Blue Flowers Novel Excerpt by Ranjini George

The first in a planned duology of novels, Blue Flowers tells the story of Vijayalakshmi, raised in the Tamil Brahmin tradition, who leaves India in the summer of 1975 for graduate study in English literature in Iowa City. Twenty-one-year-old Viji, a devotee of Jane Eyre, meets her Rochester, Richard, an American philosophy student, and falls in love at first sight. Her passion for Richard collides with the weight of tradition: her parents expect her to return home after graduation to marry a Tamil Brahmin husband. This chapter narrates her second meeting and first lunch (date?) with Richard.

Over taboulleh salad and falafel sandwiches, Richard tells Viji, a devout Hindu, about Stoicism and his moment of epiphany as he read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. They discuss virtue, arete, and what it means to live a good life; Socrates and Jesus; the Lalitha Ashtoram (the 1008 names of the sacred feminine) and the four cardinal virtues. Richard’s discussion of Stoicism—What would Marcus do?—offers Viji a refreshing perspective on how to live one’s life. She realizes that philosophy can do what religion has traditionally done: forge the direction and wisdom to lead a good life. 

As Viji navigates her life as a foreign student in mid-1970s America, and unexpected sufferings wedge Richard and her apart, she will recall their lunch at the Lebanese café, the kindness of his demeanour, and his impassioned voice as he quoted Marcus Aurelius:

“You have power over you mind—not outside events. Realize this and you will find your strength.”

She will ask herself: What would Richard do?

MARCUS AURELIUS AT THE LEBANESE CAFE

We’d walked for a while that December afternoon of 1975 in Iowa City, a longish walk, but engrossed by Richard’s presence, I did not notice the cold. I was glad to hear his step beside me, and sometimes an indrawn breath. He was real. This was not a dream. There were no purple mountains or cobbled streets, but flat cornfields covered with snow. Though once I pointed to what seemed to be rolling hills and said, “I didn’t know there were hills here,” and he said, “Those are heaps of gravel.”

“It looks quite beautiful,” I said. 

He laughed. “I guess the freshly fallen snow makes everything look beautiful. I love winter. Cross-country skiing and skating.” He talked about a slope near their childhood home in Des Moines, where as a child he had loved to toboggan.

I did not know how to skate or ski or toboggan and it had begun to depress me, this dark time when all nature seemed either to be sleeping or dying. It was only the strong who survived this most difficult of seasons and I wondered if I could be counted among the strong. I didn’t enjoy the heat and humidity of the summer months in Madras, but it felt better than the coldness of this season; too much sun made me tired and irritable, but rarely depressed.

I dug my gloved hands deeper into my pockets and dared to gaze at the world around me. Yes, everything was white and blue and bright—the sun’s lights reflecting off the snow. I met Richard’s eyes as he turned and smiled at me. His hip-length jacket looked lighter than my heavy factory-outlet coat that went almost to my ankles. His skin was flushed, his eyes bright. He wasn’t wearing a tuque and his hair seemed damp with the moisture in the air.  Was this not a cold day for him? He looked beautiful.

The Lebanese café was a tiny house with pink clapboards. The sign in front had blown down and the owner, unable to push the sign back into the frozen earth, had laid it flat on its back beside an evergreen hedge by the walkway to the entrance. 

The Lebanese family lived in the backroom (did the entire family live in one room?) and had converted the living and dining space into a restaurant. I assumed that Richard had been there before. The owner, a trim man with a handsome face who seemed to be in his early thirties, bragged that his wife was the main cook. “We don’t let anyone else touch the food.”

There was no one else in the café except for a young woman curled up on a couch in the next room with what looked like a textbook in front of her. Middle Eastern food, Indian food, any kind of ethnic food was hard to find in the Midwest, and I was surprised to find such a restaurant. I did not have a car, so it was complicated getting to some of the Indian restaurants in Chicago. Some classmates had commented that they could smell Indian spices on my clothes; they said it with a smile, but I’d felt myself flinch, almost with shame.

I smiled and nodded at the owner’s wife and complimented her on the taboulleh salad. She spoke little English. I wondered at her loneliness when language, too, was a barrier.  “When did you learn English?” was a question I was sometimes asked, or the condescending, “Your English is so good.” I didn’t have the patience to lecture them on India’s colonial history. I was the only Indian in the English department. Most of my classmates didn’t know what it was to live in a country other than the one where they were born—to be a foreign student, an exile, an immigrant or refugee. I had come to another world hoping to find within it something of what I’d left behind, but it was different, and I resisted the difference and found myself alone. Now seated across from Richard, I found someone from this world who held within him resonance and appreciation of other cultures. He might be the bridge that would help me cross this distance between America and me.

The owner’s wife, a fellow outsider in this country, had a pleasant smile and wore a pink headscarf that matched the outside walls of their house. She was pleased at my enthusiasm. She dictated the recipe in Arabic and Richard wrote it down in English and handed over the notecard to me. He spoke to her at length and with kindness. Perhaps it was this—his ability to make a genuine connection with her—that made me even more enamoured by him.  

As I polished off my falafel sandwich, relishing the spices after the bland macaroni and cheese dinners and steamed vegetables that I’d been surviving on the last few weeks, I felt as if we had stepped into my story Jaanam. Though Richard was still a stranger, there was something oddly familiar in spending time with him.

I delighted in gazing at him as he sat back, his shirt stretching across the beautiful width of his shoulders. I found elegance in each of his movements, even in the way his lips moved, forming words and drawing in breath. He said he was reading the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. “Last week, a strange thing happened. It’s subtle, but feels life altering.”  His blue eyes were sharp, intense and I felt in me an answering warmth. I smiled, my lips parting in anticipation. I imagined that like Jane and Rochester in Jane Eyre, we were having a deep, not a superficial, conversation. “I was reading aloud a passage from The Meditations, and suddenly what I was reading didn’t feel like history, or a theoretical abstract ancient philosophy, but something that could be applicable to me right now, as a way of life.”

He moved forward in his chair, his eyes holding mine, talking to me as if we had known each other not for hours, but for years. He narrated the story of the Phoenician merchant Zeno of Citium who founded Stoicism in Athens in 310 BC. He said that Stoicism traveled to Rome and lasted for around five hundred years. Marcus was the last ancient Stoic.  “Something in my being has hungered for something to believe in, to shape my life around.  Now I think I’ve found it. You see, the primary goal of Stoicism is the cultivation of virtue, arete.”

 His passion to be a good man moved me. Meeting him was like meeting a twin, one who knew my soul’s hunger for goodness—a desire to live an ethical and useful life.  It seemed to me that Richard, even though he was coming at it from a different angle than me—philosophy, not religion—had an echoing aspiration. Never before had it occurred to me that philosophy could offer what religion did: I had labeled philosophy as a field of theoretical study and not as a way of life. I did not want our lunch to end and I felt that he did not want it to end. It was as if this café was a magical place that our incipient love had conjured into being. 

“So how do the Stoics define virtue?”

“Excellence. Our most precious possession is our character. Living in agreement with nature. Nature around us and our nature.” Richard talked about justice, wisdom, courage and temperance. He said that things like wealth, health, fame, a good reputation were “externals”—“preferred indifferents.” Nice if you have them, but not necessary for one’s well being.  There was no point in staying unhappy about something over which one had no control.  

“So yes, surrender,” I said.

Amor Fati,” he said. “Love your fate. Not just accept or endure it. But love it. It’s the resistance that causes suffering.”

He was absorbing and brilliant and I tried to memorize each word he said.  I regretted bitterly my judgement of childhood friend Navtara’s infatuation for Gabriel. I had been too harsh. I knew that I could not, must not, love him, but we felt like two halves of one soul. I had not expected to meet such a man in America!

Swept forward by the force of my connection, I wove our future. If he loved Egypt, he would learn to love India.  He would return to Madras with me; my parents would see his goodness and come to love him too. He would allow me to raise my children Hindu. He had learned Arabic, so I was sure that he would learn Tamil too. Now I knew that I had come to America to meet him. I thought all this as he discussed healthy and unhealthy passions. Was the passion I was experiencing, unhealthy?

“You didn’t find this inspiration in Christianity?” I asked. “In the Bible?”

He gave me wry smile. “No. I’m an agnostic. I don’t have much patience with religion.  Are you a believer?”

I was uncomfortable with his dismissal of religion. I said, “Yes, Hinduism is important to me. Is your mother an agnostic too? Your sisters?”

“Mom goes to church sometimes. Faith is a personal matter.”

“But, you know, Jesus…”

“Socrates died willingly for his teachings, for his character, for virtue, for his students. You could say that he did what Jesus did. How is he any less?”

The owner came over to our table and cleared our plates. He served Richard and me mint tea, seemingly pleased at the pleasure we took in this meal. We ordered sweets to compensate for the time we were taking—baklava and semolina biscuits.

“Socrates could have escaped. He could have given in to the Athenian court and saved his life, but he didn’t. He said that death was nothing to fear. A bogeyman. If we lose our fear of death, we have true freedom.”

“I guess. I’ve never thought of it that way. But it’s true what you say, Richard. But, for me, faith has always been central. Maybe it is because I was born during the special time of Navrathri. The day of the goddess Lakshmi. In my home, every morning, our day begins with Lalitha Ashtoram, the 1008 names of the goddess. My father gets fresh flowers from the garden and my mother lights incense. And this morning ritual, this invocation of the divine, feels centering. A way of reminding oneself of goodness—the goodness in nature and within oneself.”

 “I know of Diwali. But does faith have to be grounded in religion?”

“I guess you’re saying that faith could center on philosophy? And you’ve made a convincing case. I’ll have to think about that.”

He nodded, his smile gentle, “Navrathri?”

“The nine nights that precede Diwali. I love books. Words,” I said as I enjoyed the dense flaky syrupy sweetness of baklava. I was not yet ready to tell him about my story Jaanam, and how he was my Muse; of how I’d always felt stories burn in my heart and dreamed of the old banyan tree across from the Sweet House in New Delhi with its thousand eyes and thousand arms.

“Wow, we’ve eaten up time,” Richard said, glancing at his watch.

Or were we in a place of no time?

Even as I write this, decades later, a woman in my fifties in a city on the other side of the world, seated at a desk by a window that overlooks the desert, one of the royal palaces and Emirates Towers in the distance, on the seventeenth floor of Oasis Towers on Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai, I feel that a part of me, a part of him, is still sitting at that table in the Lebanese café in Iowa City. And in this space of who Richard and I were in the Lebanese café, I understand Urvaishi Auntie and the courage that would come to define her later life. I understand how love for a philosophy, a religion, a woman, man or Goddess, a country, passion-filled work, in a moment of sartori, illumination, can turn our lives upside down, and if we allow and nourish this seeing, create sustained change. 

As we put on our jackets, tuques and gloves, I noticed that the young woman with her textbooks had already left and that the owner’s wife had retreated behind the curtain. I discussed with Richard the paper that I’d turned in that morning: “’The Benevolent finger-marks of the good George Eliot’: A Reading of Eliot’s Middlemarch and Wharton’s Age of Innocence.” I explained that just as in George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss, Maggie Tulliver could not “take good” out of her cousin Lucy Deane’s misery and so gives up Stephen Guest, in Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence, Ellen Olenska gives up Newland Archer, her cousin May’s fiancée. After reading The Reef, the novelist Henry James wrote in a letter to Edith Wharton, “there used to be little notes in you that were like fine benevolent finger-marks of the good George Eliot—the echo of much reading of that excellent woman, here and there, that is sounding through.”

“Your paper sound interesting,” Richard said. “It’s about doing the right thing. Virtue.”

“Yes, virtue. As Eliot would say–duty must come over inclination.”

When I asked the staff member who escorted us to the door what his name was, both he and Richard looked surprised. “He’s the owner,” Richard said. “Arif.”

I blushed in embarrassment. To me, he looked much older than the man who had greeted us and served our meal and dessert and tea. His face was of someone in his late forties and his body was bulkier. Had I been so caught up with Richard that I’d not seen him clearly? So much for my memory!

As we walked back to the International Office, relaxed, happy and full of wonderful food, Richard confessed: “My moment with The Meditations, I didn’t have the words. I felt it at the level of feeling. But now that I’ve said this to you—articulated it, it feels more real. Thank you for listening.”

It seemed telling that he’d not shared this moment with anyone else but me. “Oh, it was a pleasure.” I looked out for the snow-covered gravel hills and was reassured to find them still there.

“Maybe last week I experienced an epiphany,” Richard said, “Though on the surface it was such an ordinary moment, maybe the rest of my life will be guided by the simple question—‘What would Marcus do?’”

I’d heard my first love George’s parents say that they always asked themselves: What would Jesus do? And here was Richard asking himself what a Philosopher Roman Emperor would do.

Richard found faith in a philosophy—as a way of living and being. In some ways, philosophy felt more open and less divisive than religion, its outcome the same: living a good life and the pursuit of wisdom.  And philosophers, too, had been put to death for their teachings. When I mentioned Socrates’ death again to Richard, he said that Seneca, another famous Stoic and tutor to Emperor Nero, had also been put to death.

“Socrates spoke for us all when he said, ‘Know yourself.’ I can’t think of a more worthwhile way of living one’s life.”

 “Ah yes, the unexamined life is not worth living.” I resisted the urge to reach out and grasp his gloved hand. “I should return to journaling. In my journals, I tried to examine my life, know myself. Journaling was something that I did when I was a teenager until my mother’s elder sister, my Aunt Jayanthi, found my diary, read it, and scolded me. Write only nice things, she said.”

“Read it!” he exclaimed. “That’s not virtuous of her. Her judgement of you is her business. An external. Don’t let her opinion deter you from doing what you love. It’s your diary. Get back to writing!”

“Thanks for a great conversation,” I said, pausing, turning around, and he stopped too. He reached to brush a strand of hair that was twisted across my cheek and lips. I shivered when he touched me, and stopped myself from raising my hand to cover his as it rested, ever so briefly, on my upturned face, my lips softening, parting, waiting for his kiss. Of course, we didn’t kiss.

I was not cold anymore. The heat from my body made me sweat. Even if my sudden infatuation was unhealthy, our conversation felt illuminating, as if it could spark us forward to a way of living our lives to the fullest, as long as we didn’t forget what we had learned, but held on to wisdom like a raft in the flow of the river of life.

I was excited by the thought of living one’s life with such a clear sense of direction and purpose.  I loved Urvaishi Auntie but for most of her life she seemed to float like driftwood on the stream of her life, lost in regret and longing. I didn’t want to live that way.

As we walked in-step to the International Office, I said, “Your moment with Marcus feels significant. Time will tell if its effects are lasting. I guess one could call such moments…grace. Subtle, but there. Our lives change and are never the same again.”

“Yes,” Richard said. “Unless we choose to forget. It takes attention and effort to live eudaimonia, the good life. Epictetus said that we cannot slacken our attention for a moment. We train ourselves moment by moment. There’s no time-out, no space where our actions have no consequence.”

“Except in story,” I said.

“In story?”

“We can do things in story that we cannot do in our real lives. There’s consequence for the characters, of course, but it’s not real.”

“Do you write stories?”

In this one year I had only written only one-and-a-half stories:  my first story, “Gulmohar” inspired by Urvaishi Auntie’s relationship with her servant, Dev, begun on my last day in Delhi, just before I left India for America; and “Jaanam,” a story begun on the day I first met Richard.

“Yes, I write,” I said, as if by saying yes, I could pull closer that part in me that I’d felt as a child as I lay in bed writing stories in my head; the part of me that had closeted herself in the bathroom to finish a book when I was supposed to be doing my homework.

I said yes, as if by saying yes, I could pull closer that part in me that would write stories until the day I died.  I said yes, as if by yes, I could find the rebel in me that would risk my parents’ (and my culture’s) disapprobation and follow what I felt for Richard and write the stories that I wanted to write.

For most of her life Urvaishi Auntie had locked herself in a miserable marriage. She had made the wrong decision by giving up Anand, a boyfriend from a lower caste, for the sake of her parents.  Meeting someone such as Richard felt like destiny.  If our relationship blossomed, as it surely would—judging by the way we instantaneously connected—my parents would not accept him.  But I did not want to make the mistake my Auntie did. I would fight for him. It was auspicious that Richard and I were falling in love at first sight as my parents did at their first meeting in a London grocery store.  

“That’s wonderful,” he said, and then, as if to validate that this was the first of many meetings, Richard said, “I’d love to read one of your stories.”

Ranjini George teaches courses on meditation, writing, Stoicism and the good life at the School of Continuing Studies, University of Toronto. Two excerpts from her novel-in-progress Blue Flowers, have been published in So to Speak and in The Sincerest Form of Flattery: Contemporary Women Writers on Forerunners in Fiction. You can find her at The Kuan Yin Story Cafe, The Writing Stoa, and on Twitter

Practical Paths to Flourishing: Stoicon-X Women – Coming Up June 5th by Brittany Polat

Practical Paths to Flourishing: Stoicon-x Women is coming up soon, and I know there are questions out there about what this event will be like. This is a historic conference—nothing like it has ever taken place in the 2,300-year history of Stoicism! But that also means no one knows what to expect. My co-organizer, Kathryn Koromilas, and I just wanted to give you some background and let you know a little about the purpose and program of Stoicon-x Women. We invite everyone (that’s right, everyone!) to join us for a day devoted to thinking, talking, and learning about flourishing.

Motivation for the Conference

Why did we see a need for a conference devoted to women and Stoicism? Most readers are probably aware that Stoicism, in both ancient and modern times, skews heavily masculine. Philosophy has historically been very male-oriented and male-dominated, and that trend continues into the 21st century.

All of the leading ancient Stoics were men, and very few women were allowed to study philosophy in ancient Greece and Rome (although there were notable exceptions). As a result, only a male perspective is represented in the ancient texts, like Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations or Epictetus’s Discourses. At times there are even outright misogynistic statements in these ancient texts, which make us cringe today but which were completely characteristic of the time. So it can be hard for women who pick up a book on Stoicism to break through the masculine vibe and connect Stoic principles to their own lives. It may seem irrelevant or even unappealing to women.

All of this adds up to having women under-represented in the Stoic community, even today. That’s really unfortunate because we know how incredibly valuable Stoicism is for all humans, including women! One major reason we are holding this conference is to present Stoicism in a way that’s accessible and relevant for women.

That’s not to say that women can’t relate to Stoic texts in the traditional sense or can’t participate equally in the Stoic community at large. We completely reject any suggestion that this conference represents a less serious version of Stoicism. Stoicism is Stoicism. It has the same underlying principles for everyone. Everyone has their own challenges as they try to live a good life. What we want this conference to do is simply spotlight the ways women see Stoicism meeting the challenges of their own lives. We want to amplify voices that have not traditionally been heard and highlight a different perspective on a universal philosophy.

At the same time that we’re celebrating women’s voices in the Stoic community, we have no wish to exclude the voices of anyone else. We don’t see philosophy as a zero-sum game, where some people must lose if others win. Instead, we think that when women win, everyone else wins too. Women hold society together, and strong, flourishing women equals a strong, flourishing world. Our conference aims to welcome and include everyone who wants to live a happy life. We want to help everyone win. We hope that each of you will take this conference as a personal invitation to reach deeper into your Stoic practice and continue your own journey toward flourishing.

Finding Your Path

So what exactly will we be talking about at the conference? The name says it all: practical paths to flourishing. Kathryn and I were very intentional in choosing the name of this conference because we truly want it to be a source of practical wisdom and inspiration for you. We will be touching on some Stoic theory, but for the most part it’s all about practical ways for you to incorporate Stoicism into your life.

We also wanted to evoke the idea of a journey: each of us is on our own lifelong path toward happiness, and each path is both completely unique but also, in some ways, universal. We are all working with the same basic equipment – human nature and the experience of a human life – but we have slightly different circumstances and we all have different personal gifts.

This conference is even for those of you who don’t consider yourselves completely Stoic! You will hear from some speakers who don’t call themselves Stoics but who draw inspiration and wisdom from the Stoic tradition. Some prefer to use Stoicism alongside other wisdom traditions, and some even question a few points of orthodox Stoicism. This is the beauty of thinking for yourself. Stoicism asks us not to blindly follow someone else’s ideas, or to take anything on faith. You need to understand in your own mind why you believe the things you believe. What’s important here today is not that you become a card-carrying Stoic, but that you find a philosophy of life that makes sense to you and that you can apply every day in your own life.

Which leads us to the main component of our conference theme: flourishing. This is how we translate the ancient Greek concept of eudaimonia, which means ultimate happiness in the deep sense of living a good and meaningful life. When people in the 21st century talk about happiness, they usually mean a temporary emotion that results from something external, like eating an ice cream cone or buying a new car. But that’s not what Stoics mean by happiness.

Stoics say: if your happiness depends on external things, then it can easily be taken away from you. If you want to really be happy, you need to base your happiness on something much more stable, something that is completely within your control. So true happiness is not an emotion but rather a state of mind. It’s how you respond to the world, which is completely based on the internal condition of your mind.

It’s like the old saying, when life hands you lemons, make lemonade. You choose your responses to the world, so you can still make good lemonade even if life hands you lemons. If you practice enough and train with Stoic mental techniques, you can develop your character and your mindset so you respond well to any challenge that life throws at you. Flourishing does not depend on what’s going on around you; you could be living through very difficult circumstances but still flourish because of your internal response to those difficult circumstances. This idea of flourishing is really fundamental to finding a mindset and a life philosophy that works for you.

So part of what we’re doing at this conference is looking at your journey, your path toward fulfillment and long-lasting happiness, and thinking deeply about how Stoicism can help you get where you’re going. All of our talks are going to give you fuel for this journey. Our speakers will share parts of their own stories and how they apply Stoicism and other life philosophies in their own lives. We want our speakers to be very honest with you, to share both the ups and downs of their personal paths to flourishing. No one is claiming to be a sage. We are all working toward flourishing just like you are. What we hope to do with this conference is start a conversation with women from all walks of life to explore how Stoicism can help us flourish in our individual ways.

Learn More About the Conference

If you’d like to learn more, check out our conference website, pathstoflourishing.org, which is really our hub for all things Paths to Flourishing! You’ll find our conference program and detailed information about our speakers and the amazing work they are doing. You’ll see that our speakers include philosophers, creatives, entrepreneurs, teachers, and Stoic practitioners from many other walks of life. We have both familiar faces and new voices, but all our speakers share a passion for helping others flourish.

Pathstoflourishing.org also features beautiful stories from many of our speakers and conference attendees. We asked anyone whose life has been influenced by Stoicism to share their #pathstoflourishing story, and the results are truly inspiring. And there is room for plenty more! If you’d like to share your own journey with others, you can fill out the form on the website and we’ll be happy to include yours alongside everyone else’s. You’ll notice also that this is not just for women–we would love to hear from men too! You can read #pathstoflourishing stories from Donald Robertson, Sharon Lebell, and many others.

We also want this conference to be a place where you connect with other Stoics and Stoic-curious people. It’s not just about sitting and listening to the speakers! We’re providing designated spaces for you to connect and chat with other Stoics. We really hope you’ll be able to get to know some of the other attendees who, just like you, are here to learn more about how Stoicism can help them flourish.

Please Join Us!

We are very excited and proud that the first ever event on Stoicism and women is taking place through Modern Stoicism! Tickets are available at pathstoflourishing.org for a donation amount (choose your own amount), and all sessions will be recorded for viewing after the conference. We hope everyone will be able to join us for this special, one-of-a-kind event in the history Stoicism!

Brittany Polat writes about Stoic psychology, development, and motivation at Living in Agreement. She is also co-organizer and co-host of the upcoming Stoicon-x Women conference. You can also find and follow her on Twitter.

Would You Like To Contribute A Guest Post To Stoicism Today? Here’s How!

Over the five years I have served as editor of the Stoicism Today, we have published hundreds of guest posts in the blog, that is, posts contributed by authors who are not members of the Modern Stoicism Team. They have written about a vast range of topics – you can get some idea of this by scrolling through the Stoicism Today blog archive, or by using the search bar to look up a few keywords you’re interested in. And these authors also vary considerably in chosen format, authorial voice, and motivation for writing. We get, you might say, a little bit of everything.

The Stoicism Today blog – and its readership – has evolved over time, and so have the types and standards of guest-contributed posts that we’re looking for. It has been quite an experience for me to work as editor with hundreds of potential authors pitching pieces, developing their posts through reviews, suggestions, drafts, and then publishing their work in the blog. We’ve also had quite a few repeat guest post writers contributing solid content consistently (the author from the last week’s Stoicism Today post is a prime example), and the fact that authors want to keep on contributing strikes me as a sign of the vitality of the blog as a medium for excellent content on Stoicism.

In these interactions with authors over the years, I’ve found myself devoting a good bit of time to clarifying what sort of guest posts we were looking for, and making suggestions about how drafts could be expanded or revised into more solid and substantive pieces, so a few months ago, I sat down and worked up a fairly comprehensive set of guidelines for would-be guest post authors. You might have seen those guidelines already in the “Writing for Stoicism Today” (in the Stoicism Today tab on our site), but I’m going to provide them here as well.

So, if you’ve been kicking around the idea of writing a guest post – or if you hadn’t thought of it before, but now you’re interested – check out the guidelines below!

Saturday guest posts are typically between 1500-4000 words of content (i.e., not including title, author bio, and any notes).  Posts can sometimes be  longer, but almost never shorter.  This word count has turned out to be the optimal range for offering our readers a substantive post that develops some ideas in solid engagement with Stoic philosophy and practices.  If you submit a shorter draft, you will invariably receive suggestions on how you can expand it into a stronger piece more suitable for our readership.

Writers may pitch their ideas to the editor, Gregory Sadler by emailing him at greg@reasonio.com.  They may also send first drafts directly to him at the same email address.  Frankly, most pitch ideas will get the response: “Sounds interesting! Send your draft when you have it ready.”

Drafts will be reviewed, and may be accepted as is, or suggestions for revisions, expansions, etc. may be made by the editor(s).  Some posts go through several stages of revision before getting published.  Guest posts submitted to the blog may be edited by Stoicism Today for grammar, spelling, style, readability before being published in their final form in the blog

When you send a draft, please make sure that it is “bare bones”, format-wise.  That makes it much easier to copy and paste from one format to the next for editing.  Bare bones means using minimal formatting (no weird fonts, indentations, centering, etc.), making section headings just the same font but in bold, etc.  Submit drafts as MSWord documents, not in other formats like PDF, GoogleDoc, RTF, Pages, etc. (every word processor can convert to Word format)

We publish a wide range of content in Stoicism Today.  All of it is in some significant ways connected to and informed by Stoic philosophy and practices.  You don’t need to have a high level of expertise in Stoicism to write a great post, of interest to and helpful for our readers.  But you must be engaging with something Stoicism-connected.  Remember that you are writing for other people interested in Stoicism, and who have likely read quite a few other previous posts in Stoicism Today.

Some examples of the types of guest posts our readership appreciates, and that we publish are:

  • Personal narratives of how they learned about, experimented with, succeeded or failed, and came to better understand Stoicism in practice. 
  • Key ideas or practices derived from classic Stoic thinkers or texts and their applications to present-day problems and circumstances. 
  • Discussions about historical or existing persons who could be viewed as Stoics, making a solid case for why that would be appropriate
  • Examinations of controversial or difficult Stoic doctrines, providing explanations and clarifications useful for our readership.
  • Comparative work examining connections between Stoic ideas, insights, and practices, and
  • Engaging reviews of contemporary literature about Stoicism.
  • Recent authors of books specifically on Stoicism discussing their work (may include short excerpts)
  • Poetry that is explicitly connected with Stoicism, typically accompanied by an author’s explanation of their own poetry

It is strongly suggested that prospective authors read some of the posts in Stoicism Today before submitting a piece, so that they have a good understanding and appreciation for the range of work we publish.

We are not interested in the following types of posts:

  • Paid or sponsored posts
  • Posts that only tangentially engage or mention Stoicism
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Marcus on the Dichotomy of Value and Response by Chris Gill

This post is based on a talk given on April 25 2021 as part of the Modern Stoicism birthday celebration for Marcus Aurelius. I discuss two important features of Stoic thought which are potentially valuable for developing Stoic practice, and which Marcus’ Meditations illustrate powerfully. I call these features ‘the dichotomy of value and response’.

Part One: the Dichotomy of Value

One of the exercises most widely used in modern, applied Stoicism is what we call ‘the dichotomy of control’, that is, distinguishing between what is and is not within our control, and focusing on doing what we can control and not wasting effort and emotional involvement on what we cannot control. It is an exercise that Epictetus refers to repeatedly and that Marcus often recommends to himself. However, Marcus also explains, more clearly than Epictetus, the Stoic rationale for this distinction.

What underlies the dichotomy of control is the idea of a dichotomy of value: between virtue, and happiness based on virtue, and what the Stoics call ‘indifferents’. One of the most important ideas in Stoic ethics is that our happiness in life depends not so much on health, success or celebrity but on developing the virtues, notably the four cardinal virtues, seen as a unified set. As the Stoics put it, virtue and virtue-based happiness are really good whereas these other things are ‘indifferents’.

This does not mean that they have no value; things such as health, property, and success are normally seen by Stoics as having positive value. But their value is on a different (lower) level than virtue, and that is why they are described as ‘indifferents’. They do not make the difference between happiness and its absence, whereas virtue does. This dichotomy explains why we should focus on what we can control. Working towards developing virtue and happiness based on virtue is something we can all do (it falls within our control) whereas gaining ‘indifferents’ such as success and celebrity does not. We should not focus on ‘indifferents’, not just because we may not get them, but because they do not have the same value as virtue in helping us to live a truly valuable (and happy) life. They are thus not ‘good’ in the way that virtue and virtue-based happiness are.

Here is an illuminating statement of this dichotomy in the Meditations (key terms are given in bold):

If you can find anything in human life better than justice, truthfulness, self-control, courage … if you can see anything better than this, turn to it with all your heart and enjoy the supreme good that you have found… if you find all other things to be trivial and valueless in comparison with this, give no room to anything else, since, once you turn towards that and divert from your proper path, you will no longer be able without inner conflict to give the highest honour to that which is properly good. It is not right to set up as a rival to the rational and social good anything alien to its nature, such as the praise of the many, or positions of power, wealth, or enjoyment of pleasures. All of these, even if they seem to suit our nature for a little while, suddenly take control of us and carry us away. But in your case simply and freely choose what is better and hold on to that. ‘But what is better is what benefits me’. If it benefits you as a rational creature, then maintain this. But if it does so as an animal, reject it and hold to your decision without a big fuss. Only take care that your enquiry is conducted securely. (3.6)

Marcus brings out very clearly that, in shaping our lives, we should focus, overall, on developing the virtues (the virtues listed here are the four Stoic cardinal virtues, though with ‘truthfulness’ in place of the normal ‘wisdom’). These virtues, and the kind of life they make possible, count as ‘the supreme good’, and as ‘the rational and social’ good (a phrase discussed shortly). These are what is ‘properly good’, and what ‘benefits’ us, consistently and throughout our lives, in our actions, relationships and feelings.

By contrast, we should not focus in this way on ‘indifferents’ such as ‘the praise of the many, or positions of power, wealth, or enjoyment of pleasures’. Marcus, in line with mainstream Stoic theory, recognises that such things have a natural appeal for us (‘they seem to suit our nature’). But if we treat obtaining them as our overall aim in life, the emotions this generates can ‘take control of us and carry us away’. The benefit provided by indifferents is at a different level from virtue, which benefits us by enabling us to express our nature at its best, ‘as a rational creature’. As rational animals, human beings have the capacity to work towards virtue (it lies ‘within our control’) and thus to shape our lives in the best possible way. The contrast Marcus draws here is fully in line with standard Stoic thinking on virtue and indifferents and also gives a strong statement of this dichotomy.

This Stoic dichotomy involves not just the distinction between virtue and indifferents but also the relationship of both ideas to happiness. Happiness, according to the Stoics, depends on virtue; it does not depend on indifferents (this is partly why they are ‘indifferent’), even though things such as health, property and social status have positive value and can form part of a happy life, if they are correctly used. But what is happiness (eudaimonia), for the Stoics? ‘Happiness’, in modern English, suggests feeling good or enjoyment – and that is all. In fact, Stoic happiness also includes feeling good. But for the Stoics, happiness is primarily conceived as a form of life, not a feeling; virtue, on the other hand, is seen as a form of understanding and character, while ‘indifferents’ make up the circumstances and conditions of the life.

The Stoics often present happiness as ‘the life according to nature’. What does this phrase mean? It implies a life according to human nature and according to nature as a whole (the world or universe). Thus, a happy life is one that fulfils the best qualities of human nature, which are, typically, presented as a combination of rationality and sociability. A happy life is also one that expresses the best qualities of nature as a whole. These are seen as a combination of structure, order and wholeness, and (for human beings following nature) the exercise of the best possible care for oneself and others of one’s kind.

The happy life is sometimes described as ‘the life according to virtue’; and these qualities of happiness are also presented as characteristic of the virtues. The virtues also express human nature at its best, marked by a combination of rationality and sociability. They are also seen by Stoics as marked by inner order and coherence or consistency, and by taking the best possible care of oneself and other human beings. This explains why happiness is presented as depending on virtue, rather than indifferents. The virtuous and happy life is one in which these shared good qualities are expressed, and in which the virtuous person makes the best possible use of the circumstances and conditions of her life (the indifferents), whatever these happen to be. So this is another aspect of the Stoic dichotomy of value.

Marcus conveys, powerfully, different aspects of this, rather complex, set of ideas. Although he does not often use the term ‘happiness’ (eudaimonia), he refers frequently to the idea of the life according to nature, presenting it in Book 1 as the goal he has adopted in life (1.9.3, 1.17.11). He also refers regularly to the idea that both the virtues and the happy life reflect the combination of rationality and sociability (e.g. 6.14.2, 6.44.5, 7.55.3, 7.72, 10.24).

In 3.6, for instance, the term ‘the rational and social good’ may refer equally to the virtues and happiness (that is, the best possible ‘human life’); both virtues and happiness can properly be seen as the main focus of one’s life. Marcus also evokes very often the thought that the best human life is one that reflects the order and coherence belonging to nature as a whole. The virtuous person is one whose actions express the order and coherence of nature as a whole and who accepts that her own life forms part of a larger natural order which has its own goodness. For instance (3.4.5): ‘[a virtuous person] gives his sole attention to how he might carry out his own activities, and attends continually to his own strand in the web; he makes sure his own activities are done rightly [that is, virtuously] and he is convinced that his own strand in the web is good’. (See also 2.9, 5.10.6-7, 5.21, 6.58.)

Marcus also conveys powerfully the idea that a life of this kind (a life ‘according to nature’ in these senses) brings with it the (Stoic) ‘good emotions’ including joy and serenity (2.17.4, 3.16.3, 4.23, 5.4). He thus brings out how the life according to nature includes feeling good, as a by-product of its main features. The close linkage between the qualities of happiness and virtue mean that the happy life depends solely on the possession and exercise of the virtues. A happy life can include indifferents such as health and property; but it does not depend on their presence, an idea that Marcus conveys frequently and vividly (e.g. 3.7.4, 5.29, 7.68, 12.26). Thus, this second dimension of the dichotomy of value is communicated strongly by the Meditations.

Part Two: the Dichotomy of Response

The second type of Stoic dichotomy is connected with the first, because it involves the relationship between virtue and indifferents. However, it is more immediately linked with Stoic ideas about ethical development, typically conceived as ‘appropriation’ (oikeiosis). The Stoics see ethical development as a life-long process, not just a function of childhood and youth; and a key element in this process is coming to understand the special value of virtue and happiness based on virtue, as compared with ‘indifferents’.

This process also brings about a transformation in other aspects of your life, including your relations with other people and your pattern of emotions. It leads you towards exercising the virtues in your expression of care for other people, and also towards recognising the fundamental kinship of all human beings, as rational and sociable animals. It is also a process that carries with it the experience of ‘good emotions’ (eupatheiai), such as goodwill and joy, which are in line with the possession and exercise of the virtues. This brings with it freedom from misguided, bad emotions or ‘passions’, such as anger, hatred and jealousy. ‘Passions’, typically, express mistaken beliefs, such as the belief that happiness depends on gaining indifferents, such as wealth and celebrity, or that our happiness and misery depends on the actions of others, rather than on whether we ourselves develop the virtues.

The dichotomy of response comes out very clearly in a well-known passage (2.1):

Say to yourself first thing in the morning: I shall meet with people who are meddling, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious and unsociable. They are subject to these faults because of their ignorance of what is good and bad. But I have recognised the nature of the good and see that it is the right, and the nature of the bad, and seen that it is the wrong, and the nature of the wrongdoer himself, and seen that he is related to me, not because he has the same blood or seed, but because he shares in the same mind and portion of divinity. So I cannot be harmed by any of them, as no one will involve me in what is wrong. Nor can I be angry with my relative or hate him. We were born for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like the rows of upper and lower teeth. So to work against each other is contrary to nature; and resentment and rejection count as working against someone.

Meditations 2.1

At first glance, this passage might suggest that Marcus is someone who finds it difficult to put up with other people or is prone to anger and irritation, and there are other places too in the Meditations that might seem to suggest this. However, I think that is a misleading impression. This passage is one of several on this theme, and there are parallels in Epictetus’ Discourses, which exhibit the same pattern. (See Meditations 5.25, 5.28, 5.31.3, 6.26-27, 11.18, 12.26; Discourses 1.18.3-16, 1.28.8-10, 2.22.36, 4.1.147.)

These passages describe an exercise, which we can call the dichotomy of response, like the well-known exercise of the dichotomy of control. The broader context is that of Stoic thought about ethical development, especially its implications for relations to other people and for emotions. The people whom Marcus prepares himself to meet (like most people) are presented as not having gone very far in the process of ethical development that all human beings are capable of. They do not understand that the only things that are really good are virtue and virtue-based happiness, rather than ‘indifferents’ like money and fame. This explains the way these people treat others, including Marcus, and it explains their attitudes and emotions (their being ‘meddling, ungrateful … envious and unsociable’).

The conventional way for someone to respond would be to show similar negative reactions in turn to the other people. But Marcus reminds himself that he has good Stoic reasons for not reacting in this way, reasons which are the result of his having made some progress in ethical understanding and development (‘I have recognised the nature of the good and see that it is the right…’). He is not angered by their wish to do him harm because he knows that, in Stoic ethics, the only real harm we can experience is that of doing what is wrong and thus damaging our own character and understanding.

He also reminds himself that these people, like himself and everyone else, form part of the brotherhood of human beings, as rational, sociable animals, an idea vividly conveyed in the images in the last part of the passage (‘like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of upper and lower teeth …’). Forming relationships with others in the light of this idea is one of the features elsewhere associated with ethical development, that is, progress towards virtue and virtue-based happiness.

Thus, overall, passages of this type have a two-part structure. First, they present typical (morally undeveloped) ways of relating to other people and responding emotionally. Second, they recommend a way of treating other people and responding emotionally to them that reflects ethical development, as conceived in Stoicism. Hence, my suggestion that we have here an exercise in the dichotomy of response, part of training oneself how to relate to others, and a highly memorable one.

 In this passage, and some others, Marcus focuses on avoiding bad or misguided emotional reactions, or passions, such as anger and resentment. However, in other examples of this theme, Marcus uses the Stoic terminology for ‘good emotions’ (eupatheiai), which are in line with virtue. Here, for instance, Marcus imagines being surrounded on his death-bed by negative critics of his behaviour and reminds himself how he should react in that situation: ‘You must not, however on that account, depart thinking less kindly of them, but preserve your true character as one who is friendly, well-intentioned, and gracious’ (10.36.4). 

Again, in a passage similar to 2.1, he reminds himself: ‘If you can, show them the error of their ways. But, if you cannot, remember that kindness (or ‘goodwill’, eumeneia) was granted to you even for this’ (9.24.4-5, also 9.11). So here and elsewhere, the second leg of the dichotomy of response centres on reacting to negative criticism and attitudes by other people with constructive actions and warm, generous feelings.

The second response in the dichotomy matches an ideal that is firmly embedded in the Meditations and in Stoic thinking more generally. It is worth stressing this point since Stoicism is sometimes presented (especially by its critics) as marked by ‘detachment’ towards other people. Here, for instance, are two passages which match closely the second leg in the dichotomy of response.

You have not yet learnt to love your fellows with all your heart, nor yet do you have a complete understanding of the fact that doing good is a source of enjoyment. You are still doing it simply as a duty, and not yet with the idea that you are doing good to yourself.

Meditations 7.13

Different people find their enjoyment in different things: what gives me enjoyment is to keep my mind unimpaired, and not turn my back on any human being or on anything that happens to the human race, but to look on all things with kindly eyes (eumeneis) and welcome and make us of each thing according to its worth.

Meditations 8.43

Both passages reflect the Stoic view that ethical development (movement towards virtue) brings it an improved understanding of how to express care for other people as well as bringing emotional attitudes (such as love or goodwill) which reflect that understanding. It is also worth noting a marked feature of Book 1 of the Meditations, where Marcus lists the good qualities that his relationships with other people throughout his life have enabled him to appreciate, and which have helped him to carry forward his own ethical development. Many of these features consist of humane, tactful or generous-minded ways of treating other people. A second feature, often coupled with the first, is that of warm and positive, as well as stable, emotional responses to other people. This extract, on the Stoic teacher Sextus, illustrates both points:

… perceptiveness in gauging his friends’ needs; patience with ordinary people and those whose opinions are not based on reflection; the ability to fit in with everyone, so that his company was more pleasant than any kind of flattery, while at the same time he aroused the greatest respect from those who were with him … never to give the impression of anger or any other passion but to be at once completely free of passion and yet full of affection for other people.

Meditations 1.9.5-7, 9; see also 1.8, 1.10-12, 1.14-15

Thirdly, here is an illustration of similar features that form part of the picture of the ideal Stoic wise person in one of the standard ancient summaries of Stoic ethics:

Since the virtuous person is affable in conversation and charming and encouraging and prone to pursue good will and friendship through his conversation, he fits in as well as possible with the majority of people; and that is why he is lovable and graceful and persuasive, and again flattering and shrewd and opportune and quick-witted and easy-going and unfussy and straightforward and un-deceptive … he is also gentle (praos) … and does not get angry in any circumstances.

Arius Didymus 11m, 11s, trans. B. Inwood and L. Gerson, The Stoics Reader, 2008, pp. 147, 151

These parallels show that the ideas found in Marcus’ presentation of the dichotomy of response are firmly embedded in Stoic thinking about the best kind of human life.

The translations used in this post are those of Gill (2013) and Hard (2011).

Suggestions for Further Reading

On virtue, happiness, and indifferents in Stoic ethics, see A. A. Long and D. N. Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers (1987), sections 58, 61, 63; on ethical development (oikeiosis) and emotions, see sections 57 and 65. For an overview of Stoic ethics, see J. Sellars, Stoicism (2006), ch. 5.

On Marcus’ Meditations, on these topics, see C. Gill, Marcus Aurelius, Meditations Books 1-6, translated with introduction and commentary (2013), esp. xxiv-xlix (also, more briefly, the introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics translation (2011) by Robin Hard, pp. xv-xx. See also J. Sellars, Marcus Aurelius (2021), ch. 8; R. Waterfield, translation of Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, The Annotated Edition (2021), introduction, pp. xl-lvii.

See also M. Graver, Stoicism and Emotion (2007), chs. 2 and 8; C. Gill, ‘Positive Emotions in Stoicism: Are They Enough?’, in R. Caston and R. Kaster (eds.), Hope, Joy, and Affection in the Classical World, ch. 7; C. Gill, ‘Stoic Detachment – is this a Myth?’, Philosophia (journal published in Athens), vol. 49 (2019), 271-86.

See also the two-part dialogue between C. Gill and T. LeBon on virtue and indifferents in the Stoicism Today blog archive.

Chris Gill is Emeritus Professor of Ancient Thought at the University of Exeter. He has written extensively on ancient philosophy. His books which focus on Stoicism include The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought and Naturalistic Psychology in Galen & Stoicism

The Stoic – May 2021

THE STOIC is a monthly online publication of The Stoic Gym. The Modern Stoicism organization partners with the Stoic Gym (and if you look at the teams for both, you’ll see some overlap in membership).

The Stoic Gym is pleased to announce the publication of THE STOIC, Journal of the Stoic Gym, May issue.

In this issue…LIVING AND DYING THE STOIC WAY

  • CHUCK CHAKRAPANI. Judging life by its length
  • BRITTANY POLAT. What does it mean to flourish?
  • JONAS SALZGEBER. How to deal with people
  • MEREDITH A. KUNZ. How to measure ourselves
  • PIOTR STANKIEWICZ. How to increase the quality of our lives
  • FLORA BERNARD. Can we die a good death?

AND

  • ELBERT HUBBARD. The Story of Marcus Aurelius [2]
  • BOOK REVIEW. Whiting & Konstantakos, Being Better

PLUS OUR REGULAR FEATURES

  • Stoic Fellowship Directory
  • Stoic quotes for every day of the month… and more.

Read the magazine here. (Also available by free subscription.)

I Wouldn’t Hit You If You Didn’t Make Me So Angry by Mary Braun

About four years after my adoption, my mother and I were having a mini-vacation at her friend’s house and without provocation, she began telling me how horrible a person I was.

I had treated our host badly. We do not treat people this badly. We do not treat people like this. I had made our host feel very badly. It is never ok to make someone feel as bad as I had made our host feel. We were guests here and I was making our host sorry to have invited us. I was a shame and embarrassment to her. Only bad people made other people feel bad.

And it went on and on. And on. I was unaware of having done anything rude. I thought I had done everything I had been trained to do. My intentions had always been to be respectful. I never learned what I had done to upset our host, but whatever it was, I felt bad about it. 

Using the tools available to me as a twelve year old, I did my best to make sense of what she had said. Stripping the argument of its rhetorical niceties left:

  1. My mother is a reliable source of information.
  2. Good people do not make other people feel bad.
  3. I made our host feel bad. 

Therefore, I am not good.

No problems with this train of logic. I was well acquainted with it and my family regularly told me that I was not a good person.The conclusion was familiar and it flowed easily from the propositions above it which are all known to be true. No news here.

A second set of propositions could be brought up:

  1. My mother is a reliable source of information.
  2. Good people do not make other people feel bad.
  3. My mother is making me feel bad. 

Therefore, she is not good.

The conclusion could not be right. Something must have gone wrong. Steps 1 and 2 were givens. There must be something wrong with step 3: my mother was making me feel bad. 

Perhaps I didn’t feel bad even though I was pretty sure that’s what I felt. This was a possibility, but seemed silly. Alternatively, maybe I was feeling bad, but maybe I was feeling just a little bit bad. Maybe our host was feeling really bad. I was making other people feel even worse than my mother was making me feel! That would be horrible because I feel pretty bad! And if I’m making other people feel even worse than this, that is very terrible! I’m so sorry! This logic makes other people’s feelings more important and more reliable, than my feelings. It is easy to see how growing up with this belief could get someone into trouble.

Another belief that got me into trouble is the idea that people can make other people feel a particular way, that one person can control another’s feelings. I am responsible for how other people feel. It raises the possibility that other people are responsible for how I feel. Believing that I am responsible for how other people feel means that they can get me to act in ways that they want by telling me I am making them feel bad. It makes me easily manipulable. Believing that other people are responsible for how I feel absolves me of responsibility for the contents of my own heart and steals my power to control my own life.

Alternatively, perhaps there was an exception for my mother to the rule “good people don’t make other people feel bad,” because she was the adult and I was the child. It was OK for the adult to do whatever they felt needed to be done in order to correct the child. I already knew that I was going to have a hard time in life because I had so many undesirable traits so I should really be grateful for all the correction I could get. At least I wouldn’t drive people away by making them feel bad. I had to guess what I had done that was upsetting our host so much, but that was the least of my problems. From interactions like this, I would be left thinking that if someone said they were trying to help me, they could be as mean as they wanted. It is easy to see how this belief would prove unhelpful.

Perhaps there was another reason that the rule “good people do not make other people feel bad” did not apply to me. Perhaps I was such a bad person, that I, myself, was the exception. I could be made to feel bad without contradicting the rule because I was so bad it didn’t matter. This was a real possibility. Clearly, I was very bad. My mother had just spent fifteen minutes telling me so. Surely someone as loathsome as I could be made to feel bad with impunity. It is not difficult to see how this would cause adult me problems.

In the usual pattern, after the lecture went on for a while, my mother would say, “You make me so angry” and begin hitting me. Because we were at her friend’s house, she did not hit me, but confined herself to a semi-whispered tirade. With my adult brain, “you made me so angry that I hit you” is laughable, but when your full size parent says it, it is tough to argue with. Little Mary, of course your mother was able to control herself. She did not hit you when she deemed it inappropriate. She never hit you at her friend’s house, or while she was driving, or in church. She only “lost control” when there were no witnesses. Have you ever, Mary, become so overcome by emotions that you have hit someone else? You, loathsome as you are, can control yourself and your mother cannot? The problems with this statement became obvious to me when I was just a little older.

My mother’s tirade hinged on being convinced that another person can make you feel a certain way. This is a very complicated thing. It was obvious to me that other people could affect my emotions. My mother was making me feel bad (more accurately, sad, ashamed, remorseful, embarrassed, and unworthy) so it made sense to me that I had made her feel “bad,” too. However, as I aged into adolescence, my self awareness was growing. Soon, I would be making the discovery Marcus Aurelius did. Other people cannot control how you feel. Marcus says it in book 7: 

Let there fall externally what will on the parts which can feel the effects of this fall. For those parts which have felt will complain, if they choose. But I, unless I think that what has happened is an evil, am not injured. And it is in my power not to think so. 

I knew from my own experience, when someone in the room feels angry and yells at me, I felt afraid. When someone told me I was lazy, dishonest and unlovable, I felt bad. When I became a little older, I realized that it lasted for a brief moment and then often I was able to have a more reasoned response to the lecture. My response was consistent with what Viktor Frankl describes:

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

This was the beginning of developing my own Stoicism. I have previously written that the Stoic maxims can be like a foot shoved into a slamming door and can help me avoid giving assent to the initial feeling I have and spiralling into feeling “bad.” There is the stimulus (angry person in the room) and I cannot help the initial flash of feeling, but assenting to that feeling in the next moment is voluntary. If I can do something besides assent to it, I do not have to react to my emotion. I am in control of myself.

Figuring out that other people do not control my emotions was a huge freedom. That freedom didn’t make it hurt any less to be hit, but it did start to provide a way to look at “If you didn’t make me so angry, I wouldn’t hit you” differently. After this discovery, things in my family actually got worse as I experimented with saying, “It doesn’t really matter if I line the silverware up correctly” for the pleasure of watching my mother’s face contort in rage. I would think, “I did that. I can make her lose control of herself so easily. And she cannot make me lose control of myself even by grabbing my hair and using it as a handle to knock my head against the wall.”

The idea of controlling my response to my emotions provided me with a way to evaluate her statement that I made her angry and provided me with the start of a way to resolve the cognitive dissonance that I have described above. But it also provided me with more pain. Sadly, I could only control my mother in one direction. Try as I might (and I sure tried hard!) I could never find the switch that turned her into the generous, fun, loving mother that she could be every now and again.

And now thirty years after those lectures have ceased, I am still learning about the space between the impulse and the response. I know to notice what I am responding to when there is an angry person in the room. When things are going well, I will feel the anger, notice it, point it out to myself, remind myself that the person is angry, carefully check that I’m not responding to make their anger go away, remind myself that I am safe, and then attend to the situation at hand. This is easier to do professionally and more difficult to do with my family. Some days I’m successful and some days I’m not. I am still living out the legacy of believing other people control one’s emotions but I am better at logic than I used to be.

Mary Braun, MD is a primary care physician in rural New Hampshire specializing in internal medicine and palliative care. In childhood, Mary began practicing an intuitive form of Stoicism to cope with being orphaned. She discovered Stoic philosophy in middle age. She applies ideas from Stoicism not only for her own life but also to help her patients. You can find her at her Medium Publication