24 July 2018

Being pushed head-first into Stoicism

I first read about Stoicism on the Mr Money Mustache blog. Get ye there! I love his blog. By Stoicism, I don't mean the common sense of being stoic. That's just the barest edge of the concept. I mean the philosophy and way of life called Stoicism, which began with ancient Roman philosophers, and even an emperor.

Before I took my children off for big trip in May, I'd decided that when I got back, I'd look into it further. Then, fate took matters into its own and thrust me into Stoicism, perhaps a little bit more brutally than I'd prefer.

Just a random old city wall.

The thrust came in the form of having almost none of my belongings for 12 days. When we arrived in Rome from Seattle, via three flights, our bags were not on the carousel. My son had his, which consisted only of a jammed-full school bag that he took as carry-on luggage.

My well-aged backpack.

A change of clothes was much required in the 30 or so degree heat immediately after travelling 20 or so hours from Seattle. We were not at all fresh. So we found a market and bought the first things we remotely liked, thinking it was only a day or so before we had our own gear.

In the end we travelled to Southern Italy (Salerno), Venice and then Vienna before our bags were returned. Let's just say that Italy is not the easiest place to negotiate things like getting two bags back.

What I learned

If you have a bed, a shower, soap, water and food, your basics are covered. The three of us sleeping in the same room on two beds in our Rome airbnb were living in greater luxury than most humans ever have. We had running hot and cold clean water, glass windows, blinds, toothbrushes, clean towels and no live insects on us that were not microscopic (I have read that we all have minuscule ones on our eyelashes). We even had our very own clean bathroom with a bidet and toilet paper. Complainers, get over it and get on with it!

Our room in Rome.

We also had money to buy whatever we needed. When it came to clothing and toiletries, Lufthansa was paying us back.

Thinking about how bad things could be, and how much better off you really are, is a tenet of Stoicism.

There is a saying that Shit Happens. This another tenet of Stoicism: that bad luck happens to everyone. People are sometimes rude to you. Things go wrong. It is nothing personal, so get over it and instead use the energy and mindspace in more happy and productive ways.

So when it did happen - again and again on our trip, aside from the missing bags - I got over it reasonably quickly.

Almost all of our unpleasant things were outside our control. Indeed I spent so many days and hours worrying about all the things that were inside our control that those things were mostly sorted. We were never unavoidably late for a train, or couldn't find our lodgings, or were overly hungry or thirsty, or out of money.

Stoics distinguish between things they can control and things they cannot. In the latter case, they do not worry about them or expend energy on them. Which is why I love not watching the news.

And then at home ...

Last week I went to the supermarket. I saw a man holding up his son, mostly by putting his arm around him or walking with the boy between himself and the trolley. The son was a tall, slim boy like my own son, probably in his early teens. He tottered unsteadily on his toes; under his tracksuit pants was a nappy; his expressionless crossed eyes marred what would have been a handsome face; a strand of saliva dripped from his chin.

All the while the man chatted kindly to his boy; at the checkout he stroked his cheek lovingly.

I sniffed and looked at the ground and hoped nobody would speak to me, or I would cry.

My bright-eyed clever children were at home. I live a lucky life of luxury and privilege.

Then I went to the library. I heard the librarian showing a child how to search the online catalogue by author. They were trying for Roald Dahl, that most wonderful writer.

"Do you have a computer at home?" asked the librarian.

"I think so ... it's a CYFs house", said the girl, who looked about nine.  (CYFs is Child, Youth and Family - she had been put in a foster home.)

Afterwards the kindly foster mother told me she'd just arrived last night.

How would that feel?

The book

Not only were all our needs perfectly satisfied even without luggage (although perhaps not all our wants) but we even had electronic devices and a way to charge them! So in Europe I took the hint - after all, we were in the land of Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic emperor - and purchased an iBook on Stoicism on my second-hand phone bought for $40 from a 12-year-old who was upgrading.

Brief outcome: this is one of the most helpful books I have ever read. It's The Art of Living by Sharon Lebell and Epictetus. It's easy reading.

A book, a movie and a body down a toilet

I also bought, for $1.99, Walden, by Henry David Thoreau. It's a 200-year-old American classic I kept reading about, so thought it was about time I read it. The guy's a bit full of himself, and I skipped bits, but came across some real gems. He was a Stoic, whether he knew it or not.

As we had just come from the Colosseum and other monuments built by slaves for rulers determined to boost their own egos and secure their ongoing power, this sentence of Thoreau's really grabbed me:

“As for the Pyramids, there is nothing to wonder at in them so much as the fact that so many men could be found degraded enough to spend their lives constructing a tomb for some ambitious booby, whom it would have been wiser and manlier to have drowned in the Nile, and then given his body to the dogs.”

(In a similar vein, I watched the movie Captain Fantastic on the plane. Watch this movie! I loved it. The wife, a Buddhist, asked for her body to be cremated and flushed down the toilet in a public place.)

Greek temple at Paestum, Southern Italy, a few thousand years old.
Malaria was one of the main factors that ended this outpost Greek civilisation.
The humble mozzie is so very powerful.

My boy's photo of the Colosseum, through a fancy filter on his second-hand iPhone.

We need to take great care about what we elevate in status in this world: it should not be buildings or clothes or cars or status. There is so much more.

So please don't think that the travelling we just did, with its terrible production of greenhouse gases, is anything to strive for. I think Marcus Aurelius and Thoreau would instead say something like "Be happy with what you have, and tend to your family, your friends, your garden, your community and your highest good with joy and gratitude".

Because one of the biggest things I've learned by going away is that home is a very good place.

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