Stoic Week 2015: Day 5: Relationships

My apologies for the delay in yesterday’s post. Publishing a day late in a course that is time-sensitive and covers a topic each day and an entire philosophy in a week isn’t exactly ideal. It’s not that I forgot about the blog, or got lazy, or anything like that. All week I’ve been fighting a cold, and yesterday evening when I came home from work, I was just too congested and too sick to concentrate. So I loaded myself up with various medicines from yesterday’s doctor visit (indeed, it went well with Thursday’s theme, but that’s another story), and I forced myself to wait for sleep. Without further ado, I finally present to you…

“The Post that Should Have Been Published Yesterday”

Or rather…

Relationships with Other People and Society

Morning Reflection

Say to yourself first thing in the morning: I shall meet with people who are meddling, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, and unsociable. They are subject to these faults because of their ignorance of what is good and bad. But I have recognized the nature of the good and seen that it is right, and the nature of the bad and seen that it is  wrong, and the nature of the wrongdoer himself, and seen that he is related to me, not because he has the same blood or seed, but because he shares in the same mind and portion of divinity. So I cannot be harmed by any of them, as no one will involve me in what is wrong. Nor can I be angry with my relative or hate him. We were born for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of upper and lower teeth. So to work against each other is contrary to nature; and resentment and rejection count as working against someone.

(Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 2.1)

Those are some powerful words, Marcus. He certainly calls it like it is. I actually had to open up this quote on Monday and read it to give me some strength to face the day. I think I will print this quote and keep it somewhere hidden at my desk for only myself to read. I work with people who are living in poverty. Working with some of the people can be really difficult. Someone who lives in poverty thinks differently than someone who does not face poverty on a daily basis. Poverty can direct a person’s way of thinking from being future-oriented, or planning, to being focused only on immediate concerns or needs.

Imagine this scenario: You come home from work. You’ve been late on your rent, and you see an eviction notice on your door. You and your children must be moved out of your apartment in two days. You spend the evening dealing with a panic attack; where on earth are you going to bring your children?! Your children could potentially be homeless within two days. You don’t have any money to pay rent, let alone to pay the deposit for a new apartment. You wake up early the next day (because you couldn’t sleep in the first place), you swallow your pride, and you begin calling family, friends, even the homeless shelter (if your town is lucky enough to have one), but no one has room for you and your children. You’ve been so busy trying to find a place for your children and yourself to sleep tomorrow night that you don’t realize it’s already 11:00am and you’re three hours late for work. You rush off to work, meet with your boss, and (if you’ve successfully swallowed your pride again), you explain why you’re late to work. “I’m being evicted tomorrow and I haven’t been able to find a place to stay.” Fortunately, your boss is understanding of your situation, and the biggest reprimand they give is, “Why didn’t you tell me, instead of just not showing up for work this morning? If you tell me what’s going on, I can try to work with you. But if you just suddenly don’t show up for work, I have no idea what’s going on and that can get you fired.”

Ok, so it’s common sense: call your boss and let them know there’s an emergency and you’ll be late. Why didn’t they do that in the first place?

Because when you have an emergency, we all tend to focus on the emergency at hand. We focus our efforts on trying to keep one aspect of our lives from crumbling, but we accidentally neglect the other part, which then crumbles, and before you know it, you’re living from crisis to crisis.

So this was just to paint a picture of the mentality of many of the people I work with. When clients come into my office, they are in crisis mode. Common sense doesn’t really apply. And when common sense doesn’t apply to people, it can be extremely difficult to work together. It’s taxing on my own emotions, so I have to give myself a pep talk sometimes in the morning, and I think Marcus had a similar problem:

“Ok Kirsten: today you’re going to meet with people who are ungrateful, people who are panicking and lashing out, people who don’t operate under common sense and kindness, people who quite honestly aren’t concerned about Virtue at all at this point. They have their faults because they don’t know what is good and bad. But I have seen what it means to be good, and I have seen that it is the right thing, and I have seen what it means to be bad, and I have seen that it is wrong. And the nature of the ungrateful, panicking, ignorant wrongdoer himself? I even recognize that he is related to me. No, I don’t mean we are related through ancestry. But we are related because his mind functions similarly to mine, and we share a portion of divinity. Therefore, I cannot be harmed by any of these people that I meet today, and no one can force me to join him in wrongdoing. Nor can I be angry with my relative or hate him. Despite our contrasting behavior, he and I alike were both born for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of upper and lower teeth. If his behavior provokes me to become angry or frustrated, I must remember that to work against each other is against our very nature; and resenting and rejecting the wrongdoer count as working against someone.”


Lunchtime: Relationships with Other People and Society

The fact that Stoics are sometimes mistakenly seen as cold and detached from other people is ironic. Remember Monday’s topic, “life”? More than any other ancient philosophy, Stoicism stressed that humans are naturally inclined to care for other humans to become involved in their communities. If you remember from Monday, we are called on to develop our individual lives, as well as our society.

senecaStoics also thought that each human being is capable of extending his instinctive affection in rational and sociable ways, such as becoming involved in family life and meaningful friendships as well as in local communities. Stoics even pushed this further and said that humans were capable of seeing beyond citizenship and nationality, and that we could see every other human being in the world as fellow citizens in the “world community.” Stoics thought that with practice and intention, we could extend our realm of instinctive affection to include everyone from our own children to humans on the other side of the planet, because despite the various groups and labels we have organized human begins into, quite simply, we are all humans together. Humans are capable of viewing each other in this manner because we are all naturally social animals, we all have amazing minds that have the capacity of reason and the ability to develop our characters towards Virtue.

“Oh, but Marcus didn’t know about those nasty [insert foreign nationality of choice here]. Those people are simply no good.”

page0_1Nope. Stoicism has no room for that. We are all humans. We all have human minds. We are all quite capable of training ourselves to have amazing compassion for one another, if only we so desire! The problem is, people don’t tend to think that caring for other humans outside our immediate circles is all that important. But Stoicism says there’s no excuse for that. You can’t think that way anymore. We are all on an equal playing field. We are all humans with the same capacity for developing our characters. We are all responsible for how we treat others. No ands, ifs, or buts.

Marcus’ writings have a lot to say about social relationships. He liked to write about the good that forms part of a life centered on Virtue, as opposed to the negative “passions” that are based on ethical mistakes.

Whenever you want to cheer yourself up, think of the good qualities of those who live with you: such as one person’s energy, another person’s decent, another’s generosity, and some other quality in someone else. Nothing else is as cheering as the images of the Virtues displayed n the characters of those who live with you, and grouped together as far as possible. So you should keep them ready at hand.

(Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 6.48)

Stoics weren’t allowed to just give up on other humans. That would be going against our duty. Marcus even seems to acknowledge that others might have developed Virtue more fully than we have, and so for that fact alone, it is good for us to look towards others as both role models and encouragement. We can’t keep other people out; we must learn from them!

As a political leader, Marcus surely dealt with lots of difficult people. In his writings, he often refers to the “brotherhood of humankind,” “citizenship of the world,” and the idea that we are all part of a larger body of human beings. Marcus drew on these ideas when he dealt with difficult people. When people might have provoked him to feel anger or resentment, he reminded himself that their behavior comes from mistakes about what really matters in life, and that if they only knew the ultimate Truth of what was truly good, they wouldn’t act this way. Good behavior or not, easy to get along with or not, these people are our brothers and sisters, “parts of a single body of humankind,” and we have no right to be angry with our own relatives. Marcus experienced that when he thought of difficult people in this manner, his feelings turned from anger and resentment to good will and intentions towards these very same people.

Marcus saw himself having “dual citizenship.” Under his family name, he was a citizen of Rome, and as a human being, he was a citizen of the Universe. “It is only what benefits these cities which is good for me,” (Meditations 6.44). Viewing his life in this manner, Marcus put his political position and power into a broader perspective. This helped him build a moral framework and a sort of “reality check.”

Amidst a lineage of political tyrants, Marcus developed the reputation of a wise and benevolent ruler. His moral framework helped to keep him from abusing his power. He kept in mind his duties towards not only his own ethical development, but towards the good of his community. Seem simple? I can just make sure I treat other people nicely and then go about my daily routine, making money, yada yada yada. But this duty towards the good of the community extends to all aspects of life. Consider this thought experiment.


The Circles of Hierocles

ins01Without going into all the details, the Stoic Hierocles suggested that we should consider human beings in concentric circles; that is, we should see ourselves in the very center circle. Inside the next layer is our family and closest friends. In the next layer is our colleagues, the next layer contains our fellow countrymen, and the final layer contains the entire human race. Hierocles suggested that we should strive to reduce the distance of the relationship with each person. Put simply, we should strive to bring all of human kind from the outermost layer and to think of them as all fellow citizens in our country. We should then take all the foreigners and fellow citizens and put them in the same level with our colleagues, and so on and so forth, drawing them in towards the center, to where we care for our own good as much as we care for the good of that man who lives on the other side of the world.

This diagram seen on How to Be a Stoic and in this Live Like a Stoic booklet (putting that one on my reading list!) sums it up quite nicely:

How do we go about bringing everyone in towards the innermost circle? Hierocles suggested verbal techniques like referring to your cousin as “brother,” or to your aunt and uncle as “father or mother.” Think of cultures where everyone, regardless of relation, is referred to as “uncle” and “auntie” if they are older than you. We usually say, that’s a sign of respect in that culture. But Hierocles is suggesting we try it out as a way of moving ourselves to care for other people just as much as we would care for our own family.


Evening Reflection:

raisin-grapeOne type of person, whenever he does someone else a favor, is quick to calculate the favor that was done. Another type of person is not so quick to do this; but to himself he considers that the other person owes him something, and so he thinks consciously of what he has done. A third type of person is, in a sense, not even conscious of what he has done, but is like a vine which has produced grapes and looks for nothing more once it has produced its own fruit, like a horse which has run a race, like a dog which has followed the scent, like a bee which has made its honey. A person who has done something good does not make a show of it, but simply goes on to the next action, as a vine goes on to produce grapes again in season. So you should be one of those who do this without in a sense being aware of doing so.

(Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 5.6)

And with that, I complete this post.

Be a vine.

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