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

Stoic Progress: The Blame Game

"It is not circumstances themselves that trouble people, but their judgments about those circumstances. For example, death is nothing terrible, for if it were, it would have appeared so to Socrates; but having the opinion that death is terrible, this is what is terrible. Therefore, whenever we are hindered or troubled or distressed, let us not blame others, but ourselves, that is, our own judgments. The uneducated person blames others for their failures; those who have just begun to be instructed blame themselves; those whose learning is complete blame neither others nor themselves."

-Ch. 5 of Epictetus' Handbook

Measuring progress in a lived philosophy isn't necessarily simple. Stoicism is meant to establish a "good flow of life" in its adherents. For instance, a person who is living well will be calm in the face of adversity, if not joyful. They will also use their skills to benefit their community, and seek to expand the very idea of community as wide as possible. The impact of lived Stoicism should be apparent to all but, because of its holistic nature, can sometimes be difficult to point out, even to ourselves. We are often more comfortable with a simple checklist.

Unfortunately, when something can be itemized, it's often not very useful as a measure of progress. It is far too easy to turn to false indicators (number of books read, quotes memorized, or arguments won) as a gauge of success. Even a positive indicator can be misleading. I may maintain a calm demeanor all day, not because I stoically accept the world warts and all, but because I wasn't faced with any potential obstacles to my tranquility. Thankfully, every once in a while an ancient Stoic points to an indicator that is hard to fake.

The uneducated person blames others for their failures; those who have just begun to be instructed blame themselves; those whose learning is complete blame neither others nor themselves. 
Epictetus says that Stoics blame themselves for moral failures. That's pretty cut and dried. As long as I am honest with myself, I can review my weak moments and see who or what I blamed. Did I claim that, "the traffic made me angry"? Was my co-worker, "so frustrating"? If so, I wasn't approaching those events as a Stoic. If I instead told myself, "I shouldn't have become angry today in traffic," or,"why did I decide to frustrate myself just because Jake can't do his job," then I messed up in the moment, but I recovered. Taking the blame is, in itself, a sign of progress. If I go a step further and avoid any anger and frustration in the first place, all the better! By the way, Stoics don't blame themselves for the events that are happening to them. Traffic isn't my fault. We do, however, accept control over our reaction to life. Our reactions, based in our judgement of the situation, are firmly in the moral sphere.

So if you're trying to live the Stoic life, where are you placing blame? Epictetus says it's all on you. If you're like me, you might prefer to skip the blame game and move on to living blamelessly, but let's face it, that's not going to happen. It is not circumstances themselves that trouble people, but their judgments about those circumstances.  That is a fundamental truth of our philosophy. It takes daily work to internalize it. If we don't, we won't have a good flow of life, and there will be no one to blame but ourselves.