Things don't always go according to plan....
Hi. This is Good Fortune and I'm your host, Matt Van Natta. Today's questions, why Good Fortune and what's with that raven? Stoic podcast, huh, well what sort of Stoic podcast? And finally, I want a boisterous crowd to shut up and go away, how can Stoicism help me with this? Alright, let's get started!
So this is it, episode one of a new Stoic podcast. Once again, I'm Matt Van Natta and I started blogging at ImmoderateStoic.com in 2012, just a year after I started practicing Stoicism in earnest. Since then, my writing has been featured in a variety of places incuding the websitesof Stoicism Today and The Spiritual Naturalist Society. Stoicism Today also included me in their book of Selected Writings. Additionally, I'm a co-host of the stoic podcast, Painted Porch. I'm also a husband, a father, and a newly minted Oregonian. I just got my driver's license this week.
So why title this project Good Fortune? It comes from a favorite Stoic quote. The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius was a practicing Stoic. He kept a personal journal about that journey and it has stayed with us unitl this very day. It's usually titled simply, "Meditations.' In the meditations Aurelius says, 'Misfortune, born nobly, is good fortune.' To Stoics, there isn't really any bad or good fortune in the world, what happens is simply what happened. It's our personal judgements about events that make things appear good or bad. Aurelius wanted to stop judging events and, instead, judge his own response to events. Would he shut down at the first sign of an obstacle, or adapt and press on? Would he waste his life fearing events that were out of his control, or focus on living with excellence no matter what came his way? "Misfortune, born nobly is good fortune." It's a very short phrase, that illustrates an important facet of the Stoic view of life. I picked the title Good Fortune because this podcast will be focused on understanding and applying the Stoic orientation to life, so that each of us can learn to live in a state of constant good fortune.
I promised I'd explain the raven as well. I stared at that raven so much during the past months I feel it deserves a name, maybe I'll call her Fortuna? Anyway, the raven is there because ravens are often considered ill omens. The ancient Stoics believed in omens and divination. There are a variety of reasons they took this view, too many to go into right now. Let' s just accept that the Stoics believed that certain signs could lead us to knowledge of what was to come. In the Enchirideon, which is a handbook composed of notes from the Stoic teacher Epictetus' lectures, Chapter 18 specifically addresses omens and ravens. It ends saying, "...but for me every portent is favorable, if I so wish; for whatever the outcome be, it is within my power to derive benefit from it." So omens were neither good or bad. They're just road signs for life. No matter the signs, how we travel the road remains up to us. You can see how closely alligned Chapter 18 is with Marcus Aurelius' point of view.
Let me be clear, I don't believe in divination and we will not be reading the stars on this podcast. I enjoy the sentiment expressed in chapter 18 even though I don't make my decisions based on what birds do or do not do in my presense.
Enough about all that. What sort of Stoic podcast is this? Well, I won't be doing interviews. If you want those listen to Painted Porch over at PaintedPorch.org, there's great stuff there. As a cohost, I'm biased, but I'm right. I will also be avoiding delving deep into the nooks and crannies of Stoic philosophy. There will be explanations of Stoic thinking, and at times some technical points will most likely be made, but Good Fortune is about practical, actionable Stoicism. My ideal is that every episode clearly elaborates on the Stoic view of the world. How do we view insults? What's the proper reaction to a traffic jam? Should I be politically active? I want to uncover the Stoic view or views of everyday events and follow up with practices that can help us adopt and maintain that Stoic outlook.
Now, an offshoot of the 'what sort of Stoic podcast' question is 'what sort of Stoicism' is going to be presented? My goal is to be accessible to anyone with an interest in Stoicism. In fact, you might just be interested in general self-help, lifehacking sort of stuff. I will always be speaking about Stoicism, as a Stoic, but all ears are welcome. And your voice is welcome too, through immoderatestoic.com as well as social media. So, what kind of Stoicism will be presented here? Here's a description of Stoicism penned (quilled?) by the Roman Stoic, Seneca, "No school has more goodness and gentleness; none has more love for human beings, nor more attention to the common good. The goal which it assigns to us is to be useful, to help others, and to take care, not only of ourselves, but of everyone in general and of each one in particular." Stoicism, properly practiced, lifts people up and draws them closer together. That's the Stoicism I hope to understand better and practice daily and that is the Stoicism I will be presenting here.
I also want to keep things short. So I think I've said enough about what Good Fortune is meant to be, let's move on to the final question.
I want a boisterous crowd to shut up and go away, how can Stoicism help me with this?
Ah the crowd...how often you have annoyed me. Some of you may be blessed with a natural love of humanity at its loudest and most tightly packed. The rest of you have probably shared my dismay when surrounded by an unexpected throng of revelers. Well. I am pleased to report that Stoicism offers a solution, however, like most every Stoic solution, it involves a change, not in others, but within ourselves.
"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."
So you can see what Epictetus did there, basically he switched out some words, but it's not simply wordplay! He's re-framing the situation from a random crowd to a festival. Now I've written about this quote a lot, in fact I made a video about this same lesson. The Festival Mindset is an idea that is very important to me, because I've been very anxious in my life, especially in social situations and I've found this one word, "festival," to be supremely important in overcoming a lot of that anxiety. Don't think that Epictetus is just advocating for wordplay. Within the word, "festival," is an entire mindset that, if embraced, really does make dealing with people easier. We've all been to a festival that we've wanted to go to; a party, a concert, somewhere where we were among our people, we were doing what we wanted to do, and it was fun. The fact is, when we're at those sort of events we tend to give a lot of grace to the people around us. The loudness doesn't seem as loud, or at least as annoying, the jostling is taken in stride, whatever it is that's going on, if it's in the spirit of the festival, great! The problem, of course, is when we're somewhere we don't want to be or weren't expecting to be. I'll tell you that I don't watch a lot of American football, never have. Because of that, it's so far removed from my thinking process that it never dawns on me that I might go out at night to a place that is showing a football game and will be crowded and loud. Now, that's all on me. It's not hard to know what night football's happening and it's not hard to know which of the places I visit have multiple televisions. But that doesn't change the fact that it's pretty easy to get annoyed at people when they are interrupting whatever it is that you want to do. That's where Festival comes in.
I have, for the past couple of years, made it a point to say rather consistently Festival, the actual word, to myself whenever I'm out in a crowd. I have a story I've used to illustrate this in the past. For whatever reason, I have a habit of going out to read at bars. Which is a little weird. I mean, I just want a cocktail and a nice book, but it can look odd to be sitting at a barstool where everyone else is having fun and be the one flipping through a book. But whatever, I'm used to being considered weird and I've given up long ago on what other people think about that. But still, I'm going to a loud place to do something that is inherently quiet.
So I'm at a bar with book in hand, sat down to order my cocktail, and couldn't help by notice a particularly loud party going on behind me. It didn't annoy me. As I said, I've gotten pretty good at putting myself in the right mindset before going out but it was very loud and distracting. So much so that the bartender began coming up and telling patrons a little bit about that group. When he came around to me he said, "Hey buddy, just so you know, the table behind you is part of an engagement party." Now I was already in a good mood, but that context was important. It made people seem less obnoxious that they were celebrating an engagement than if they were just really drunk and really loud.
Now this particular event stuck in my head because a little bit latter a couple came into the bar and sat next to me and they were obviously distracted by the group behind us. The guy would turn and stare people down and then the woman would do the same. Then they would sort of whisper to each other. They were obviously annoyed. When a natural pause in there conversation came up I turned to them and said, "Hey, just so you know, that's an engagement party back there." And they said..."Oh, that's cool," and for the entire rest of the night it was obvious that the were no longer annoyed by the group!
This is what Epictetus wants us to do in all situations. Decide we're at a big party and that everyone around us is in our company and then contentedly accept it. There's another standard Stoic quote, also from Epictetus,
"It is impossible that happiness and yearning for what is not present should ever be united."
If you want it to be quite when it isn't, you're not going to be content and that's unfortunate because it's possible (at least in most situations) to change your mind about what you want. So one last time, "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."
Ok. So that's episode one of Good Fortune. In future episodes, instead of just throwing one last point at you, the entire podcast will be about the mindset that supports the week's practice and then, probably a more expanded practice than this one simple quote. But hey, I had a lot to pack into this episode. Obviously you've found Good Fortune somewhere. Perhaps though iTunes or my website ImmoderateStoic.com? In any case, if you want to keep up with the action follow me through the website, iTunes, the Immoderate Stoic Facebook Page, or on Twitter @goodfortunecast. And of course you can always listen to me on Painted Porch at paintedporch.org. It's a fine Stoic podcast if I do say so myself. Shoutout to Tryad and their album Public Domain which provided the music that I took a sample from. And finally, always remember, 'misfortune born nobly is good fortune.' And therefore, I wish you all good fortune until next time.