Festival: A Stoic Mindset

When you're alone you should call this condition tranquility and freedom, and think of yourself like the gods; and when you are with many, you shouldn't call it a crowd, or trouble, or uneasiness, but festival and company, and contentedly accept it.

When I'm in public, I'm at a festival. It's a mindset, one that is hugely important to my daily stoic practice. In fact, festival is a personal rallying cry. It reminds me of everything that matters in my philosophy. Festival reminds me of what is in my control. Festival demands that I live in a state of attention. Festival pokes me and says, all these people are family. I haven't run across other stoics who promote the festival mindset specifically, though I'm sure it would fit naturally in their practice and may go by other names.

First, some background. I've dealt with overwhelming anxiety since middle school. Crowds, loud parties, football games, and such have never been my favorite environments. In fact, over time I built up quite a misanthropic view of public gatherings. I had to struggle for a long while (and keep up the good work) to learn a better way to think. That's why Epictetus' quote resonates so strongly with me. The festive approach to life has freed me to enjoy more of my time and more of the world.

You'll notice that Epictetus expects us to re-frame our circumstances.  You're not in a crowd, you're at a festival. Stoics believe in personal accountability for everything that is in our control. Our opinions are one of the categories that falls under our control. You can check out the first chapter of Epictetus' Handbook for more on that, or you can recall old Will Shakespeare's, there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. The much older Epictetus agreed. He said, People are not disturbed by things, but by the view they take of them.

We give a lot of grace to the people we're intentionally hanging out with. We've all been to an enjoyable party. Good friends having good times. Chances are, many of your pals were loud, maybe obnoxious, and yet you still had a great night. This is not because your friends are decent people who know how to party correctly. It's because your expectations were in line with partying.  

I was at a cocktail bar a month ago. I sat at the bar to read. Behind me, at least twenty five people were at tables being very loud constantly and Justin-Beiber-concert loud at random intervals. I wasn't concerned. I went to the bar expecting noise and I'd already said festival under my breath to keep my bearing. Half way into a second cocktail, my bartender came up and said, "you know, there's an engagement party going on directly behind you." I think he wanted to let me know why no one was taming the crowd. The info didn't change my already happy mood, but it lent some context. Now, the reason I'm sharing this is because about ten minutes later a couple on a date sat down at the bar next to me. As I transitioned to cocktail number three (I like cocktails with my Kindle reading) I noticed that my new neighbors were agitated. They were doing the whole, head turn and stare-at-the-loud-people-until-they-are-shamed thing that most of us have done ourselves at one time or another. I leaned over and said, "yeah, they're having an engagement party over there." The guy next to me replied, "oh, that's cool then," and they went back to their conversation and never seemed agitated again. That's how we operate. Oh, there's a reason? Fine. And the thing is, there is always a reason when it comes to humans. Maybe it's a foolish or horrible reason, but it's there. For Stoics the onus is on us to make the adjustment. We don't expect the world to be any different than it actually is. To keep my Epictetus quote streak rolling, let me add this one.

It is impossible that happiness, and yearning for what is not present, should ever be united.

I recently read one of those ubiquitous quote posters that are plastered on every website. It said, Don't get between my personality and my attitude because my personality is ME and my attitude depends on YOU  (emphasis, the poster). This statement should make any stoic cringe. Well, I suppose a good stoic wouldn't cringe...but you get what I'm saying. My attitude depends on me and only me. Final Epic quote, this one from chapter 28 of the Handbook.

If a person gave your body to a stranger you met on the way, you would certainly be angry. And do you feel no shame in handing over your mind to be confused and mystified by anyone who verbally attacks you? 

Here, Epictetus is addressing a personal attack. The guys in the corner of the bar cheering for a touchdown? They aren't even thinking of us. How much stranger that we take it personally.

Festival. The word reminds me that my attitude is a choice. It reinvigorates me when the chaos of the day starts to affect my mood. It reminds me that the Discipline of Action calls me to care about everyone.  Most importantly, it rescues my day from myself. Who would have thought that enjoying my day is more fun than not enjoying it? Developing a festive mind takes work, but it pays well.