One Value of Stoicism


I listened to a radio program, “On Being,” in which Christa Tippet interviewed Father Greg Boyle, a Jesuit working with gangs in Los Angeles. A central and frequent theme in his talk was achieving mutuality, and the apotheosis of mutuality occurs when two individuals share a mutual and meaningful sentiment.  He considers that a moment of “awe.”  Such instances typically occur when one person, in what would be considered the giving or instructional half of the equation, learns or is made more aware or improved by other person.  I think in such cases, there is an element of surprise, like coming across in a poem the arresting and rhythmic expression of a common idea made somehow new.  The examples of such moments that he gave reminded me of an idea current in pedagogy courses: that a teacher learns from the students, so that education is a mutual experience.  The beauty of mutuality, as I understand it, would be that we feel a part of the species, connected, in the vein of Christian thought that we are all brothers and sisters.

Bringing Stoicism into this picture is to take a preparatory step back.  In order to function well with other people and participate in the moments of mutuality, we need the tranquility promoted by Stoicism, especially if we are in the half of the equation that purportedly has something to offer (gang mediator, teacher, parent, spouse or the like). I think that there is a similar idea in Buddhism of working on yourself before changing the world (in case that context clarifies the issue).

The practical application of obtaining tranquility (the Stoic goal) is that we are no good for others if we are victims of our emotions, unreasonable, intent on controlling the uncontrollable, and dependent on the reaction of the outside world to whatever we undertake.  If we have bought into the message of the modern world, we don’t even recognize those shortcomings.  That message is that your emotions are important and should be explored, cossetted, and indulged; you are really “living” if you are at the giddy heights of a precarious passion or wallowing in despair; you should elevate the past and live on hopes for the future; and nothing is worthwhile unless some number of others approve.  Enter Stoicism.  Would you rather spend time with a prima donna, complainer, or habitually disappointed person or with one who was calm and able to think things through?  Give me the calm, dispassionate, and reasonable, such as I strive to be.

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