Transcript for Good Fortune, Episode Eight: When We Stumble

Are you a Stoic Sage yet? Hahaha...I'm kidding, of course. You're not. I'm not. No one is. We're loaded with all the inconsistencies that make us human. We're petty, needy, dismissive, cruel, thoughtless, perhaps all these things within a single hour! So how do we start over? How do we reset, knowing that we were so embarrassingly wrong a minute ago, or yesterday, or for entire years of our life? How do we press on knowing we'll probably screw up again tomorrow? What do we do when we stumble?

Hi, I'm Matt Van Natta and this is Good Fortune. Today's questions:

  • How am I supposed to react when I screw up?

  • How can I stop blaming myself (should I stop blaming myself?) when the fact is I really did do something wrong?

  • And finally, what exercise can get me back into my Stoic practice?

Alright, let's get started.

[Raven Caws]

How am I supposed to react when I screw up?

Let's begin with a mindset to aim towards. Here's the beginning of Meditations 5:9:

"Not to feel exasperated, or defeated, or despondent because your days aren't packed with wise and moral actions. But to get back up when you fail, to celebrate behaving like a human --however imperfectly-- and fully embrace the pursuit you've embarked on."

That sounds healthy, right? Pick yourself up, dust off, and get going again. Yet I've been in places where my shame cuts deep. Where I can't forsee others ever forgiving me and I don't really think I deserve to forgive myself. What then?

If you are living out Stoicism, however imperfectly, you are a prokopton. Prokopton is a Greek word that's applied to Stoic students, though prokopton does not mean 'student.' It means, a 'person who is progressing.' So we are progressors pursuing moral progress; which is a very difficult task. We're likely to loose ground from time to time, take a step forward and then two back. This is natural, unfortunate, but natural. Of course, bad fortune born nobly is good fortune, so with that in mind, we have to begin viewing our failings as lessons and use what we learn about ourselves to readjust and carry on.

In the Discourses Book 3, Chapter 25, lines 1-4, Epictetus has this to say about our personal failures:

"Of the things that you initially proposed for yourself, consider which you have achieved and which you haven’t, and how it gives you joy to recall some of them and pain to recall others, and, if possible, try to recover even those that have slipped from your grasp. For those who are engaged in the greatest of contests shouldn’t flinch, but must be prepared also to take blows. For the contest that lies in front of us is not in wrestling or the pancration, in which, whether or not one meets with success, it is possible for one to be of the highest worth or of little, and by Zeus, to be most happy or most miserable; no, this is a contest for good fortune and happiness itself. What follows, then? In this contest, even if we should falter for a while, no one can prevent us from resuming the fight, nor is it necessary to wait another four years for the next Olympic Games to come around, but as soon as one has recovered and regained one’s strength, and can muster the same zeal as before, one can enter the fight; and if one should fail again, one can enter once again, and if one should carry off the victory one fine day, it will be as if one had never given in."

We are in a contest for the best things, the things that will allow us to flourish. And this is a contest that we can reenter whenever we're ready. Best yet, if we finally win, our past record gets wiped away. Meaning that true contentment banishes the ghosts of past failures. Not because we pretend we didn't harm others but because we can look the facts in the eyes and simply choose to do better. It's the hurting person, the one that can't overcome past mistakes who hides from the truth of who they've been and therefore continues to make the same mistakes. The flourishing individual is able to take up the hard work of facing others, acknowledge our mistakes, and repair the damage if possible. We need to follow Epictetus' advice, recover, regain our strength, muster our zeal, and begin again.

[Raven Caws]

How can I stop blaming myself (should I stop blaming myself) when the fact is I really did do something wrong?

Before we learn to stop blaming ourselves, let's recall why Stoics don't blame others. Here's the end of Chapter 5 of the Enchiridion:

"...whenever we are hindered or troubled or distressed, let us never 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."

It's not that other people don't do wrong, it's that they can't make us do wrong. It's our own actions that we control, so that's where we place our energy. The devil did not make me do it, I failed myself. So Epictetus says the uneducated blame others, we progressors blame ourselves, but the ones who really get it blame neither themselves nor others. What does he mean by that?

Some have interpreted Epictetus' final remark to be speaking of the perfect Stoic Sage, a mythic figure who never is at fault and therefore can not be blamed. I would like to propose a different and, I believe, more practical reading. In my view the still imperfect, but fully educated Stoic has realized and internalized that the same Stoic understanding which allows us to accept and pity the errors of other people can also and should also be applied to ourselves.

In Stoicism, moral failings are due to ignorance of a better way to act. All people honestly strive for what is expedient for them and if they choose wrongly, it's because they were ignorant of the better solution. To back this up we can again look to Epictetus.

Discourses Book 1, Chapter 18 is titled, 'That we ought not to be angry with the erring.' Here's the first few lines:

"If what the philosophers say is true, that in all people thought and action start from a single source, namely feeling--as in the case of assent the feeling that a thing is so, and in the case of dissent the feeling that it is not so, yes, and, by Zeus, in the case of suspended judgement the feeling that it is uncertain, so also in the case of impulse towards a thing, the feeling that it is expedient for me and that it is impossible to judge one thing expedient and yet desire another, and again, to judge one thing fitting, and yet to be impelled to another--if all this be true, why are we any longer angry with the multitude?--'They are thieves,' says someone, 'and robbers.'-- What do you mean by 'thieves and robbers?' They have simply gone astray in questions of good and evil. Ought we, therefore, to be angry with them, or rather pity them?"

Those opening lines concerning feeling, assent, dissent, judgement, and the like contain a quick rundown of Stoic psychology. So when Epictetus gets to "if all this be true, why are we any longer angry..." he's saying that accepting Stoicism's axioms concerning the human mind leaves no room for blame. We acknowledge that the offender could not have done any differently with the information and perspective that they had at the time. Instead of anger and offense, we are left with Stoic pity. It's an attitude that is free from anger and which is willing to engage with, and even assist the ignorant individual (through correction if possible, or simply through continued goodwill despite their offense). I suggest that it is essential that we apply that same Stoic pity towards our past selves.

You may be protesting that you can not pity your ignorance, because you knew better than to do what you did. And yes, in general, I suspect that all of us have the knowledge that rudeness, hatefulness, and bigotry are wrong. We understand that theft, and violence, and murder are bad. I have no doubt that most of us would accept these ideas. However, there is a difference between subscribing to a belief and embodying that belief. I used to shoplift as a young man. Not out of any need. Out of arrogance, for the sake of a thrill. I absolutely understood that theft was wrong. I was taught that, I could recite it, and I am certain that I would have protested if anything was taken from me. But in the end, I felt that taking something for myself was better than not doing so. My actions defined my true beliefs.

I'm not happy that I used to be that person, and it has been a very long time since I stole from another. Now I have a wider and deeper set of convictions, but I still dismiss them when it suits me. I've been bold enough to tell each of you to expect people to make mistakes and then let it go. But I still get angry at people from time to time. Why? Because I feel that acting on my anger will get me what I desire more quickly than acting Stoically would allow. I know better, but I don't believe better in that moment. In these moments I am displaying the same kind of ignorance that, hopefully, spurs me to be gracious to others. Those whose learning is complete blame neither themselves nor others. Can't we take pity on ourselves? Instead of lashing out with anger, or sulking in our disappointment, why not recognize that we are human and therefore fallible. Why not use our mistake as a lesson and instruct ourselves in better ways? Let's get back up when we fail, to celebrate behaving like a human --however imperfectly-- and fully embrace the pursuit we've embarked on.

[Raven Caws]

And finally, what exercise can get me back into my Stoic practice?

How do we rehabilitate our Stoicism? We write.

Writing was and is a Stoic philosophical exercise. Every line I read to you from Marcus Aurelius is part of a personal journal that he kept. It was never meant to be published. Each chapter was a reminder to himself of the wisdom he had learned from others. He was recalling these lessons to combat his own failings. When Marcus wrote about the need to be gracious to the jerks he met in court, he had just finished dealing with a bunch of jerks in court. The Meditations are not filled with original thoughts. The Emperor was recalling Stoic teachings in order to apply them to his own unique situation. We should all be doing this. We should be examining our failures, uncovering better ways to act, and reminding ourselves of those better ways daily. Writing provides a means of conversing with yourself, for both admonishment and praise.

I began in order to push myself to study and understand Stoicism. It is challenging to speak simply and clearly about a subject while still retaining the richness of the Stoic perspective. This constant practice of bringing old lessons back to mind and attempting to explain them has greatly enriched my life. Less publicly, I keep both a physical journal and a huge number of notes in the Evernote app. I keep the physical journal because the act of pen to paper writing commits thoughts to memory more readily than typing (that's just good science, look it up). I keep my Evernote journal because my phone is always with me, I can easily search through my notes, and I'd have to carry a library's worth of physical notebooks if I printed out all I had online.

Write about your philosophy. Recall your failures, find solutions, and commit both to paper. The next time you stumble you can look to see how you last recovered, and you can get over yourself that much quicker.

[Raven Caws]

Thank you for listening to episode eight and thank you for sending in episode ideas. I am definitely going to use many of them. Feel free to keep them coming, I have a special folder where I cut and paste every request so that I don't lose them.

Good Fortune episodes come out on the 1st and 3rd Thursday of the month. As always, visit for this podcast and my writings. There is a comment section on every post if you have something to share. You can subscribe to Good Fortune on my website or through iTunes. If you listen through iTunes I greatly appreciate reviews. I'm @goodfortunecast on Twitter. And you can also hear me on the Stoic podcast, Painted Porch at Speaking of twitter, a local stoic introduced herself to me and that got me wondering how many Portland, Oregon Stoics are out there. Let me know if you're in the area, I'd love to meet you.

The music is by Tryad off of their album Public Domain.

And finally, Always remember, 'misfortune born nobly is good fortune.' And therefore, I wish you all good fortune until next time.

[Raven Caws]