Indifference made the Difference

Last week I spent several evenings as Sheltering Operations Manager for the San Diego American Red Cross. That means I was the Headquarters level contact between the volunteers in the field and everyone who supports their efforts. The shelter had a small population, so all in all, the evenings weren't that busy. However, there was one night that I started to feel a lot of anxiety. From 7pm-9pm on Wednesday I had no way to contact the shelter. I saw no news as bad news. 

I had three numbers to call if I needed to talk to the shelter. One was a Red Cross provided mobile phone, the others were volunteers' personal cells. From seven to nine I called each number four times and received no answer. Now, I didn't have to contact the shelter with important information at the time. This was a, "hey, how's it going out there," call. Still, no communication between the field and HQ is a bad thing and around 7:45 I started to feel really anxious.

The anxiety was being created by a number of thoughts. First, was I doing all I could do? I take my role seriously. I don't want to be the one who drops the ball. I thought about driving out to the shelter to check up to visit the site, which was in the mountains an hour East of San Diego. Second, I was a bit fearful for the shelter residents. The shelter was opened because of a very large wildfire. Had a new one popped up? Were they evacuating to another location? This thought was pretty ridiculous since we don't choose shelter locations that are in fire paths, but hey, maybe things went wrong? Third, what if the evening shift hadn't arrived? Were our clients alone out there? Here I had passed into madness. The day shift would never leave a shelter without a replacement, and the day shift shelter manager was literally our most experienced Red Crosser. Still, the thought was there and I felt all the physical hallmarks of nervousness, up to breaking out in a sweat.

I'm sure any Stoic reading this is saying, "Matt buddy, what are you doing to yourself?" I know! I'm supposed to win the battle against these thoughts. What can I say, they crept in when I was distracted. I had to fight a defensive battle. I practiced Stoic Triage. What is in my control? What is not in my control? Of the three main thoughts running through my head, the only thing I could control was the first one. Was I doing the best job I could do? I was. I chose to push a little harder to assure myself of this. I checked some sources to make sure I hadn't missed any important information and I texted some people to let them know what was up. I also developed a plan to send someone out to check on the shelter if necessary. All the other thoughts were out of control, so I threw them away.

Stoics are indifferent to things outside their control (ideally). Burning emotional energy on imaginary events is not productive for me or anyone else. My duty was to do my job well. So I did. New perspective lead to a calm, productive night. 

Oh, and the Red Cross phone's ringer was mute while the personal cells were out of earshot. I received that info from the shelter around nine.  The volunteers and shelter clients had been playing cards and eating popcorn for the past two hours. Good thing I worried, right?

So that was one of the battles of my week. I let a situation become stressful, but was able to regain a reasonable mindset once I recognized it. Practice makes the prokopton!*

Thus in life also the chief business is this: distinguish and separate things, and say, "Externals are not in my power: will is in my power. Where shall I seek the good and the bad? Within, in the things which are my own." But in what does not belong to you call nothing either good or bad, or profit or damage or anything of the kind.
-Epictetus, Discourses Book 2, Chapter 5

*Yes, I ended with a Stoic joke. I'm a dork like that. Prokopton = Stoic student/practitioner

Ultrasounds, Superstition, and the Bitch Named Fortune

My daughter isn't growing at a "normal" rate. My wife and I learned that fact during an ultrasound in the 19th week. This meant we had to wait a month, until May 16th, to find out if our baby's small stature was just a matter of being small or if it was a matter of true concern. The night before the most recent ultrasound I happened to read Chapter 14 of Epictetus' Handbook that begins,

It is foolish to wish that your child, your wife, and your friends should live forever, for you are wishing for things to be in your power which are not, and wishing for what belongs to others to be your own.

I was left to decide if stumbling on that line really sucked or not.

I almost stopped reading the Handbook the second I realized what chapter I was in. There was some honest superstition bubbling up in my heart. It isn't a simple task to dwell on death in the best of times. Here I was, already aware that the next day I would hold my breath until I saw the first flutter of my daughter's heart or kick of her leg, being reminded that I had zero control of the outcome. It felt like reading Epictetus' words would tempt fate. I stared at the ceiling for a moment and Seneca came to mind.

...always take full note of Fortune's habit of behaving just as she pleases, treating her as if she were actually going to do everything it is in her power to do.

At that moment, Fortune seemed like quite the bitch. Of course, there was no plot against me, Christy, or our child. I was living out a Narrative Fallacy, pretending that chance events were meant to be lined up and viewed as the movie of my life. It felt like facing reality would bring about a tragedy. I can't say I reasoned myself through this obstacle, but I did get beyond it. I told myself that I was on the verge of practicing "The Secret" and that thought disgusted me enough to get back on track.

We attended the appointment. My daughter's heart is beating just fine, though we are far from out of the woods. The specifics of the most recent ultrasound were not a glowing report, but I was able to watch her wiggle around and that was wonderful. But now, once again, there is another month of waiting and I've found the other side of magical thinking...the desire to worry.

Worrying is useless. I don't control the future. In addition, whatever future I conjure up in my mind has no true bearing on what's to come. But it can feel wrong not to worry. Worry is an investment of energy and I want to be able to pour energy into the situation, even if it's an illusion. What's worse, not worrying can feel like not caring.

My daughter matters to me. This should go without saying but Stoicism can easily be misunderstood. Like every other community, we have a specialized vocabulary that requires a lot of context to properly understand. For instance, we call the things outside our control, indifferents. In a nutshell, nothing outside myself can affect whether I make a moral choice, so it is morally indifferent. The term radiates from the viewpoint of my individual self. That said, I am not meant to be indifferent to indifferents. Epictetus himself says I, "should not be unmoved, like a statue," but I should react as a human, ideally as the best human I can be. Still, accepting the limits of my control can feel like a betrayal to my family. Worrying for the sake of worrying feels better sometimes. It's not rational to think that way, but it's human. The thing is, it's so much easier to practice Stoicism when there are no stakes involved.

The burden of the Stoic mindset is that true Stoicism is not a cloistered philosophy. The world is wrong to believe we turn our backs on emotion. We are meant to engage fully with the world. This requires a consistent, disciplined approach to our environment that develops into a radical, as in root, change of perspective concerning what truly matters. And I do believe that putting all my energy into things I can control is the best possible course of action. So where does that leave me?

I can be a good husband; emotionally available, willing to be helpful, carrying my share of burdens. I can be a good father; preparing our home and preparing my mind and heart for the addition of an amazing daughter. I can be attentive to the things I truly control.

I suppose now is as good a time to wrap up as any, these thoughts won't end for me anytime soon. I just wanted to share what I was feeling at this moment. Sometimes we write about living and, because we're talking in general terms, our words make life sound simple. It isn't. It's a struggle. It can be a joyful struggle if done well. Still, life demands effort. That's all.

We must invest our hopes not in the things that happen, but in our capacities to face them as human beings.
-Keith Seddon