Transcript of Good Fortune, Episode 15: Stoic Self-Care

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[Raven Caw]

"People try to get away from it all - to the country, to the beach, to the mountains. You always wish that you could too. Which is idiotic: you can get away from it anytime you like.
By going within."

(Meditations 4:3:1-5)

Today I'll be talking about finding refuge within ourselves. We live in a world that is filled with challenges and which can task our patience, our strength, and our sanity. And although we are often unable to disengage from the tasks before us, Stoicism promises that tranquility can still be ours if we know how to find it.

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

  • What does Stoicism advise, when I've had my fill of life's stresses?

  • How can I find personal harmony in a discordant world?

  • Why does Stoicism recommend brief and basic mental renewal?

Alright, let's get started...

[Raven Caw]

What does Stoicism advise, when I've had my fill of life's stresses?

This episode is focused on Meditations Book 4, Chapter 3. It's a chapter that first impacted me late in 2012 just a few weeks after Hurricane Sandy had devastated the East Coast of the United States. I had been sent to New York City by the American Red Cross to manage shelter teams. Shelter management can be difficult in the smallest of disasters, but in the wake of Sandy it was a trial for all involved. Before sleep, after waking, and in whatever downtime I could find, I had a copy of the Meditations as company. I can credit 4:3 as the best counsel I ever received during those weeks.

Again to the opener; 

"People try to get away from it all - to the country, to the beach, to the mountains. You always wish that you could too. Which is idiotic: you can get away from it anytime you like. By going within. Nowhere you can go is more peaceful - more free of interruptions - than your own soul. Especially if you have other things to rely on. An instant's recollection and there it is: complete tranquility. And by tranquility I mean a kind of harmony."

In my last weeks serving in NYC, I spent my evenings managing a shelter team on Staten Island and my days sleeping on a Naval vessel. The Red Cross and other groups were housed in ship's berthing since what little local hotel space was available needed to be left open for victims of the hurricane. If you've never been in ship's quarters, well, your personal area is a bed that is a bit roomier than a coffin. There is a curtain so that people don't watch you sleep, but all other space is shared. Therefore, privacy consists of laying in bed or having no guaranteed privacy at all. So for a few weeks, even my time off shift offered very little solitude. This set up allowed me plenty of time to practice "going within" as a primary search for tranquility since without was very often a loud, challenging place.

This "going within" did not consist of long stretches of personal meditation while laying in my bunk. It was momentary, an intentional return to the harmony I had already built up through long philosophical practice. As 4:3 says, "An instant's recollection and there it is: complete tranquility." It's a basic Stoic tenet that harmony isn't found by arranging your environment, but instead in how you arrange your mind. If we had the consistently healthy mind of a Stoic Sage then we we would never be overwhelmed by life since we'd always be equal to the task at hand. But we're human. We need breaks. So Marcus says to, "Renew yourself. But keep it brief and basic." That brief, basic renewal can be found by returning our mind to the Stoic perspective of the world.

[Raven Caw]

How can I find personal harmony in a discordant world?

Marcus is searching for what he calls "complete tranquility," which he goes on to define as a "kind of harmony." It's important that he qualified this tranquility that he was seeking. Harmony denotes both engagement and movement. One harmonizes with something over the course of time. As we visualize Stoic tranquility we shouldn't think of an escape from our tasks, like a solitary relaxing hour in a hot tub. No, it's more like the flow experienced by an artisan lost in her work or the pleasure found in undertaking meaningful work. The Emperor felt out of step in life's dance. What caused this dissonance? Complaints.

"What's there to complain about?" Marcus asks. The expected answer is, nothing. But no. Instead he lists four categories of possible complaint: the misbehavior of others, our "assignment's from the world," our body, and our reputation. He then goes on to undermine those complaints. To wipe them out with a Stoic perspective.

For instance, to disarm complaints about the behavior of others, Marcus reminds himself of a few core Stoic beliefs:

"What's there to complain about? People's misbehavior? But take into consideration:

  • that rational beings exist for one another;

  • that doing what's right sometimes requires patience;

  • that no one does the wrong thing deliberately;

  • and the number of people who have hated and fought and died and been buried.

...and keep your mouth shut."

Here we're confronted with Stoic thoughts that, if accepted, disarm all complaints against others. This is the singular approach of 4:3. Marcus looks at his complaining mind and lists reasons that such complaints are unwarranted. Remember, "Nowhere you can go is more peaceful - more free of interruptions - than your own soul. Especially if you have other things to rely on. An instant's recollection and there it is: complete tranquility." What are the other things we have to rely on? The Stoic orientation to the world. It's the Stoic mindset that is being returned to through, "an instant's recollection." It's that mindset which returns us to harmony.

I expanded on the Stoic approach to difficult people in Episode 7, When People Are Obstacles. So I won't elaborate on Marcus' words here. I just want to point to his final advice, "...and keep your mouth shut." If the Emperor was expecting to perfectly rest in Stoic teachings, there would have been nothing left to speak about. And yet he tosses this final admonition at himself. I find that to be very human. It can be hard to keep from complaining about others. Sometimes the best you can do is keep your mouth shut.

Next. "Or are you complaining about the things the world assigns you? But consider two options: Providence or atoms. And all the arguments for seeing the world as a city." Throughout the Meditations Marcus reminds himself that that no matter the state of the universe, living according to virtue is the best path. For instance, this portion of 9:28:

"One way or the other: atoms or unity. If it's God, all is well. If it's arbitrary, don't imitate it." 

Third. "Or is it your body? Keep in mind that when the mind detaches itself and realizes its own nature, it no longer has anything to do with the ordinary life - the rough and the smooth, either one. And remember all you've been taught - and accepted - about pain and pleasure." Here we're reminded of Stoic indifference. Neither pain not pleasure are good or bad, they simply exist. Neither can affect our moral purpose. We can remain virtuous no matter the state of our body.

Finally. "Or is it your reputation that's bothering you? But look at how soon we're all forgotten. The abyss of endless time that swallows it all. The emptiness of all those applauding hands. The people who praise us - how capricious they are, how arbitrary. And the tiny region in which it all takes place. The whole earth a point in space - most of it uninhabited. How many people there will be to admire you, and who they are."

As emperor, Marcus lived a life of fame. His face was on money. People fawned over him to gain favor, and likely talked behind his back just as often. The Stoic Seneca once wrote, "away with the world's opinion of you - it's always unsettled and divided." Who cares what a person thinks of us if what we are doing is right? 

During the hurricane aftermath, I had multiple confrontations with a city official. This person kept providing free food to a shelter I worked at. Thing was, every single meal he brought had ham mixed in and a few of the families I served were Muslim and Jewish. This meant that a small group had to purchase food for themselves while the rest got to save up to deal with the disaster aftermath. I explained this inequity to the official and yet the ham kept coming. So I refused to serve his donated food. This led to a threat on my continued service. I had a moment where I wanted to relent, but I reminded myself that my job was to serve all my clients justly, it was someone else's job to decide if I stayed in my position. So I waited for food that everyone could eat. And, thankfully, it did come and I stayed at the shelter until it officially closed.

When ever I felt stressed in that time period I returned to myself through Stoic thoughts. Concerning equitable food choices: doing what's right sometimes requires patience. Concerning belligerent government officials: no one does the wrong thing deliberately. Concerning my standing in my organization: the people who praise us - how capricious they are, how arbitrary. I spent my time satisfied and in harmony.

[Raven Caw]

Why does Stoicism recommend "brief and basic" mental renewal?

"So keep getting away from it all - like that. Renew yourself. But keep it brief and basic. A quick visit should be enough to ward of all <...> and send you back ready to face what awaits you."

And send you back ready to face what awaits you. The Stoic response to a stressful situation is to take a breath then return to the task at hand with a renewed perspective. We don't avoid the struggle, but within the struggle we seek to thrive instead of wither.

Seneca contrasts the Stoic embrace of struggle with the rival Epicurean philosophy in On Benefits 4.13. "You Epicureans take pleasure in making a study of dull torpidity, in seeking for a repose which differs little from sound sleep, in lurking beneath the thickest shade, in amusing with the feeblest possible trains of thought that sluggish condition of your languid minds which you term tranquil contemplation, and in stuffing with food and drink, in the recesses of your gardens, your bodies which are pallid with want of exercise; we Stoics, on the other hand, take pleasure in bestowing benefits, even though they cost us labor, provided that they lighten the labors of others; though they lead us into danger, provided that they save others, though they straiten our means, if they alleviate the poverty and distresses of others."

Stoicism loves labor; not work for the sake of coin, but the struggle of being human; particularly if we are struggling to make the world a place where all people can flourish. Stoic mental renewal is meant to return us to a healthy philosophical perspective so that we may rapidly reengage with the world as it is in the hope of making it better.

"So keep this refuge in mind: the back roads of your self. Above all, no strain and no stress. Be straightforward. Look at things like a man, like a human being, like a citizen, like a mortal."

I love that phrase, "the back roads of your self." The Stoic refuge isn't the walled garden of the Epicurean, it's a series of well worn paths that are leading somewhere. Marcus is choosing to avoid the strain and stress of the highway not by making a pit stop but by taking a different and better mental road. This is Stoic renewal. It's not a vacation from our problems. It's a reminder that we are both capable and willing to engage with the world. We have to trust ourselves. If we've been laying a Stoic foundation; realizing what is and is not under our control, what is or is not worth pursuing, then we don't need to retreat when things seem tough. We need to take a breath. We need to pause and remember our better self. Then we can reengage with life as that better self.

[Raven Caw]

Thank you for listening to episode fifteen of Good Fortune. Good Fortune can be found on iTunes, Stitcher, SoundCloud, and many other places. If you are willing to leave reviews on those services, they are always appreciated. Along with that, I would also appreciate reviews of The Good Fortune Handbook. If you find it useful, please take a moment to let others know.

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 Caw]