Grilling

by Tom Swift

If a man has frequent intercourse with others either for talk, or drinking together, or generally for social purposes, he must either become like them, or change them to his own fashion. For if a man places a piece of quenched charcoal close to a piece that is burning, either the quenched charcoal will quench the other, or the burning charcoal will light that which is quenched.

-Epictetus, The Discourses (3.16, 1-2)

During shelter-in-place free time, I have been trying to learn about stoicism. This was not a conscious decision so much — the world presented opportunities and those opportunities stirred my spirit. It would be overstating my studies to date, but I guess you could say some of those I associate with lit a flame near this here piece of charcoal.

Stoicism, an ancient school of philosophy founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium, taught that virtue was the highest good. Those who are wise live in harmony with the divine Reason (also identified as Fate and Providence) that governs all things in nature. The aim is to be more or less indifferent to good fortune as well as unexpected pain. The idea goes that events themselves have no bearing on us but rather it is our judgments about those events that do. We have control over our judgements. That is, we can choose to see good in, and make use of, every act or event. A stoic would say not only should one tolerate adversity and hardship but, in fact, one should love it.

Very possibly, then, the current moment is one in which the stoics were especially well suited to speak.

The above quote is otherwise a curious choice from which to try to draw wisdom while in quarantine — when your choice is, more or less, to spend time with no one at all.

Yet even during a pandemic, I am constantly making choices about what influences I allow into my sphere — and there is never a bad time to evaluate those. In fact, maybe there is no better time than when you are trying to stay physically well despite the presence of a highly contagious virus and mentally fit despite the upheaval of normality. If a pandemic is good for anything, it gives one time for self-reflection.

The news is a big pitfall for me — especially political news. On one hand, I feel it’s something I should follow. And, frankly, it’s something I want to follow. The election this November is eminently important — more important than any in our lifetimes, in my view. We have learned too well these past weeks and months how much our leaders matter. On the other hand, learning about staggering personal and political failings — and the effects of those failings — seldom lights me up in the same way that this 2,000-year-old philosophy has of late. Often the latest developments from the Trump White House do nothing less than “quench” my spark.

Willful ignorance. A thoughtful stoic I Zoomed with last week testified to the merits of choosing to consume less information, certainly if you know that information will stoke the coils of your ire. Seneca is one stoic who spoke to this: “It is not to your benefit to see and hear everything,” he said, “Many injuries ought to pass over us; if you ignore them, you get no more injury from them. You want to be less angry? Ask fewer questions.”

The idea is that you can’t control it, or effect it, and it does you harm so it would be best to tune it out and then go on and do your work.

Stoicism, to the extent this novice can make general pronouncements, is largely about this sort of question: it’s about control — about recognizing what you can control (how you live) and what you cannot (most everything else). Then living that out as best you can.

I wrestle with a fear of passivity — that by not saying anything I may be saying something. Yet, goodness knows, if I could control Trump, if I had any influence at all, by now I would have exerted it. (Specifically would have given him at least a modicum of compassion, a dose of humility, and definitely a respect for the objective truth.) There seems to be wisdom in not voluntarily subjecting oneself to things that make one feel less alive.