Tag: Enchridion

It is the child within us that trembles before death

So said Plato in his Phaedo. I’ve just returned from a holiday, much of which was dominated by finding out that a good friend of mine had passed away. It was a huge shock.

A few days later, author Austin Kleon sent out a newsletter noting that a few people he particularly admired had also died, and linked to a post about checking in with death. In it, he quotes advice from a pediatrician who works with patients in palliative care:

Be kind. Read more books. Spend time with your family. Crack jokes. Go to the beach. Hug your dog. Tell that special person you love them.

These are the things these kids wished they could’ve done more. The rest is details.

Oh… and eat ice-cream.

Alastair McAlpine

Despite my grandmother dying last year, I was utterly unprepared for the death of my friend. I had thought that by reading Stoic philosophy every day, and having a memento mori next to my bed, that I was somehow in tune with death. I really wasn’t.

I shed many tears for the first couple of days after hearing the news. While I was devastated by the loss of a good friend, I was also affected by the questions it raised about my own mortality.

I’m thankful for the strong support network of family and friends that have helped me with the grieving process. One friend in particular has a much healthier relationship with death than me. They said that they’ve come to see such times in their life as a useful opportunity to re-assess whether they’re on the right course.

That makes sense. I don’t want to waste the rest of the time I have left.

Some have no aims at all for their life’s course, but death takes them unawares as they yawn languidly – so much so that I cannot doubt the truth of that oracular remark of the greatest of poets: ‘It is a small part of life we really live.’ Indeed, all the rest is not life but merely time.

Seneca

Some people seem to pack several lifetimes into their short time on earth. Others, not so much.

When I studied Philosophy as an undergraduate, I was always puzzled by Aristotle’s mention of Solon in the Nichomachean Ethics. He thought events and actions after a person’s death could affect their ‘happiness’.

On reflection, I think it’s a way of saying that the effect that someone has during their time on earth ⁠— for example, as a teacher — outlasts them. Their lives can be viewed in a ‘happy’ or ‘unhappy’ light based on how things turn out.

When someone close to you dies before they reach old age, we also mentally factor-in the happiness they could have experienced after they passed away. However, after the initial shock of them no longer being present comes the realisation that they (and you) wouldn’t have been around forever anyway.

Back in 2017, Zan Boag, editor of New Philosopher magazine, interviewed Hilde Lindemann, Professor of Philosophy at Michigan State University. In a wide-ranging interview, she commented:

Premature death is a tragedy, but I don’t think death at the end of a normal human life span should be met with anger and indignation. We humans can only take in so much, and in due season it will be time for us all to leave

Hilde Lindemann

As a husband and father, perhaps the hardest teaching from the Stoic philosophers around death comes from Epictetus in his Enchiridion. He expresses a similar thought in several different ways, but here is one formulation:

If you wish your children, and your wife, and your friends to live for ever, you are stupid; for you wish to be in control of things which you cannot, you wish for things that belong to others to be your own… Exercise, therefore, what is in your control.

Epictetus

There are some things that are in my control, and some things that are not. Epictetus’ teachings can be reduced to the simple point that we should be concerned with those things which are under our control.

Marcus Aurelius, whose Meditations we should remember were designed as a form of practical philosophical journal, also mentioned death a lot.

Do not act as if you had ten thousand years to throw away. Death stands at your elbow. Be good for something while you live and it is in your power.

Marcus Aurelius

I think the best thing to take from the experience of losing someone close to us other is to begin a life worth living right now. Not putting off for the future right action and virtuous living, but practising them immediately.

It’s certainly been a wake-up call for me. I’ll be reading even more books, giving my family more hugs, and standing up for the things in which I believe. Starting now.

Even in their sleep men are at work

For today’s title I’ve used Marcus Aurelius’ more concise, if unfortunately gendered, paraphrasing of a slightly longer quotation from Heraclitus. It’s particularly relevant to me at the moment, as recently I’ve been sleepwalking. This isn’t a new thing; I’ve been doing it all my life when something’s been bothering me.

When I tell people about this, they imagine something similar to the cartoon above. The reality is somewhat more banal, with me waking up almost as soon as I get out of bed and then getting back into it.

Sometimes I’m not entirely sure what’s bothering me. Other times I do, but it’s a combintion of things. In an article for Inc. Amy Morin gives some advice, explains there’s an important difference between ‘ruminating’ and ‘problem-solving’:

If you’re behind on your bills, thinking about how to get caught up can be helpful. But imagining yourself homeless or thinking about how unfair it is that you got behind isn’t productive.

So ask yourself, “Am I ruminating or problem-solving?”
If you’re dwelling on the problem, you’re ruminating. If you’re actively looking for solutions, you’re problem-solving.

Amy Morin

Morin goes on to talk about ‘changing the channel’ which can be a very difficult thing to do. One thing that helps me is reading the work of Stoic philosophers such as The Enchiridion by Epictetus, which begins with some of the best advice I’ve ever read:

Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.

The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others. Remember, then, that if you suppose that things which are slavish by nature are also free, and that what belongs to others is your own, then you will be hindered. You will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you. Further, you will find fault with no one or accuse no one. You will do nothing against your will. No one will hurt you, you will have no enemies, and you not be harmed.

Aiming therefore at such great things, remember that you must not allow yourself to be carried, even with a slight tendency, towards the attainment of lesser things. Instead, you must entirely quit some things and for the present postpone the rest. But if you would both have these great things, along with power and riches, then you will not gain even the latter, because you aim at the former too: but you will absolutely fail of the former, by which alone happiness and freedom are achieved.

Work, therefore to be able to say to every harsh appearance, “You are but an appearance, and not absolutely the thing you appear to be.” And then examine it by those rules which you have, and first, and chiefly, by this: whether it concerns the things which are in our own control, or those which are not; and, if it concerns anything not in our control, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.

Epictetus

Donald Robertson, founder of Modern Stoicism, is an author and psychotherapist. Robertson was interviewed by Knowledge@Wharton for their podcast, which they’ve also transcribed. He makes a similar point to Epictetus, based on the writings of Marcus Aurelius:

Ultimately, the only thing that’s really under our control is our own will, our own actions. Things happen to us, but what we can really control is the way that we respond to those things. Stoicism wants us to take also greater responsibility, greater ownership for the things that we can actually do, both in terms of our thoughts and our actions, and respond to the situations that we face.

Donald Robertson

Robertson talks in the interview about how Stoicism has helped him personally:

It’s helped me to cope with a lot of things, even relatively trivial things. The last time I went to the dentist, I’m sure I was using Stoic pain management techniques. It becomes a habitual thing. Coping with some of the stress that therapists have when they’re dealing with clients who sometimes describe very traumatic problems, and the stress of working with other people who have their difficulties and stresses. [I moved] to Canada a few years ago, and that was a big upheaval for me. As for many people, a life-changing event like that can require a lot to deal with. Learning to think about things like a Stoic has helped me to negotiate all of these things in life.

Donald Robertson

Although I haven’t done it since August 2010(!) I used to do something which I referred to as “calling myself into the office”. The idea was that I’d set myself three to five goals, and then review them at the end of the month. I’d also set myself some new goals.

The value of doing this is that you can see that you’re making progress. It’s something that I should definitely start doing again. I was reminded of this approach after reading an article at Career Contessa about weekly self-evaluations. The suggested steps are:

  1. Celebrate your wins
  2. Address your losses or weaknesses
  3. Note your “coulda, woulda, shoulda” tasks
  4. Create goals for next week
  5. Summarise it all in one sentence

While Career Contessa suggests this will all take only five minutes, I think that if you did it properly it might take more like 20 minutes to half an hour. Whether you do it weekly or monthly probably depends on the size of the goals you’re trying to achieve. Either way, it’s a valuable exercise.

We all need to cut ourselves some slack, to go easy on ourselves. The chances are that the thing we’re worrying about isn’t such a big deal in the scheme of things, and the world won’t end if we don’t get that thing done right now. Perhaps regular self-examination, whether through Stoicism or weekly/monthly reviews, can help more of us with that?


Also check out:

  • Trying (Snakes and Ladders) — “I realized that one of the reasons I like doing the newsletter so much is that I have (quite unconsciously) understood it as a place not to do analysis or critique but to share things that give me delight.”
  • 43 — All in & with the flow (Buster Benson) — “It’s tempting to always rationalize why our current position is optimal, but as I get older it’s a lot easier to see how things move in cycles, and the cycles themselves are what we should pay attention to more than where we happen to be in them at the moment.
  • Four Ways to Figure Out What You Really Want to Do with Your Life (Lifehacker) — “In the end, figuring out your passion, your career path, your life purpose—whatever you want to call it—isn’t an easy process and no magic bullet exists for doing it.”
Get a Thought Shrapnel digest in your inbox every Sunday (free!)
Holler Box