A Facebook Chat with Seneca

Few people know this, but the Ancient Stoics are all over social media. Marcus tweets. Chrysippus cranks it out over on reddit. Rufus keeps getting banned from G+ groups. Seneca is a Facebook guy, so I hit him up for some parenting advice.

Me: Dude, you around? Seneca: Greetings from Seneca to his Facebook friend Ben. Me: Yeah, hey! What’s up? Seneca: Acting thus. Me: Cool, cool. Kids are pissing me off though. Seneca: You are right to fear anger. It is the most hideous and wild passion. Banish it completely. It does nothing good. No plague has cost the human race more dearly. Me: Well, hey, I’m just trying to cool off a little. Sometimes you need to get angry, right? Like sometimes I need to punish my kids for their own good… Seneca: Correction is sometimes necessary, but with discretion, not anger. Me: But we’ve gotta get angry sometimes, right? I mean, if we have to fight someone in a war or whatever.

Seneca: I have written a letter about this to No_Vat_Us. Do you not have Google? You puzzle me, friend. You ask for help in banishing your anger and then argue to defend it. You must be mistaking me for @GoldenMean.   Me: Okay, you’re right, forget that for now. Here’s the real problem. I blow up at my kids. Like way too much over the stupidest stuff. I’m trying to do some work and they just keep asking for stuff and I fly off the handle. How do I stop?  Seneca: The best course is to reject at once the first incitement to anger, to resist even its small beginnings. The enemy must be stopped at the very frontier; for if he has passed it, and advanced within the city gates, he will not respect any bounds. Me: Mmmkay, how? Seneca: Anger does not spring up out of nowhere. It arises in your mind. Anger is aroused by the direct impression of an injury. Me: Okay, that makes sense. I’m sitting here writing a blog post or whatever and my kids ask me for something and I think it’s not fair. I deserve to have some time work on this. They’re not being fair. But the thing is, this all just happens automatically. Emotions just spring up on their own, right?

Seneca: The first stirrings of emotion arise automatically, yes, but not the destructive passion of anger you speak of. Me: So the emotion is automatic, but the passion is something I can control then? Seneca: That you may know, further, how the passions begin, grow, and run riot, I may say that the first prompting is involuntary, a preparation for passion, as it were, and a sort of menace. The next is combined with an act of the will, although not an unruly one, which assumes that it is right for you to be angry with your children for interrupting your work--or that it is right for your children to be punished because they have done something wrong. The third prompting is now beyond control, in that it wishes to take vengeance, not if it is right to do so, but whether or no, and has utterly vanquished reason. Me: Okay, so let me see if I get this. These destructive passions arise in three parts. The first part is involuntary. Nothing I can do about it. The second part is where I have a choice whether or not I agree with it. If it gets to the third part, then I’m just off the rails? Seneca: Just so. Me: I don’t feel like that second part ever happens, though. I feel like the whole thing is involuntary. I just jump from the first impression to losing my shit. Seneca: It is because of habit that it seems so. Learn the new habit of being continually mindful and you will come to experience the second movement. It is there that you have the choice to counter that impression by imagining how someone you admire might react in the same situation. Me: Couldn’t I also just observe the first impression and let it pass away without trying to push it away or argue with it?  Seneca: Yes. This is called suspending judgment. Me: Okay, I’ll try that. Thanks for the advice. Seneca: Farewell!

Ben Butina blogs at approximatelyforever.com.

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