Stoicism When Technology Fails: Ancient Steps for a Modern Path
by James Gill
Every spring millions of Americans eagerly await March madness. It is appropriate nomenclature for a practice that pits 64 of the top ranked college basketball teams against each other in a four conference single elimination bracket. This year, I looked forward to a little friendly competition between friends and family and urged those that I love to fill out brackets with me. In the midst of trying to organize something enjoyable, I experienced silly and childish negative emotions because the people that used technology the most somehow couldn’t remember their passwords for required email accounts, the printer that reliably churns out a sheet for everyone in my Bible study group every Sunday suddenly went on the fritz, and I felt the weight of being our pool commissioner most keenly when I realized that everyone around me had a better device than I did for completing the task at hand. It occurred to me that Stoicism’s applicability crosses time and cultural barriers to serve as a guide for how we should correctly interact with technology and each other.
Seneca described anger as “an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.” This statement’s universal wisdom can be recognized by all, so why do we all lose our minds when dealing with technology? It is because anger is the product of surprise and personal injury. It is the unique combination of both of these things that causes uncontrollable fits of blind rage. A few moments of negative visualization can be very helpful in the elimination of the former substrate for our anger equation. If we take five minutes each day to meditate on the very worst things that can happen, we have immunized our minds and equipped them to deal with reality. Optimism is a trap that urges us to expect the best possible outcome. Unfortunately, life (and especially life that involves technology) is rife with the unexpected. Also, realizing that it is your perception that injury has occurred that is causing your anger is helpful in elimination of the second substrate. Marcus Aurelius said, “Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears.”
Anxiety is the result of trying to control that which is not in our control. Fate has decided what will befall you on any given day. Unaffected relief from worry awaits when you realize that the external events of your life cannot dictate whether or not you are happy. If a deadline is quickly approaching and fate has it in store for your printer to stop working moments before you need to place a document into the hands of someone important to you, realize that the events preceding your seeming imminent failure were not in your control. You didn’t choose for the printer to stop working. It is equally as true that the perceptions of other people are not in your control. Epictetus said, “There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power or our will.”
Keeping up with the Joneses has been launched into a new era with technology. It is no longer just the perfect house, car, job, or family that people feel societal pressure to obtain. Now social standing is also dependent upon devices and their accessories as much as anything else material and visible. The slippery slope is that technology expires almost as quickly as it’s released, leaving those with the worst cases of avarice in debt and constantly wanting. So how can the itch be scratched, so to speak? Epictetus offers this: “He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.” The most effective way to appreciate the things that you have is to try to get by without them. Sending someone a letter through the mail to be grateful for the speed of email or leaving your phone at home to acknowledge the convenience of immediate access to information can be more effective for your material satisfaction than making a new purchase.
The tutelage of men that lived thousands of years ago is still applicable and advisable in the compartments of our lives that define our era as modern. Technology’s purpose is to make our lives better and easier, and in many ways it does. It also offers a uniquely challenging environment in which to practice the attainment of virtue through Stoic philosophy. We can connect instantly with people halfway across the globe, making neighbors out of people that never would have spoken. We have access to all the information in all the world’s libraries at our fingertips, making the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom accessible to all regardless of physical location or social position. Whether we are Facebooking, emailing, blogging, constructing a presentation, or filling out a bracket, the ultimate goal is to connect with people. If used for virtuous purposes, technology can aid us in practicing the tenants of Stoicism; chiefly the idea that everyone is a manifestation of the divine and should be treated as such. Through daily practice of these tenants, when my laptop doesn’t work according to its nature, I can still work according to mine.
James Gill holds two degrees in religion and leads a small church plant in East Tennessee where he encourages others in compassionate and simple living. James works with children and enjoys hiking, gardening, and reading and old time Americana music.