it. It wasn’t because I believed in destinies, but because I wanted to live. I can still hear the sympathetic voice of my last mental health therapist: “Please don’t hesitate to call me anytime if you need to.” Anytime? I thought bitterly.

It wasn’t like she was of much help during her 9-5 work hours, how on earth could she help at three in the morning, when I needed help the most? I was on the verge of committing suicide; I needed someone, or something, that could help me 24/7. I was breastfeeding; I refused to take antidepressant drugs; I started reading self-help books and listening to Ted talks, then one day I heard this:

This is no misfortune, but to bear it nobly is good fortune. – The Meditations, book 2 – 49.

Sometimes I’d look back at that woman, crying without tears at night while clicking madly on a laptop, looking for the most painless ways to commit suicide. That was the very person I call “my past self”, and it was clear that I was consumed by anger, fear and, eventually, despair.

Fear and Anger

Fear and anger often came together. In the early days, I was constantly tormented by the fear of unknowns: “Why isn’t my child moving as much as her peers? Why doesn’t she crawl yet? Will she ever walk or talk?” These questions bothered me in every waking moment.

The “social” unknowns would surface at the same time: “What would other parents think of me? ‘Oh, that poor woman, stuck with that crippled child. Does her child have a disease? Could her child infect mine? I’d better stay away from them, we belong to different worlds.’”

The fearful thoughts would then lead to waves of anger: “Why has this happened to me?” I would ask, “I’ve been a good person, I never stole nor killed, and I’ve always treated people nicely. Why not those who cheat and scam? Why do they have normally developing children? How unfair! What have I done to have such injuries inflicted upon me? Who on earth would do this to me? God? but I don’t believe in gods! Who and where can I avenge such injustice?”

At that moment, often an emptiness would seize me: no one inflicted any injuries on me. I was trapped in an invisible cage with the only thing I could punch – myself.

“In the third place, the soul does violence to itself when it is overpowered by pleasure or by pain.” – The Meditations, book 2 – 16.

Marcus Aurelius has been the strict mentor in my life. Whenever I listened to the audiobook copy of The Meditations during countless drives to my child’s therapy visits, I’d feel his stern presence. “Do not act randomly, Victoria” I’d talk to myself in Marcus’ words: “I know you were thinking of suicide again last night, but what would that achieve? Your husband will have to quit his job to look after your child, and your child would have less of a chance to experience life. What happened to your duty as a mother and a wife? Do you still possess the ability to reason? Why then, would you not use it, before you decide to take the easy way out?”

Oftentimes I’d think of Marcus Aurelius’ humble writings: he saw himself as nothing more than frankincense on an altar that’d eventually burn out, his name would be forgotten, and his city would be buried. No, dear philosopher king, your writings survived the grinding gears of history, and is helping many people centuries later. The Meditations was the handbrake on my car of life, working its best while the car was speeding down a steep hill.

However, to work out a proper strategy that’d put my life back on track took much more that The Meditations. To deal with the suicidal thoughts driven by anger and fear, I spent a long time understanding the Stoic judgement and assent.

“It isn’t the things themselves that disturb people, but the judgement that they form about the things.” – Epictetus, Enchiridion, 5

With help from The Enchiridion and Seneca’s On Anger, I was able to examine the two negative feelings: both fear and anger were manifested passions, therefore not according to nature and should be, and can be, eradicated through good reasoning. However, where did fear and anger come from? In most cases, I believe they are from an impulse, a sense of threat, and that is natural.

Now, to make plain how passions begin or grow or get carried away: there’s the initial involuntary movement—a preparation for the passion, as it were, and a kind of threatening signal; there’s a second movement accompanied by an expression of will not stubbornly resolved, to the effect that “I should be avenged, since I’ve been harmed” or “this man should be punished, since he’ s committed a crime.” The third movement’s already out of control, it desires vengeance not if it’s appropriate but come what may, having overthrown reason. – Seneca, On Anger 2.4.1-2.

I started to pay attention on my feelings: the goal was to stop and think when I felt that initial threat. The type of brain injury my child suffered from was a damage to the white matter in her brain. As a result, she had a noticeable delay in responses. We’d put toys in front of her and had to wait for half a minute to get a response. This often frustrated me. “Why is this so infuriating?” I started to ask myself whenever I felt my blood starting to rush. “Is it not because you were worried that your child would be left to the last to choose a toy in a group? Where would this lead to? If a war happens, she’d never be quick enough to get her share of ration?”

“Draw a circle around what is happening now, stop the pulling of the strings. Take away the thought: ‘I’m hurt!’ and make the most rational decision for this moment.” I’d hear Marcus’ imaginary voice again. It is true that future uncertainties threatened me, but how can I do anything about something that hasn’t yet happened? What can I do now?

These days, we know of brain plasticity, and I know my child will speed up her movements if she does enough of the same thing. The real question is: how can I motivate her to reach faster? Her therapists gave clear instructions: movements requiring hands won’t happen properly if the child’s body isn’t supported. So instead of getting angry with my child for not moving fast enough, I should sit her appropriately, and try to get her to reach out for something that’d interest her. We knew she liked watching children singing and dancing, so we often set her in front of a tablet that played videos of children dancing, then we’d pause the video, she’d protest and reach out to start the video again. Whenever she succeeded, we’d all laugh and cheer together.

How can bringing up a disabled child be a bad thing if it brings such laughter and joy?

When my child was an eighteen-month-old, I decided to take her to a local play group. My child had only just learned to crawl, and her movements were very slow. I put her down on a mat, and a mother beside immediately asked me her age. I answered, the mum stared at me without a word, and my endless social fears immediately surfaced. “Don’t be afraid, Victoria.” I thought to myself. “describe to yourself the impressions here.”

We sat awkwardly in silence for a few minutes, while I thought to myself: “I’m here at a playgroup, there are many parents and children around, it’s rather noisy, and I’m trying to show my child how to interact with others.” So, I started to talk to the mum: “Your daughter’s sweater is beautiful.”

“Oh!” she seemed surprised, “thank you!”

Have courage, I said to myself. “My child’s name is A…” I smiled at her, “she had a brain injury due to lack of oxygen at birth.” I might as well spill the beans. “What’s your child’s name?”

She looked at me again, her eyes softened. “oh, her name is O…” she answered, “I’m sorry about what happened to your child.”

I looked into her brown eyes and saw nothing but a reflection of myself. Why was I afraid that others would judge me? Wasn’t it because I would have also judged if I had been them? To make matters worse, I was still judging poorly. Did I not turn my eyes away from those parents with mentally retarded or autistic children, even months after I had accepted my own child’s disability? Did I not stare at that woman working in the local supermarket, thinking, oh there’s something wrong with her and I’m scared?

All these things (envy, ungratefulness, etc.) happen to them (people) by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful, and of the bad that it is ugly, and the nature of him who does wrong, that it is akin to me … – The Meditations, Book 2 – 1.

How can I possibly be angry with anyone that is ignorant like myself?

Despair

Despair, to me, was an emotion that often came well after fear and anger. It was a feeling of hopelessness. Hope, being the only thing left in Pandora’s jar, is the driving force of life for many. When I first started to learn and practice Stoicism, I quickly stopped hoping for miracles, but I still often caught myself thinking: “hopefully our efforts won’t be wasted, and hopefully my child will walk and talk someday.”

My child is three years old now. She still can’t walk independently, and her speech is still at the level of “mama” and “dada”. There were times when the feeling of despair would touch me like a cold hand, sending shivers down the spine. “All my efforts are wasted! It doesn’t matter how hard I try, she will never improve!” I was filled with miseries. “What’s the point of continue living like this? My child is doomed to be alone for the rest of her life. She will never be able look after herself, without me, she will die.”

Epictetus’ famous control dichotomy is very well talked about among those who study Stoicism, yet it is the most easily forgotten when it comes to actions. During the day, I must remind myself many times that whether my child learns to walk, or talk, is completely out of my control; what’s within my control is what to do to best help her. However, at times the future simply looks too bleak.

The future? I started questioning again. Has there been a case that the future is definitively doomed?

The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus was my answer. I don’t know if Camus was a Stoic, but his essay on Sisyphus sure reminded me of how much the Stoics emphasize “the present”. King Sisyphus was in a situation that can precisely be described as having an eternity of hopeless future. He was condemned by the gods to roll a big rock up a mountain, only to watch it rolling back down, and he had to start the process again. However, Camus concluded that “The struggle itself is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

I realised that while hope has driven many to achieve great things, too much emphasis on it in some situations can only lead me to fear, and then despair. In one of Seneca’s letters, he wrote:

In the writings of our own Hecaton I find it said that limiting one’s desires is beneficial also as a remedy for fear. “You will cease to fear,” he says, “if you cease to hope.” “The two feelings are very different,” you say. “How is it that they occur together?” But so it is, dear Lucilius: although they seem opposed, they are connected. Just as the prisoner and the guard are bound to each other by the same chain, so these two that are so different nonetheless go along together: where hope goes, fear follows. Nor do I find it surprising that it should be so. Both belong to the mind that is in suspense, that is worried by its expectation of what is to come. The principal cause of both is that we do not adapt ourselves to the present but direct our thoughts toward things far in the future. Thus foresight, which is the greatest good belonging to the human condition, has become an evil. Animals in the wild flee the dangers they see and are tranquil once they have escaped; we, though, are tormented both by what is to come and by what has been. Often, our goods do us harm: memory recalls the stab of fear; foresight anticipates it. No one is made wretched merely by the present. – Seneca, Letters 5.7-9

The passage urged us to focus on the present and put less effort in reminding ourselves of the painful past or fearing for the future. After all, the past can’t be changed for me, and the future is yet to be determined. We have but this moment to experience and to make the right judgements. Why hoping so much for the future while I can make myself good right now by practising virtues? Why worrying about if my child would be alone in the future, while I could give her lots of happy company today?

Besides, does lonesomeness always make one unhappy? What happened to “retreating to my inner citadel that is free of violent passions?” (Marcus’ voice again) Yes, my child will die, regardless of me being alive. While I’m alive, it is my duty to look after and care for her. I can influence how much she will be able to look after herself by teaching her, tutoring her, but ultimately, it is up to her how she chooses to live her life after I’m gone. One thing for sure: the way I act will influence her forever, and if I can show her how to be happy in one’s own thoughts, she may be less tormented by being alone when it happens.

No wonder even Sisyphus can be happy, but only if he chooses to enjoy every moment of hard work.

My life is like sailing a boat for the first time in a stormy ocean, constantly getting knocked around by waves. Even though I may be destined to crash in the end, at least I can choose to do my best to turn the rudder while sailing.

What about my suffering, the very thing that connects myself and Dr. Frankl, and every other human that suffered throughout history? Well, it is true I cannot escape it, but I can at least learn to suffer nobly.

 

Victoria Neilson was a full-time professional Mechanical Engineer until her child was found to have a disability. She is now a part-time PhD student in Biomechanics at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, and a full-time mother to a lovely three-year old.

Drowning in Joy by Anthony Maletich

Leading up to Stoic Week this year – which runs from Monday, October 1 to Sunday, October 7 – we are publishing a series of shorter weekday posts, focused on the theme of “Happiness”.  Are you interested in writing a 300-600 word post, well-informed by Stoicism, on that topic?  Email your draft to me, the editor of Stoicism Today.  And now, Anthony’s post!
If any be unhappy, let him remember that he is unhappy by reason of himself alone. For God hath made all men to enjoy felicity and constancy of good. (Epictetus Discourses book 2: Chapter 24).  
It would appear we are both the prisoner and the one holding the keys.
If we are indeed made for happiness, why do we so often miss the mark?
The Stoics tell us that it is because we are aiming at the wrong target.
In Enchiridion 1 we are acquainted with that core theme of Epictetus, that we are to focus on what is “up to us,” to live a life of Virtue by following Nature.
We are told that Virtue is the only Good, but where can we find it?
Everywhere strength, everywhere victory waits your conviction! (Golden Sayings 99)
This is the beauty of Stoic Physics.
The quest for happiness is not an Easter egg hunt and it is even less like finding your lost car keys.
We are literally immersed in Virtue, drowning in Joy.
The Good to a fish is the bait on the hook (that which would ensnare us), whereas the wise fish recognizes the Good in the ocean all around it.
…will you not be elated at knowing that you are the son of God?” (Discourses 1:3)
Our bodies and all things around us, both animate and inanimate, are held together and empowered by the Logos.
Our minds are enlightened by the same Reason which governs the Cosmos.
We are able to observe, study, and learn the ways of Nature, to have communion with the Divine.
Happiness, a life of Virtue, isn’t trying to be something we are not, a stretching out our hand toward the unattainable.
It is something we already have, yet do not perceive, being “blind to the Giver” (Discourses 1:6).
Take hold of this truth. Open your eyes to the beauty of Nature. See the Logos at work and know that wherever you are, there is cause for Joy. An overwhelming and all-encompassing Joy.

 

Anthony Maletich is the moderator of the Stoic Christian Facebook group, which explores the relationship between Stoicism and Christianity (as well as other faith traditions). He works as a guidance counselor and coach and enjoys playing the banjo and spending time outdoors enjoying Nature.<

Stoic Virtue and Happiness by Michael Lines

Leading up to Stoic Week this year – which runs from Monday, October 1 to Sunday, October 7 – we are publishing a series of shorter weekday posts, focused on the theme of “Happiness”.  Are you interested in writing a 300-600 word post, well-informed by Stoicism, on that topic?  Email your draft to me, the editor of Stoicism Today.  And now, Michael’s post!

 

“We have separated this perfect virtue into its several parts. The desires had to be reined in, fear to be suppressed, proper actions to be arranged, debts to be paid; we therefore included self-restraint, bravery, prudence, and justice – assigning to each quality its special function. How then have we formed the conception of virtue? Virtue has been manifested to us by this man’s order, propriety, steadfastness, absolute harmony of action, and a greatness of soul that rises superior to everything. Thence has been derived our conception of the happy life, which flows along with steady course, completely under its own control.” – Seneca, Moral letters to Lucilius

I have learned over my lifetime that true happiness does not come from possessions or temporary conditions, but rather from the satisfaction that follows living a life aligned with my virtues. Virtues are the attributes that I seek to cultivate in myself through habit, both for the betterment of myself and the world I live in, and are the guideposts for my decisions.

Living a life of virtue can be a challenge, while live a life of vice is easy – that alone is a signal to me of what is proper behavior. When I find myself tempted to take the easy path, I need to examine both the path and my motivation to ensure that I am making a virtuous choice.

I seek to live the virtue of self-restraint by reminding myself that my desires will lead me astray if I let them, and by remembering the words of Seneca that vices can masquerade as virtues – especially pride, and to the extent that I do indulge my emotions, to always remember the maxim of “restraint in all things”.

I seek to live the virtue of bravery by acting when action is called for, and restraining myself when it Is not. It is not bravery to take foolish risks, act without thought, take risks for the purpose of reward or recognition, or to do my duty. Bravery comes from overcoming my fear of harm to my physical or emotional self, and to take the actions that I believe are correct regardless of whether anyone is ever aware of them. Also, I remember that what is called bravery today is in latin “fortitudo”, and that true bravery is endurance and fortitude against adversity without complaint.

I seek to live the virtue of prudence by thinking before I act, considering not only the immediate results of my actions but also their derivatives. I remember that wisdom comes from acknowledging that what I don’t know is even more important than what I think I do know, and that all knowledge is at best a poor language for describing reality – it is not reality itself.

I seek to live the virtue of justice by remembering that the core meaning of justice is fairness and the settlement of debts, not a blind adherence to rules or laws. Stoic justice at its heart about fairness and the golden rule, thus I look for just solutions in all my interactions with others.

In the end, I have come to find that my happiness flows from my attempts and successes at  living a virtuous life – not from health, prosperity, fortune or any other external condition. Every moment of my life is an opportunity to decide what is right for me, aligned with the virtues I believe important. When I fail to live up to my ideals, I don’t berate myself but rather strive to learn from my mistakes and do better the next time.

In the end, to paraphrase Walt Disney, I am always attempting to “Keep moving forward, virtuously”
Michael Lines is a student of Stoic philosophy and philosophy in general, living in Colorado. He blogs about his experience in understanding, adapting and living this philosophy in his blog, A Modern Stoic.

Enroll Now for Stoic Week 2018

Stoic Week is a free online course run once per year by Modern Stoicism, which will introduce you to a new aspect of Stoic theory and practice each day.

You can enroll now for Stoic Week 2018, which will officially begin on Monday 1st October this year.

Everyone is welcome to take part and it’s completely free of charge.  Last year seven thousand people enrolled so don’t miss out!

Stoic Week is  a seven day introduction to Stoic theory and practice, applied to modern living.  It’s been designed by Modern Stoicism, a multi-disciplinary team of academic philosophers, classicists, psychologists, and cognitive therapists, including some well-known authors in the field.

Enroll now and you’ll have access to the preliminary materials in preparation for the official start of the course on Monday 1st October, which will be accompanied by a live webinar at 9pm BST.  (You’ll be able to watch a recording if you can’t make it along.)  If you want to attend please follow the link below to set a reminder on YouTube, where you can also subscribe to our channel.

Set Reminder for Stoic Week Webinar

Stoic Week is now in its seventh year.  See our main website for more information on the history of Stoic Week.

Stoic Week Coming Next Month!

At the very start of October – literally one month from now – Stoic Week 2018 begins!  This marks the seventh year for holding an International Stoic Week, and we expect it to draw at least as many participants worldwide as previous years – or perhaps even more (the numbers have grown every year to date).  Whether you’re someone already involved in the modern Stoic community, or just someone interested in Stoicism, Stoic Week affords possibilities to share and further your interest in how this ancient philosophy can be applied within our contemporary lives.

International Stoic Week runs this year from Monday, October 1 to Sunday, October 7.  Each day of the week, participants in the Stoic Week online class get to “live like a Stoic”, engaging in exercises, guided meditations, discussions, and more – all developed and offered for free by the Modern Stoicism team.  The class is not enrolling quite yet, but you can go to the site where it will be offered, watch the promo video, set up a reminder for the free introductory webinar, and get a first look at the curriculum.

Stoic Week will be preceded by our annual Stoicon conference on Saturday, September 29, hosted this year in London and organized by Professor John Sellars, ably assisted by Amy Valladres, and a number of volunteers.  Tickets for Stoicon have already sold out, but if you were eagerly hoping to get in on the talks and workshops, don’t despair!  You can get on a waitlist if any tickets do become available. We will also be recording as many of those sessions as feasible – and as the editor of Stoicism Today, I’ll be dogging all of the speakers to provide us with transcripts or summaries that we will then publish here as blog posts.

During Stoic Week itself – and often before and after it as well – there are usually a host of events all around the world organized and hosted by local Stoic groups, academic institutions, and other organizations.  Some of these are veritable Stoicon-X events (our equivalent of TED-X events).  Others might involve a talk by a featured speaker, a panel discussion, a workshop, or some other individual event.  Many of these organizations, institutions, and groups work through the Stoic Week course together.

If you want to participate locally in Stoic Week, and don’t see an event or organization in our listings below, don’t worry!  This is just the first listing, working off of the people who have already contacted me about their event our meetings.  As organizers get into gear and email me about their Stoicon-X event, Stoic Week event, or Stoic Week class meetups, I’ll be putting together a much longer list that we’ll publish on the Saturday of Stoicon, right before Stoic Week starts!

There’s always the option of organizing your own meetup or event as well – and if you do, make sure to write me about it, so that we can publicize it here in Stoicism Today along with all the rest!  If you’ve already got an event in the works, or if your group, institution, or organization plans to work through the Stoic Week class together, email me with all the details you’ve got so far!

Upcoming Stoicon-X Events Worldwide

Thursday and Friday, October 4 & 5- Bonn, Germany – Stoic Camp Bonn.  Hosted by Dr. Markus Rüther and Ralph Kurz at the University of Bonn.  Come for a set of talks, workshops, and discussions.  Email Dr. Markus Rüther or Ralph Kurz for more information.

There will likely be additional Stoicon-X events in other locations.  We’ll add them to the list as soon as we have full information about them.

Upcoming Stoic Week Events WorldWide

Saturday September 29, 1:30-3:00 PM – Seattle, USA – the Seattle Analytic Philosophy Club has invited Thomas Opryszek to give a talk on Stoicism in Action and Stoic Week 2018.  Location is the  Seattle Public Library, Northgate Branch.


Monday, October 1, 7 PM – Orlando, USA – The Orlando Stoics will be hosting an “Open House Monday” at the Panera Bread Cafe, 296 E. Michigan Street, Orlando FL  32806.  For more information, see their meetup site.

Saturday, October 6, 9PM – Orlando, USA – the Orlando Stoics will be hosting a “Stoics Night Out” at the Universal City Walk, 6000 Universal Blvd, Orlando, FL 32819. For more information, see their meetup site.


If you’re planning an event, email me with the details, and we’ll add it to our list and to the next post.

Groups, Institutions, and Organizations Participating In Stoic Week

Stoic Week Discussion Group: London, UK – organized by Bryce Peterson, meeting daily 1-6 October in Bloombury.   A survey is available to determine what times people would like to meet.  Time and location TBD at this point.

The Colorado Springs Stoa, USA – organized by David Emery, meeting several times over the course of Stoic Week at Peak Place, Colorado Springs.  More information available here.

There will doubtless be many more participating groups, institutions, and organizations in the next post.  If yours is doing so, email me, and we’ll add you to the list.