Thursday, August 15, 2013

Letters to a young man 28

Hello my friend. You've written to ask my advice and after thinking over your situation, I have some things to say.
The first thing is that I cannot give you specific things to do or say in these situations. This would be much like the misguided martial arts teacher who gives his students particular forms to memorize and do the same way each time, hoping that if they are in a fight the attacker will use the same attacks they are used to seeing in training. Life is never like that, it's unpredictable. As soon as you learn a specific "move", you are challenged by the chaos and myriad forms that the other person will use.
So what can you do, then? The best way to proceed, with martial arts or situations such as yours, is to learn principles and to adopt them into your psyche.
The first question to ask yourself is, what would it mean to you if they did "make a laughing stock" of you? This is an important question, and not at all rhetorical. While being made a fool of can indeed be uncomfortable, the degree to which it disturbs you will depend upon how much you value the opinion of others. Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting that you never be bothered by the opinions of others, or that you never be bothered if others try to make a fool of you. What I am suggesting is that you may find that one day you are much less concerned about what they do because you feel stable and secure within yourself to such a degree that only the most extreme of cases will concern you.
Let me delve a little deeper into your situation. It seems pretty clear that your friends and co-workers are insecure. Their whole point in making such comments, and in trying to make others look bad, is to make themselves feel better about themselves. This is a hollow way, and they will never stand firm and tall if this is the source of their strength. This is because it is not a real strength but a crutch.
Don't allow yourself to fall into the same trap by lowering yourself to their level. This will only harm you in the long run. Instead, embrace the principle that you are worthy and in no need of their approval if they are being unworthy themselves. You may need to focus your friendship efforts on other, more worthy men. I appreciate your asking my advice, and I'm trying to be such a friend to you in return.
Therefore, here is my advice, and you will hopefully forgive the circuitous path I took to get here.
You must distance yourself from these things internally. Focus on yourself, and your development. Let them say what they want. The more you engage them on their level, the more things will escalate, and the more you will feed the fire of their purpose. They will be getting a rise out of you, and that is what they want. Instead, be the oak tree who is firmly planted. Their wind will come, and it may knock down a branch or two, but you will remain.
Over time, you will care less what they do or say. I think you are right to not engage them most of the time. I think you are already handling it well in that regard. However, should things ever get out of hand, you may need to defend your honor, and I hope it doesn't come to that. If they purposefully try to make you look bad in front of a woman, particularly a woman that you admire and have interest in, try to remain calm and answer in as humorous way as you can. This is in essence like deflecting a punch back at your opponent, or using their body weight to throw them off balance. This is much better than letting your blood boil, and letting them get the best of you. At first the humor will seem like a good weapon in your defense. Later, it will be a salve for your spirit.
Farewell for now, my friend.

My book on stoicism.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Seneca's Of a Happy Life

This could be considered required reading. Below is the text of Book 1. The entire work can be found here.

All men, brother Gallio, wish to live happily, but are dull at perceiving exactly what it is that makes life happy: and so far is it from being easy to attain to happiness that the more eagerly a man struggles to reach it the further he departs from it, if he takes the wrong road; for, since this leads in the opposite direction, his very swiftness carries him all the further away.

We must therefore first define clearly what it is at which we aim: next we must consider by what path we may most speedily reach it, for on our journey itself, provided it be made in the right direction, we shall learn how much progress we have made each day, and how much nearer we are to the goal towards which our natural desires urge us. But as long as we wander at random, not following any guide except the shouts and discordant clamors of those who invite us to proceed in different directions, our short life will be wasted in useless roamings, even if we labor both day and night to get a good understanding.

Let us not therefore decide whither we must tend, and by what path, without the advice of some experienced person who has explored the region which we are about to enter, because this journey is not subject to the same conditions as others; for in them some distinctly understood track and inquiries made of the natives make it impossible for us to go wrong, but here the most beaten and frequented tracks are those which lead us most astray. Nothing, therefore, is more important than that we should not, like sheep, follow the flock that has gone before us, and thus proceed not whither we ought, but whither the rest are going.

Now nothing gets us into greater troubles than our subservience to common rumor, and our habit of thinking that those things are best which are most generally received as such, of taking many counterfeits for truly good things, and of living not by reason but by imitation of others. This is the cause of those great heaps into which men rush till they are piled one upon another. In a great crush of people, when the crowd presses upon itself, no one can fall without drawing some one else down upon him, and those who go before cause the destruction of those who follow them.

You may observe the same thing in human life: no one can merely go wrong by himself, but he must become both the cause and adviser of another's wrong doing. It is harmful to follow the march of those who go before us, and since every one had rather believe another than form his own opinion, we never pass a deliberate judgment upon life, but some traditional error always entangles us and brings us to ruin, and we perish because we follow other men's examples: we should be cured of this if we were to disengage ourselves from the herd; but as it is, the mob is ready to fight against reason in defense of its own mistake.

Consequently the same thing happens as at elections, where, when the fickle breeze of popular favor has veered round, those who have been chosen consuls and praetors are viewed with admiration by the very men who made them so. That we should all approve and disapprove of the same things is the end of every decision which is given according to the voice of the majority.

My book on stoicism.