Stoic Hat

Stoicism is the new black. Or maybe only in the circles I frequent.

I have a friend, who I have known for years now, who extols the virtues of Stoicism to me. My partner, who has been with me for four years now, enjoins me to stoically endure whenever we're out for a long walk and my feet start to tire (personally, I'm a fan of finding the easiest solution). And of course, I used to study Latin. It's pretty much impossible to study Golden and Silver Age texts without coming across Stoicism.

Despite all this, I'm still not completely sold on it. Partly it's because I've got a physicist's brain; I'm just too lazy to endure hardships. I will if I have to, but my mind's set on finding ways around them. This is basically the entire reason I enjoy coding - I'm not enough of a Stoic to do something by hand when I could automate it in the most elegant way possible. (And coding and Stoicism don't mix, I find - at least, not without plenty of cursing.) The other reason is that I feel it's a bit...well...incomplete.

At least, I did when I was younger. As I've gotten older, I've come to really appreciate apatheia as equanimity - accepting your impressions (initial reactions to a situation) but trying to examine them rationally. It fits in with a lot of what's helped me in my recovery. Apatheia as not giving a fuck is also something I find attractive - I've been much happier and more level-headed since I stopped worrying what other people thought of whatever I was doing.

My friend linked me to this interview with Massimo Pigliucci, who is quickly growing on me as my problematic fave/intellectual cat toy. I've since banned myself from looking at that site, since I would bankrupt myself buying all the books people recommend, but it stirred something in me.

I have a copy of Epictetus' Of Human Freedom sitting on my shelf. I read it as a teen and wasn't much impressed with it; Epictetus seemed like a smug old man who didn't understand that not all choices are created equal. Then again, I've changed a lot since I first read it. I thought to myself that I'd like to reread it and see whether I react any differently now that I'm a little more receptive to Stoicism.

Of course, I have a paper to write and a book to review so I can attempt to get published and build my CV and maths to practice, and so I was thinking I probably wouldn't read that book for quite a while, even though my eyes lingered on it.

Life has a funny way of messing with you, though.

Out of the blue, my phone rang. I've been going through a rough patch of anxiety and had politely explained to my friends that I wasn't feeling well and probably wasn't going to be easy to contact. Mental illness makes for unpleasant phone conversations. Mental illness accompanied by depersonalisation and derealisation makes for worse ones.

My voice, already cracked and alien, dwindled to a whisper as I ended the call. It feels like I cracked something in the friendship too. It took a while to return to myself.

After firing off a quick message to my partner, I tried to return to work as well. It wasn't happening. Every time I tried to write about gravitational waves, my mind refused to co-operate. Instead of calmly ordering sentences in a logical order, it swirled with deep-seated unease and needling questions and guilt, pervasive guilt at the way I was acting.

Those were my impressions. But as I began trying to think of what I could do in this situation, I thought of Stoicism again. I thought of the debt I owed to Stoicism, too. My shutting down of those negative thought patterns came fundamentally from Stoicism.

I put on orange and yellow music (I have synaesthesia, which affects how I perceive timbre and pitch) to match the colour of the sunlight and my curtains, and to match the cover of my little orange volume of Epictetus. I vented to my partner. And I sat down and just thought.

After doing this, where am I now? My paper still hasn't been finished and it's not going to write itself. My anxiety is still here and unfortunately I don't think I can throw more Stoicism at it. I'm still feeling reclusive and withdrawn. I still need to fix what I have broken.

But I am calm, which means I can think rationally about all these things. (In fact, once this blog post is done, I'm going to finish my paper.) And I'm learning that it's important to take my damn time. I can do things on my own schedule, more or less. I don't have to run around answering to any random individual in order to avoid pain.

And who knows? I might even come out the other end with a slightly more favourable opinion of Epictetus...