Twenty-First Century Stoic — Stoic Transformation


This is the third and final essay, written by a Stoic, about what it means to practice an ancient philosophy in the modern world. (Read the first essay and the second essay.)

Zeno of Citium, the Greek philosopher who first formulated Stoicism in 300 B.C., said that as you advanced in your Stoic practice, you would be transformed in certain ways. He claimed, for example, that there would be a change in your dream life. For years after I started practicing Stoicism, though, I could detect no change in my dreams. And then, about a year ago, I had a dream that was indisputably Stoical.

In the previous essay in this series, I mentioned that I have been trying to withdraw from the "social hierarchy game" and that, as part of this effort, I have been trying to reduce the extent to which I engage in self-promotion in conversations and e-mails. In my Stoical dream, I was walking to meet a friend for lunch. While I walked, I thought about some good news I had just received: "It will be fun sharing this with my friend." But then I realized that my primary motive for sharing this news would be to make myself look good in the eyes of my friend. It amounted, in other words, to a fairly blatant form of self-promotion. "Better to keep the news to myself," I concluded.

That was when I awoke and realized, with some delight, that I had just had a dream in which I was putting my Stoic practice to work. In other words, my conscious practice of Stoicism had apparently succeeded in altering the subconscious portion of my mind that serves as screenwriter for my dreams. This phenomenon, although surprising, was only one of the surprising side-effects of my practice of Stoicism. Allow me to describe some of the others.

Life throws curveballs: your affairs are moving along splendidly when some obstacle is suddenly introduced. Maybe a windstorm strikes your home, and you are without power for a week. Maybe you are at the airport when it is announced that your flight is delayed for hours. Or maybe a routine medical examination reveals that you have a serious disease. Most people respond to such curveballs with disappointment and anger.

The practice of Stoicism, though, gives us tools for dealing with life's unpleasant surprises. It is important, say the Stoics, to keep in mind that however bad your situation is, it could almost certainly be worse. (In doing this, of course, we are engaging in negative visualization.) It is also important to keep in mind that, however difficult your life may be, there is almost certainly someone, somewhere who would love to be living your life. Along these lines, realize that a paraplegic is living the quadriplegic's dream.

But according to Stoic philosopher Seneca, the practice of Stoicism, besides preparing us for life's curveballs, can have the curious effect of making us wish that one of them would be thrown our way. To understand this phenomenon, we need to keep in mind that Stoics spend considerable time and energy developing their ability to respond to life's challenges. If life is kind to them, though, and never presents them with such challenges, Stoics can feel frustrated and might, as a result, find themselves wishing that a challenge would come their way.

Stoics resemble, in other words, a football player who has trained hard all season but has never been put in a game. This player and the unchallenged Stoic might both long for an opportunity to put their training to work.

As a result, if life does throw a curveball at a Stoic, instead of being disappointed and angry, he is likely to perk up: "Aha! A Stoic test! At last, Coach has put me in a game!" Meeting a predicament with this frame of mind changes everything. Consider again the situation in which people at an airport are waiting for an airplane that has been delayed. Many passengers will pout, complain, or engage in angry tirades, but the Stoic will instead devote his energy to figuring out how best to prevent this challenge from disrupting his tranquillity.

Life's curveballs also represent an opportunity for a Stoic to judge the extent to which he has succeeded in acquiring the character traits that he, as a Stoic, will have been trying to develop. Was he kind in a situation that called for kindness? Was he courageous in a situation that called for courage? If he ends up scoring well on a "Stoic test," he will be delighted, even though the test itself might have been quite unpleasant. Thus, a situation that for the other passengers will simply have been a bummer might for the Stoic be the occasion of a minor personal triumph.

In my own Stoic practice, I haven't found myself longing for life to bean me with a curveball — not yet, at any rate. I have, however, experienced the phenomenon of perking up on being thrown one. I have also gone out of my way to experience challenges that, while not on a par with the sort of challenges life can present, nevertheless provide me with a chance to practice my Stoic techniques for dealing with life's curveballs.

Along these lines, I have taken up competitive rowing, a sport that presents me with interesting albeit "artificial" challenges. It tests, for example, my self-discipline and perseverance, my ability to withstand both mental and physical discomfort, and on rare occasion, my courage. Such athletic challenges pale in comparison to, say, the challenge of being informed that one has a serious illness; at the same time, successfully dealing with these lesser challenges is doubtless good training for the curveballs I might experience in the remainder of my life.

Let me describe some of the other ways in which I have been transformed by the practice of Stoicism. In the previous essay, I asserted that if we withdraw from the social hierarchy game, it will have a profound effect on our material desires. I am evidence for the truth of this assertion. I have substantially (but by no means entirely) withdrawn myself from this game, and it has had a profound impact on my desire for "stuff."

Indeed, I have become dysfunctional as a consumer. Drag me to a mall, and I am unlikely to buy anything. To the contrary, I will probably respond by standing there, staring in astonishment at all the things for sale that I not only don't need and not only don't want, but can't even imagine myself wanting.

Along similar lines, I have lost the desire I once had to own a "desirable" car. I currently drive a 1997 Honda Civic that I bought used. I not only don't mind driving this car but have reached the curious stage at which I am convinced that the acquisition of a "cool car" would have at best zero impact on my happiness — meaning that it not only wouldn't make me happier but might even have the effect of making me less happy.

It is true, I realize, that some people will look down on me for being satisfied with such a car. Thanks to my withdrawal from the social hierarchy game, though, I no longer feel the need to win the approval of these individuals. In fact, if someone refuses to talk to me because of the car I drive, he is probably doing me a favor by shunning me: I suspect that I would have little to gain from conversation with such an individual.

My withdrawing from the social hierarchy game has also had another curious side-effect: besides changing how I relate to other people, it seems to have changed how they relate to me. Before becoming a Stoic, I assumed that the best way to befriend people was to do things calculated to win their admiration — in other words, to play the social hierarchy game with great skill. My subsequent experience, though, has led me to wonder whether the opposite is the case.

It is difficult to befriend someone who insults you or who clearly thinks of himself as socially superior to you. If you withdraw from the social hierarchy game, though, you will suppress both your insulting tendencies and your self-promotional tendencies. People will therefore come to regard you as "socially safe" — as an individual, that is, against whom they don't have to compete in the battle for position on the social hierarchy. Such social non-combatants will presumably be easier to talk to, easier to confide in, and even easier to befriend than an ardent social gamer would.

Practicing Stoicism is supposed to make our lives less irritating. I have found that it serves this function admirably, although I certainly wouldn't claim that it has eliminated the old sources of irritation from my life. In fact, it has introduced one entirely new source.

In the previous essay in this series, I explained how, by practicing insult pacifism, I was able to remove much of the sting from insults directed at me. I also discovered, though, that this defense wasn't perfect: on occasion, people's insults managed to pierce my Stoic defenses and get under my skin. On these occasions, I would find myself, hours later, still thinking about the event and what I should have said to my insulter. The cases in question even affected my sleep: at bedtime, I would succeed in pushing insult-related thoughts out of my mind, only to have them rush back in.

Then it dawned on me that, thanks to my practice of Stoicism, I was experiencing what might be called meta-irritation: besides being irritated by the insults, I was irritated that these insults had succeeded in irritating me! If I weren't a practicing Stoic, I would not have been plagued by meta-irritations; then again, I suspect that these irritations are insignificant in comparison to the additional irritation insults would cause me if I hadn't adopted Stoic insult-response strategies.

In connection with my discovery of meta-irritation, I should mention that practicing Stoicism has transformed me into an acute observer of myself. Thus, besides experiencing various emotions (such as feelings of irritation on being insulted), I observe the manner in which I experience those emotions (which observations may give rise to additional feelings of irritation). Besides having thoughts (about being insulted, for example), I pay attention to how I came to have those thoughts.

As a result of these last observations, I have become fully aware of how little control I have over what thoughts pop into my mind. (The mind that I own, like the cat I used to own, appears to have a mind of its own!) Unless I am careful, though, these seemingly random thoughts can end up determining how I spend my days and consequently how I spend my life.

This completes my nutshell description of Stoicism. It is, as I have explained, a philosophy of life that specifies what in life is most worth attaining and how best to pursue it. There are, to be sure, rival philosophies of life: Zen Buddhism is one of them, and turning to ancient philosophy, we find many others. Which philosophy works best for a person depends, I think, on his or her circumstances and personality.

If, as a result of reading the essays in this series, you end up choosing one of these other philosophies, I won't mind at all. I will instead feel that I have done my Stoic duty to make myself socially useful. It is far better, after all, that you live in accordance with some philosophy of life — even if it isn't Stoicism — than that you try to live, as most people do, with no philosophy of life at all.

(Image: detail from Hercules and the Hydra (1475), Antonio Pollaiolo)