Stoicism? I Got Your Stoicism Right Here

Ryan Holiday offers us wisdom from the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius applicable to modern life.

The only questionable application of Marcus’s words from long ago I find in the section headed “A Proper Frame of Mind.”  Holiday quotes The Meditations 2.2, wherein Marcus says to himself (and to us) that we ought not allow ourselves to be pulled like a puppet by every impulse.  Then Holiday writes,

“We resent the person who comes in and tries to boss us around. Don’t tell me how to dress, how to think, how to do my job, how to live. This is because we are independent, self-sufficient people.”  And he concludes the section by writing, “We would never let another person jerk us around the way we let our impulses do.”

We do resent the bossy person, especially the newly-arrived bossy person, who tries to push us around, but if that new person happens to be our new boss, what do we do?  We sit there and take it.  That’s what we do.  Because that’s our job.  Workers experience bossy ignorance all the time in the workplace.  Take my industry, for instance.  Assa Abloy,  a multinational provider of doors, frames, and hardware for commercial construction out of Scandinavia, in an ongoing process, started gobbling up all the American manufacturing companies it could find over the last decade and firing every person who actually knew how to run those businesses, replacing him and her with completely inexperienced bureaucrats who’d never run an entity that large.  What, exactly, were the people on the line supposed to do in that case?  Most of them tried to follow orders until they could no longer do so and then they quit, largely sacrificing the twenty-odd years of service they’d given to their original company.  Others, who had worked themselves fairly high up into management positions within the new company structure, patiently explained to their new Scandinavian bosses why the system they were trying to put in place wouldn’t work, and explained, as a corollary, why we do things around here as we do them.  Sometimes, the explanations would work, and Assa would revise its plan.  Often, though, the explanations were spoken to deaf people who could neither hear nor lipread.  Assa would barrel ahead with some harebrained scheme, losing time and productivity, and they’d eventually lose the management people, too.

If your bosses don’t listen, but you value the work you do, there’s little choice but to shut up and do what they tell you to do.

Sometimes, our work lives and our personal lives intersect.  I had such an intersection for the first couple of years I worked at American Door, in the shipping office.  My father ran his delivery service through our office, and many times he did not want to do deliveries to job sites in the way I requested.  The president of our company, David, happens to be my brother-in-law.  He was well aware of my father’s stubbornness, having dealt with it for many years before I got there.  He would often proudly tell me of the day he simply wouldn’t put up with my father’s bullshit and sent him home to stew in his own juices for a while.  That was his way of telling me not to let my father push me around.

It was useless advice.

It was useless because, literally and figuratively, I had to live with the guy.  David didn’t.  David had the authority to fire my father any time he wanted to and replace him with any one of six other delivery services we were already using from time to time.  I could not fire him.  I had to deal with him, and do so within the rules of the workplace.  It’s easy for emperors like David or Marcus to give advice like “Don’t let’ em push you around,” because they’re already emperors.  Nobody’s going to push them around, at least not inside the palace.  They got to be emperors in the first place not because they were necessarily more aggressive but because they were more imaginative and more creative than their possible replacements.  They had to prove themselves to doubters, to be sure, and it is true that the demands on their time and their resources are enormous, but the longer one stays in a palace, the more divorced he (or she) is likely to become from the difficulties involved in dealing with one’s co-workers without the leverage available to the ruler himself.

Those who work with you will test you; they will bait you; and until you stand up to them and tell them to back the hell off, they won’t respect you.  It took a long time for me to learn that lesson, but I learned it.  The workplace events of which I write happened years ago.  My father, who was once knocked off the dock by several of my co-workers (their way of not being pushed around by him), has long since retired, and I have moved on to a happier place within the company.  After considering the matter for over a decade, I’ve come to think Stoicism is highly useful–but only within limits–as a personal philosophy, and though I have reservations about it as I sit here at my desk, I suppose, like Marcus, that life can be well-lived just about anywhere, even in a palace, and even in a warehouse.




How To Live In Prison

It’s the birthday of W.H. Auden.  Lit Hub has provided us with a brilliant sketch of the poet by the thinker Hannah Arendt that she wrote two years after meeting Auden, who died in 1973.  It’s well worth a read because it gives us a sense of both the man and the major ideas that appear in his poems.

I take the title of my post from Auden’s great poem, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” whose descendant Auden very much is.  Arendt quotes from it, and from several other works, but the last stanza of the tribute to Yeats has long been in my mind as the essential expression of the paradox of living:  “In the deserts of the heart / Let the healing fountain start, / In the prison of his days / Teach the free man how to praise.”

One would have to be utterly blind and profoundly tone deaf not to know how much human misery there is in the world, and to sense how far short we’ve fallen from creating the conditions under which most people can find happiness.  The fragile, aging bodies we find ourselves locked into are indeed a hindrance to us.  Yet, notice that that is not what Auden says.  He refers not to the body but to “the prison of his days,” conveying a dreary repetitiveness to the passage of time itself, a passage we are powerless to stop.  What ails us is not merely the decline of the body itself  but a lack of joy in living within the time we have.

And yet, the poem turns on the final line.  We are free.  All of us.  Even locked within the experience of finite time as we are, we have the opportunity to live–to breathe, to think, to touch, to love, and laugh, and cry, and eat and sleep.  This possibility extends even to those living in poverty and misery; to those languishing in actual prisons; to those suffering deep stress.  Whatever irony Auden may have intended in the lines (and that irony may be considerable), the irony does not overwhelm the surface idea of the human attempt to offer praise, to search for happiness under any condition.  To be alive is good.  To find even the smallest measure of satisfaction in daily life–a joke, a warm cup of coffee, a quick kiss–is often enough to keep us going.

Life as a whole is a complete mess, for life as a whole is engaged in the great business of living and dying, all on a single day, every day.  None of us is aware of the operation of that whole, and we control none of it.  What we do control is what we do within the boundaries of our own lives.  Within those bounds, there is nearly always something about which we can be happy, some praise we can offer, either to the God we believe in, or to ourselves, as we nourish the thoughts that sustain us and enable us to live with our fellow humans.

Auden is one of the few poets I can think of whose work is worth reading as a whole.  (Some others, if you’re curious, are Shakespeare and Milton, Yeats, Frost, and Elizabeth Bishop.)  His criticism, especially The Dyer’s Hand, contains flashes of insight that have been helpful to generations of poets and writers.  He has also been fortunate in his biographers.  Humphrey Carpenter’s one-volume life is both readable and detailed.


The Hatfields and the McCoys

“Shut up and dribble?”  Hell, no.  “Shut up and write?”  Not if you’re gonna say that about it.  Emily Temple has written a long essay detailing twenty-five literary feuds in history.  Read it, and by all means, do not miss her account of Hemingway vs. Wallace Stevens, Hemingway vs. Faulkner, and Colson Whitehead vs. Richard Ford.  There’s women vs. women here, too, if you were wondering (A.S. Byatt vs. Margaret Drabble; Jennifer Egan vs. Jennifer Weiner); it’s not like women are above this sort of thing.

Almost every one of Temple’s accounts will make you laugh, but they’ll also make you shake your head.  It’s hard to believe that intelligent masters of the English language can behave this way in public over bad reviews or challenges to their manhood or questions about the wisdom of women putting words on paper.  We could, I suppose, mark these incidents down to the “writer’s insecurity” we keep hearing about.  Tolkien, after all, spoke for most of these writers when, shortly after submitting the completed text of The Lord of the Rings to his publisher, he wrote to a friend, “I have exposed my heart to be shot at”; but he did not thereafter flatten a rival with a left to the jaw or spit upon a responsible reviewer of his work.  There is such a thing as self-control, and these men and women should have exercised it.  There is also something to be said for keeping one’s head down and keeping the pen moving, but the illusion of fame and the merest hope of achieving and retaining it makes human beings do very strange and often thoughtless things–like get up from our desks, walk out our doors, and open our mouths.


Are Short Attention Spans Natural To Us?

Consider this passage from an essay entitled, “I Have Forgotten How To Read”:

“The suggestion that, in a few generations, our experience of media will be reinvented shouldn’t surprise us. We should, instead, marvel at the fact we ever read books at all. Great researchers such as Maryanne Wolf and Alison Gopnik remind us that the human brain was never designed to read. Rather, elements of the visual cortex – which evolved for other purposes – were hijacked in order to pull off the trick. The deep reading that a novel demands doesn’t come easy and it was never “natural.” Our default state is, if anything, one of distractedness. The gaze shifts, the attention flits; we scour the environment for clues. (Otherwise, that predator in the shadows might eat us.) How primed are we for distraction? One famous study found humans would rather give themselves electric shocks than sit alone with their thoughts for 10 minutes. We disobey those instincts every time we get lost in a book.”

Recall Pascal’s remark that all human trouble comes from man’s inability to sit still in a room.  It’s probable that, when we read a book for an extended period, we’re not disobeying an instinct so much as we are rewiring a pathway in our brains.  The more often we do it, the more solid the wiring becomes.  Deep reading may not be “natural” to us–but then, neither is walking upright.  Both activities are learned behavior.  And while it is true that contemporary men and women are distracted daily, sometimes even moment by moment (and can be “wired” by stimuli for short response times), we are still far less distracted than we used to be as creatures who roamed the savanna looking out for both food and predators.  The key to overcoming the excessive stimuli of social networks, of video games, and of media demands to “react to everything right now” is to read more slowly, even as challenging as that may be, and to turn off the social networks when necessary.  These solutions are not easy for many younger readers to implement.  Children as young as two years old are already immersed like swimmers in our technological sea.  But their parents–most of them, anyway–are cognizant of the value of spending time among real people on dry land, too.  There’s a growing awareness that tech time needs to be rationed, as TV time used to be (and still is, in some households).


Throw Me Somethin’, Mister!

It’s Mardi Gras in the western world, the last day for the eating of meat and for general frivolity before the season of Lent begins.  In New Orleans, penance was meant to involve the eating of fish, but around there, of course, that’s not penance at all, not with Drago’s char-broiled oysters nearby, or snapper at Commander’s Palace, or catfish at the Bon Ton Cafe.

In the thirteen years I lived there, I alternated years of participating fully in Mardi Gras.  I began by participating, but I must admit that Mardi Gras and my Crohn’s Disease are closely linked.  During the Carnival season of 1993, I was already suffering the onset of the disease.  It was cold, and I was constantly tired, although I was desperately trying to maintain my enthusiasm for my new community.  One early Saturday evening, I took the long walk down Canal Street to the Tower Records store in Jackson Square to return a DVD I had rented.  By the time I had finished the task, and had painfully started to reverse the process and walk back down Canal to catch the Morrison Express back out to New Orleans East where I lived, dusk had begun to take hold, and large crowds had begun to gather all along the sidewalk.  Such was my state of mind and my discomfort that every step on the concrete was painful; every tiny shift or twist of my torso was excruciating to my insides that had already been feeling like knotted up rags for months.  Finally, it dawned on me:  this was the Saturday before Fat Tuesday–the occasion of the Endymion parade.  And here I was, sick, vulnerable, and completely alone in facing it.

Generally speaking, the Endymion parade is a wonderful thing, perhaps the most dazzling and colorful of all the parades New Orleans has.  In those days, however, the CBD bordering the French Quarter–precisely the route of this parade–was beset with crime and bad blood among rival gangs and groups.  Merely during the time that I tried to make my way down the sidewalk toward the bus stop in the far distance, the crowds pushed my wasting body against the panes of glass fronting the shops and restaurants along that stretch of Canal, and at least two screaming fights broke out ahead of me.  I barely escaped injury both times.  The normal fifteen-minute walk from the foot of Canal back to Basin Street took me a full hour.  To this day, I do not know how I made it back.  The bus ride home was painful, too:  my insides felt every jolt of the street and freeway as if I were a washed-up prizefighter absorbing his last twelve rounds of punishment.  It was like that every day.

Within two months, however, I had my surgery, and within six months after that, life had returned to normal.  By 1996, I was standing in Canal Street, on this very day, close enough to the Rex float to touch it, and begging, along with the multitudes, for somebody to throw me somethin’ from the floats.  And throw me somethin’ they did:  beads of all shapes and colors, trinkets of every description.  In the old days, the floats used to throw coconuts, but as Mardi Gras became more of a commercial enterprise in the late 1960s and early 70s, that practice was stopped for fear of injuring someone.  An odd stance, given the occasional sound of gunfire among the crowds, to say the least.  On this particular Fat Tuesday, however, the sun was shining brilliantly, all of my neighbors were smiling and having a good time, and some sweet, invisible soul behind me slid a moon pie into my hip pocket.  A delightful day.

Anybody who’s lived in NOLA long enough knows at least a little about the politics associated with the Carnival season.  James Gill’s book, Lords of Misrule:  Mardi Gras and the Politics of Race in New Orleans, though not a flawless work, is a highly-readable history of its subject, and it is quite the best book for understanding why things are done the way they’re done over there during Carnival.  It is important to remember, though, even with Gill’s book in mind, that what people mostly want to do on Fat Tuesday is have a good time:  catch a few beads, or press ourselves against the buildings of St. Louis street and listen to Pete Fountain’s band go by; or have a good steak at the Crescent City Steakhouse.  The time for reflection, for penance, for doing things differently and better, can come later.  Today is a reminder, all day long, of how good life can be, and how good it feels to be a part of it, no matter what that life throws our way.


A Lack of Energy

This past week has been a challenging one.  I’ve had a minor flareup of Crohn’s Disease, a condition I’ve been dealing with since the spring of 1993.  Even a minor flare saps both my energy and my appetite.  Fortunately, I’ve been able to do the work that pays the bills, but nothing else.  I’ve been on the go constantly since early December, with no breaks in my routine or schedule.  The stress associated with moving to the new place may have played a role, but it is hard to tell.  Usually, it’s a combination of factors that leads to the onset of Crohn’s in the first place, or to a flareup in the years after the main attack has done its damage to the intestines.

In any case, I’ve been to the doctor and had some blood work done.  I don’t think the flare was serious, and I have enjoyed, at least in part, the first weekend I’ve had strictly to myself in a long time.  I’ll do my best to get to feeling better and get back to writing as soon as I can.


You See? We *Didn’t* Take It Personally

On the eve of this season’s Super Bowl, I am greatly pleased that the seniors committee has elected former Houston Oilers’ linebacker Robert Brazile, among others, to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

There are those who doubt Brazile’s worthiness, but those who do never played against him or never saw him play in the first place.  He was an amazingly quick, agile linebacker who hit people from the opening whistle until the final one, doing things at his position that Lawrence Taylor later made famous with the New York Giants.

Brazile and his teammates on the Oilers played in a simpler, more relaxed time.  In the late 1970s, the Oilers put together a pick-up basketball team during the offseason to have fun and stay in shape.  Brazile was on that team, and one of their games was played in Sharp Gym on the campus of Houston Baptist University against a faculty team.  I was lucky enough to be allowed to sit on the Oilers’ bench that day–next to Robert Brazile.  He was listed as 6’4″, but I think he was actually an inch or two shorter than that.  There was no mistaking the strength and power of his arms and barrel chest, however, especially when he came leaping over to the bench to chase down a loose ball that was headed out of bounds. Brazile rescued the ball and just as adroitly evaded hitting me on the sidelines.  When he came back to bench to rest a few minutes later, we laughed about it, he and I, and I marveled that this man, who could knock Franco Harris to the frozen surface of Three Rivers Stadium, and blot out the sun as he walked, and pick me up with one arm, was so friendly.

The seniors committee also elected former Green Bay Packers guard Jerry Kramer, one of the mainstays of the superb offensive line behind which Paul Hornung, Jim Taylor, Donny Anderson, and Elijah Pitts ran behind on their way to five NFL titles and the first two Super Bowl championships.  It was Kramer who threw the block against Dallas’s Jethro Pugh that allowed quarterback Bart Starr to sneak in from the goal line to win what came to be known as the Ice Bowl on Dec. 31, 1967 against the Cowboys.  I watched that game, then flipped from CBS to NBC to watch the Oilers of that day get whipped by the Oakland Raiders 40-7 in the AFL title game.  Kramer, as many of you know, kept a diary during that season from training camp all the way through Green Bay’s triumph over Oakland 33-14 in the second Super Bowl.  That diary was soon published as the book Instant Replay.  It became both a best-seller and a scandal for the league because, in it, Kramer dared to reveal how football players and coaches actually talk and act on the field during practice and in games.  (“What’re you doing out there, Kramer?  The only thing that stance is good for is taking a crap!”)  He dared to reveal that players used drugs of various kinds to keep themselves going during the season.  He dared to reveal the business of pro football, too–contract negotiations, team discipline of players, and the long, long hours of preparation put in by the coaching staff.

In retrospect, there was stuff Kramer didn’t reveal:  he did not discuss Bart Starr’s drinking problem, or that of coach Vince Lombardi’s wife.  It’s possible he didn’t know about the latter and that the former became an issue  only after Starr’s career was over, but he knew enough and said enough for the league to hold it against him for a long time.  Kramer acknowledged the grudge and even wrote about it in his sequels Farewell to Football and Distant Replay.  Yet, the NFL held Kramer at a distance for years, and kept him out of the league’s place of highest honor, a place he deserved to be, until now.  All because he dared to shatter the illusion the league wanted to foster that those who play the game are noble warriors, justifiable heroes to the children and the adults who watch them play.

I have some sympathy for this viewpoint, especially now that the Astros have finally won the World Series title I had longed for them to win all of my life.  Nothing gladdens my heart more than to see youngsters meeting the players they love and having fun with them at the ballpark.  My saying so may come as a shock to those of you who might remember my words peeling paint off the walls on a given night in 2002 or 2003 in an old Astroday column after a Houston loss.

The truth is, both attitudes live in me:  kids need heroes, people they can look up to, cheer for, and model themselves after.  It’s up to their parents to see that they’re pointed in the direction of good role models and, for the most part, they are.  Kids also need to see, however, that on a certain level, athletes aren’t heroes, and were never meant to be.  They are flesh-and-blood human beings, gifted with great talent but beset by problems, just like the rest of us.  Those youngsters who go on to play sports in school and college find out from a young age what I’m talking about, and their illusions are usefully shattered pretty quickly.  For those who don’t play sports or whose athletic ability is limited, the time it takes to shatter the illusion is longer, and perhaps a more painful process.  In a way, I feel for the youngsters of today because of the various football scandals and gymnastic scandals and basketball scandals.  Kids read the newspapers just like their parents do, and they have social media, to boot.  They couldn’t escape knowing about all these sordid events even if they wanted to.

It was Jerry Kramer who first revealed to a lot of us that sordid events were out there, and they were part of the games we all play.  Jim Bouton came along a couple of years later in Ball Four to tell us that baseball had its own set of problems amidst all that was good about the game.  These gentlemen loved the sports they wrote about.  They loved them enough to be honest and clear in the expression of their thoughts, and those of us who read those books when they first came out, as I did, owe them a great debt for helping us grow up.  Jerry Kramer needs to know that, be they sweet or bitter, I drank in every word he ever wrote and, unlike the league he played for, I didn’t take it personally.