Sunday, May 21, 2017

Taking Comfort in Stoicism

When thing take a turn for the worst, no philosophy helps me like re-reading the writings of Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius.

I had a dream last night that I was at a bike show (about bicycles, not motorcycles), talking to a distance rider, when, after a long conversation, I noticed that his one arm ended just this side of the elbow. He had a prosthetic, but nothing fancy, just something to help him grip the handlebars. And I felt so sheepish for whining about my trivial issues.
What, then, is to be done? To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens. (Epictetus Discourses B I, Ch I)
We have to figure out what's in our power to control, then stop griping or trying to fix what's not in our power to change. It is what it is. So, right now, I can't change the fact that I had this surgery and that things went wrong. That's in the past where I exercise no control. But then we have to learn to affect what we can control with courage. I can control my behaviours: how well I do my painful stretches and care for my wonky arm, and I can certainly control my attitude, but most importantly, I can control my perception of things (which will, in turn, affect my attitude and behaviours).

Before I get to controlling perceptions, be aware the tricky part isn't actually changing how we see things, but that earlier bit: knowing what's in our power to control. Does it makes sense to rally against powerful interests in order to shift energy consumption in order to save the planet? Is saving our habitat actually within our control? Likewise, in this situation, does contacting my MPP about the problems with the current health care system, which I've done, actually do a hill of beans to change anything? It's harder than it looks to have the wisdom to know the when to accept our lot and when to have the courage to fight for change. We have to take a chance and fight for what's right, yet not hang on to the outcome, not have any expectations that our actions will see results in our lifetime.

A recent interview with contemporary Stoic author, Massimo Pigliucci, sums it up well:
We should very much try to change things for the better, that’s the whole point of the Stoic discipline of action, and that discipline is connected to the virtue of justice. But we should also be rational about it, and understand that sometimes things go our way, and at other times they don’t. We have varying degrees of influence over external events, but the only things truly under our control are our judgments and actions, for which we are morally responsible.
My disposition leans towards fighting anyway, so I'm more likely to need to be reminded to accept those things so obviously outside my limits. It is what it is.... It is what it is....

To change our perception of things, we just need to be grateful for what we have and remind ourselves of those worse off than us. Regularly imagine the worst thing possible happening, and consider how you could cope with it, and then we'll be ready for anything.
No prospect of hardship comes to me new or unexpected I anticipated it all and have rehearsed it in the privacy of my mind....And so a wise person gets used to future misfortunes, and what other people make bearable by long suffering he makes bearable by prolonged thinking. (Seneca Letters from a Stoic 76)
I'm very good at preparing for the worst when it comes to big things. I had a new will drawn up last September and showed my kids where to find all the important documents, just in case. But it's the minor annoyances of life that we sometimes overlook and allow to build up until we're in a tizzy.

When stretching is painful, and I note an ounce of self-pity because I haven't prepared myself for the unexpected pain, then a quick mental image of Franco playing Ralston in 127 Hours can do the trick to help me get over myself and recognize how minuscule my troubles really are - and how much much worse they could be.

We're also advised to remind ourselves that if this were happening to an acquaintance, we wouldn't be so affected by it, so it's silly to be affected by it when it happens to us.
For example, when our neighbor's boy breaks a cup, or the like, we are presently ready to say, "These things will happen." Be assured, then, that when your own cup likewise is broken, you ought to be affected just as when another's cup was broken. Apply this in like manner to greater things. Is the child or wife of another dead? There is no one who would not say, "This is a human accident." but if anyone's own child happens to die, it is presently, "Alas I how wretched am I!" But it should be remembered how we are affected in hearing the same thing concerning others. (Epictetus The Enchiridion 26)
I know if it happened to another, I'd think, "It's unfortunate and frustrating, but it's not the end of the world, for heaven's sake!" This too shall pass. Just thinking like this, a little each day, affects our attitude towards things, makes us less upset at minor annoyances. And that in turn affects our behaviours, making us far more patient and understanding with one another.

If we can affect our perception of things, then we're well on our way to want what we have and not want what we don't, and actually be content for a moment - that is, when we can remember all this!
He who fails to obtain the object of his desire is disappointed, and he who incurs the object of his aversion wretched. If, then, you confine your aversion to those objects only which are contrary to the natural use of your faculties, which you have in your own control, you will never incur anything to which you are averse. But if you are averse to sickness, or death, or poverty, you will be wretched. Remove aversion, then, from all things that are not in our control, and transfer it to things contrary to the nature of what is in our control. (Epictetus The Enchiridion 2)
The sooner we can accept that some pain and suffering is part of life, and that death is coming for all of us, the sooner we can get on with things and enjoy each day.

And then we can use these seemingly unfortunate events to a greater purpose by using them for self-improvement, like bombarding parliament with letters of concern about the state of our ER departments, or, more to the point, by acclimatizing ourselves to greater troubles. Look how much I can tolerate!
With every accident, ask yourself what abilities you have for making a proper use of it. ....If you are in pain, you will find fortitude. If you hear unpleasant language, you will find patience. And thus habituated, the appearances of things will not hurry you away along with them.  (Epictetus The Enchiridion 10)
Aurelius predated Nietzsche's, "What doesn't kill you, makes you stronger" somewhat with this bit:
Everything which happens either happens in such wise as thou art formed by nature to bear it, or as thou art not formed by nature to bear it. If, then, it happens to thee in such way as thou art formed by nature to bear it, do not complain, but bear it as thou art formed by nature to bear it. But if it happens in such wise as thou art not formed by nature to bear it, do not complain, for it will perish after it has consumed thee. (Meditations 10)
This won't consume me. I was formed by nature to bear it!

So, that one day when my daughter changed my dressings and the blood shot out from my side a little like this:


I was a little traumatized that we had to catch it all in the sink - not just woozy, but made quite afraid to take the bandages off again. But I'm still healthy and active, living and breathing and using my arm a little more every day. And, like my dream reminded me, some people don't even have two hands to work with. I'm very much one of the lucky ones!


Then again, I lieu of reading the Stoics, it helps just to keep this song in mind:




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