Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Stoicism and a Stiff Upper Lip

I took the opportunity to participate in an English university study on stoicism these last few weeks.  Read about the study here:

It's not quite what modern usage of the word had lead me to believe, which was all about stiff upper lips and emotionless detachment.  That said, these negative qualities would certainly come in handy if one was committed to the stoic way of life; such important qualities as not carrying what others think of you, not caring about the outcome by simply focusing on the intention, and other uncomfortable ways of detaching from the world.  Click here for a Wikipedia definition:

If at First you Don't Succeed...
As part of the study I published a blog post without regard to how it might be received.  I was deliberately provocative, truthful and somewhat unambiguous without naming names.  At the same time it was cathartic, and a painful moment in an otherwise pretty good working relationship was addressed, and immediately denounced.  (People actually read this crap?)

It takes a tremendous amount of stoicism, more than I have, to soldier on knowing your reputation with at least one person is that of a thief and a liar.  Stoicism suggests that your reputation is beyond your control.  I have come to learn there is truth to that, particularly in this age of anonymity.

Moving on...The Exercise
Simply, and early into the one week exercise, it became reminiscent of the eighties style "little engine that could" self-motivation that was all the rage at the time.  "If you can believe it, you can achieve it..." and other horseshit of that nature.  In this case the daily meditations enocuraged a detachment from the world, a shrug of one's shoulders at circumstance past, a resigned sigh when bad things happen, and an eschewing of pleasure simply for the sake of pleasure.  I kind of half agree with that until it was suggested that one should enjoy food simply because it brings nourishment, and for no other reason.  It isn't such a leap to imagine a Stoic might feel the same about wine, or sex.  There goes my Friday night.

Where is God in All of This?
Stoics may argue they don't need it, but what I felt was missing more than anything was a sense of the other.  An acknowledgement of forces greater than ourselves, of controlling mind in the Universe, of a higher purpose beyond self-mastery; of God.

Well into the thrice daily meditative exercises and readings there had still been no mention of love, in fact it took until day five of seven.  One can't get very far into a Christian prayer without stumbling all over the concept.  It is central to Christianity.  Daily meditations of the stoic "screw you" type are anathema to my daily prayer for my friends and enemies alike.  The stoic pretends he has no enemies.  The Christian acknowledges, prays for and forgives even those whose very skin crawls when he walks into the room.

The Result
Stoicism lacks the element of surrender, of risking it all emotionally, of confession and of forgiveness.  It lacks the risk of rejection, and the pain that goes along with it.  It preempts disappointment with an anticipatory worst-case outcome. 

In walking the straight and narrow line between the highs and lows of emotion, in avoiding personal pain, the Stoic by avoiding sadness is missing joy. He'll never know gratitude.

Worst of all, he'll never know peace.

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