Thoughts on Nature from the Stoic Perspective

Today is a bit of a toughie for me. The Stoic idea of nature is a bit of a challenge for me to grasp, and I’m going to lunch this afternoon with a friend and that very much goes to my personal nature.

Stoics are said to consider nature on three planes: our inner nature which includes our capacity for reason, the nature of society and our relationship with mankind, and the nature of our external or physical environment as a whole. I am suspicious of the latter two because they are not things over which we have control other than in our attitude.

We are Earthlings in what is arguably an infinite Universe. Climate change is arguably a thing. All that’s left then is how and where we live within our environment. Our capacity to control the nature of society and our relationship with mankind is impossibly speculative, but I see no evidence that they’re likely to listen to you now if they weren’t listening to you before. All that’s left then is how I am to relate to nature. Am I to live in harmony with my environment? Am I to painfully stand out like a boil on the ass of my environment? (Sorry; I get a little political.)

Someone I cared about kicked me to the curb not too long ago because I didn’t take up every cause that she cared deeply about. I do what I feel that I can do, and I give what I can give freely. I love dogs, for instance, more freely than I do people, but if I were to shelter homeless dogs before seeking shelter myself I’d never get indoors again.

In my view, if a thing is not given freely it isn’t a gift. There’s nothing wrong with duties and obligations, but we should call things what they are and not what we wish them to be. I sent a donation to Bernie Sanders campaign, but if you know me you know that hell would freeze and fall off before I participated in a phone bank.

For some time now I’ve been taking a moment before hitting “Send” to consider whether it would fulfill a need rather than a want, and if it was the right thing to do. It’s become pretty much of a habit now, and I’m happy with it. I’m also less likely to say “yes” to every volunteer opportunity that gets sent to me which has caused me a little angst but feels right to me.

Again, I don’t know whether or not I’m a “true” Stoic or something else according to the wonks at Stoicon, but I do recognize a capacity for reason and a level of discernment and conscience within myself. If I continue to respect and honor that in my behavior and commit to trying to do a better job every day as the fates allow, I think I’m in pretty good shape.

It’s been an interesting week, but don’t get used to daily posts here. That isn’t happening.

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Thoughts on Resilience

Stoicism teaches that instead of thinking about the bad luck that has befallen us, we might better reflect on our capacity to survive and recover from it. Again, I think I got a head start on this with an ingrained attitude that “this, too, shall pass.”

Someone recently wrote to me that, although she was thankful for her home and her health, she had nothing in front of her to move toward, that she was just breathing. Perhaps we sometimes set the bar too high for ourselves. There are millions of people who would move heaven and earth for health and a place to call home.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl writes “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” If I were to attempt to come up with a summary for resilience it would have to do with regarding any untenable situation from the perspective of moving forward past it. I don’t know if that even makes sense, but I don’t see giving up as a viable option.

When I assess an area’s resilience to recover from a disaster there are things we traditionally look at such as the population’s education, competence in English, income earners per household, adults per household with children. It occurs to me that none of those criteria are deal breakers. A disadvantaged condition may delay community recovery but recovery remains possible if there’s the will.

A friend of mine was and still is stuck in a job that pays her bills but gives her no joy. She has an unrealized dream to become a pastry chef  but every time the subject comes up in conversation it has consisted of reasons why she can’t do it. She’s right. There will always be a thousand reasons why something might not work, and if that’s our focus no way forward is likely to ever be found.

Stoicism teaches us to differentiate between elements over which we have a level of control and elements that are not ours to control, and to concentrate our efforts on those aspects of our lives that are ours to control. As in the Serenity Prayer, there are things we cannot change but plenty of things that we can change, and one of the most important of those is our capacity to change. There’s a word for that; I think it’s resilience.


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Thoughts on Relationships

This is going to be kind of a cheat because I have no intention of leaving my apartment today. Any work on relationships today will be theoretical, involve people knocking on my door, or via e-mail.

Stoicism, as we commonly think of it is actually “small s” stoicism as it’s been picked up in the vernacular. Stoicism teaches  we are naturally inclined to care for other people and to become involved in their communities. Musonius Rufus wrote that “a virtuous person displays love for his fellow human beings as well as goodness, justice, kindness, and concern for his neighbor.” That’s all well and good but I was a foster kid from my 7th birthday until my 14th after which I was essentially an emancipated minor so that’s a developmental need. The military taught me about teams and teammates, etc., but in my experience, that’s not as large an umbrella as you might think mostly involving dealing with external threats.

This background has actually worked for me since I retired because whatever I  do now  is done without expectation of anything in return. Many people with whom I volunteer are disappointed that so much of the grunt work goes unnoticed, and I do recognize that and make an effort to commend folks whatever their contributions are. I’m thankful for the opportunity to do meaningful work that gets me out of bed, out of the apartment, and that I enjoy.

As I read for today, it actually looks like I might be in pretty good shape – so to speak. Another advantage of my history is that I’ve had the opportunity to interact with people all over the Pacific and Indian Ocean basin and generally I see more similarities than differences among us. As I’ve worked across the U.S. since leaving the Navy I still see more similarities than differences among us. As the Stoics – and the Dalai Lama for that matter – point out, we all want to be happy and we all want to be well. Some of us are fortunate enough to be able to base our happiness on our accretions while others are content when their survival needs are met, but we all want to be happy.

Spoiler alert! We do have differences! The question then is what is the impact of those differences on us? On me? I have friends who are vegan, others who are vegetarian, and others and me who are carnivores. I do not judge others based on their diet. I have friends who are heterosexual, friends who are homosexual, and at least one friend who is transsexual. I do not judge others based on their gender identity or sexual preferences with respect to consenting adults.

I am having an issue with a couple of friends who will not be voting as I will next month, and that pains me, but we’ve had that conversation and they believe that they are correct and will vote their conscience as I will. I’m not at equanimity yet, but that’s on me and not on them.

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Stoic Thoughts on Virtue

Folks who knew me back in the day might have a problem picturing me trying to be virtuous, but Stoic philosophy teaches that the only thing with real value is what they call “virtue” or excellence of character. Oh, I’m still a long, long way from excellence of character.

The core virtues of Stoicism are mastery of our desires, mastery over our fears, kindness and fairness in our relationships, and wisdom in our moral and practical choices. Virtue, in Stoic terms, refers to fulfilling the potential within ourselves to perfect our own nature to be good. It includes not only living in our own skins in accord with our own nature as rational human beings but also concordant with the rest of mankind and Nature. I feel like I do okay without a lot of creature comforts, but I have a lot of work to do learning to deal with difficult people with good grace, patience, and equanimity.

Much of my impatience with schools of philosophy has less to do with their practices than with their pedagogy. Whether it was my little philosophical hodgepodge or my version of zen practice or my take on Stoic philosophy I’ve had a pretty consistent goal throughout. At the beginning of each day, I remind myself to try to do better. I feel that although that is neither specific nor easily measurable, it is achievable, relevant, and time-bound Things seem to get more complicated and further into the weeds when one tries to conform to a particular discipline.

It is now Thursday of Stoic Week and the philosophy majors, graduate students, and Ph.D.s are deep into their seminars back in New York. The discussion boards are filling with whether it as Zeno of Citium or Chrysippus who said something back around 300 BCE and what they meant by it. I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed anyway just trying to get through to whatever’s on the other side as best I can, and when we get into these academic discussions of minutiae my eyes tend to glaze over.

I do have it on pretty good authority that Marcus Aurelius in about 160 AD wrote: “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.” He also wrote: “Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.” When someone writes that something seems more Epicurean than Stoic I feel comfortable paying it no mind. I’m sure that it seems right to them and it makes no difference to me.

So far I feel like I’ve made a little progress today. Tomorrow I’ll try to do a little better.


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Thoughts on Mindfulness

This aspect of Stoic philosophy was a big seller for me. I’d already recognized that there were several similarities between Stoicism and other avenues I’d explored in trying to organize my thinking but mindfulness has always been a major aspect of what I was trying to accomplish. A smart person once wrote: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” Where did I want to go? More precisely, who am I and who did I want to be? Marcus Aurelius is supposed to have said: “Waste no more arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”

Marcus Aurelius is supposed to have said: “Waste no more arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.” There was nothing particularly wrong with the way I was drifting 20 years ago, an unfortunate choice here and there usually unintentional, but I was adrift. Having dealt with the self-destructive behaviors – the smoking and drinking – was I good to go or could I do better? What does it take to spend a heartbeat or two before the act to consider what it is that I’m about to do and the outcomes I might expect from it? There’s nothing wrong with watching football except that it’s about 3 hours of your life that you’ll never get back and you don’t accomplish anything. Is that what I want to do?

I don’t think I live in my head. I laugh at good jokes, can be impatient, and occasionally experience a little road rage, but it’s becoming easier with the passage of time to do that quick check-in with the mind to remember that the driver up ahead didn’t run into that other driver just to ruin my day. Things happen and it’s not all about me anyway.

Someone asked on a message board this morning if Stoicism was of any value in a war zone, and it came to me that it is because life goes on. The population and even the combatants are making choices every moment of every day: there’s nothing I can do about this or this, but I can still do something about that. Children laugh and play, people marry, rebuild homes (perhaps a tent for the time being), they do what they are able to do given the circumstances that are not theirs to control. Granted that a lot of that is instinctive behavior and perhaps not mindful but it does appear to be more purposeful.

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Thoughts on Control

One of the things that really attracted me to Stoicism is that it directs one’s focus onto those aspects of our life that matter in the greater scheme of things and that are ours to control. Today I was challenged to think about what is really mine to control. Fortunately, much of this is in common with my understanding of zen practice.

For years I have tried to spend a little time at the end of the day thinking about how well I lived that day. Did I hit my marks? I also tried to remember at the outset of each day to set my goals for the day ahead and to try to do it better than the day before. Some days I’ve felt that I achieved the latter goal, and some days not. Some days I felt that I hadn’t made my best effort, and some days it wasn’t going to happen because some days you get the bear and some days the bear gets you. I can do what I do as well or better than I expected to do it, but the outcomes of that effort…

We have a saying in customer service that quality is in the eyes of the customer. I can perform my role perfectly, but if that doesn’t meet the customer’s needs or expectations I will not be what is considered by others to be successful. How should I consider it myself? What is it to me? That goes to the core of Stoic philosophy as I understand it. If my goal, my happiness if you will, is to do well that which I can do well then what does it mean that another feels that my efforts were unworthy? According to the Stoics, it has no meaning at all. This puts me in mind of one of my favorite quotes from the Sutta Nipata:

Develop the mind of equilibrium. You will always be getting praise and blame, but do not let either affect the poise of the mind: follow the calmness, the absence of pride.

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First Day of Stoic Week

This week will be a departure from my usual writing because I’m participating in Stoic Week, and I’m supposed to document my meditations. I have no idea what that’s about but I have a week.

I’ve always been agnostic. I think it may have come from my being a foster kid and not believing in anything as a rule but I don’t know. Religion just never made sense to me. At some point when I was about 10-12 I came up with an idea that this was all there was and that hell was coming back over and over and over again until we got it right and didn’t have to come back. When I learned a bit about Buddhism in Japan and that it was okay with them if you just ignored any bits and pieces you weren’t buying I started practicing my hodge-podge version of Zen.

When I learned a bit about Buddhism in Japan and that it was okay with them if you just ignored any bits and pieces you weren’t buying I started practicing my hodge-podge version of Zen. That actually served me pretty well but there was a nagging feeling that I couldn’t really be any kind of Buddhist if I’d dismissed all of the parts about Buddhism. Then recently I began looking into Stoicism.

Stoicism, as I understand it, holds that our purpose, our happiness, is to be found in living life in harmony with nature. Nature doesn’t strictly refer to Bambi but to our natural surroundings: our fellow man and the world around us. We are to use our native wisdom which distinguishes us from other creatures to live in harmony, in virtue if you will. I’m putting this badly but it’s okay. I’m no saint for certain, but a young friend of mine told me recently that I was a good man and that was as proud as I’ve been of anything in a while.

My goal is to recognize what aspects of my life I have control over, to do my best to make good choices where I need to make choices, and to do my best to do good works where work must be done. There’s also something about loving my fellow man, etc., but that’s going to be a slog because I do have trust issues.

Meditations. I’ve never been good at guided meditations. I do have thoughts from time to time that I wish I could remember long enough to write down. I had some doozies driving down to the office and back today.

Here’s a Stoic teaching I saw today: “Men do not care how nobly they live, but only how long, although it is within the reach of every man to live nobly, but within no man’s power to live long.” (Seneca, On the Futility of Half-Way Measures, 17)

I’ll try to do better tomorrow, and today’s not over yet.

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I have questions.

I have no problem whatever engaging in a rational discussion of issues. It clarifies my thinking. I almost always learn something. I have, on occasion, seen the error in my logic and changed my position. We aren’t having many rational discussions. There are people I would consider to be good people – one or two near saintly – who continue to posit that Donald Trump is just getting a lot of bad press and is still their guy. I don’t understand.

“He’s going to make America great again.” What does that mean? When was that? Was that before Iraq? Before Beirut? Before the Civil Rights Act and Medicare? Before desegregation? What are they talking about?

I’ve heard him promise he was going to restore jobs, “lots of” jobs, “good” jobs. For whom would we be working? What would we be doing? In what industry?

If I ask these questions in a discussion of politics these days I become a target for personal attacks but I get no answers. Do they not ask these questions? Do they not know the answers?

By any metric I’m familiar with, America is enjoying it’s best period in decades. There is a lot of background noise about all of the terrorism here and abroad, but I don’t find numbers to support those fears. I hear the media reports, but that’s how they sell advertising space, isn’t it?

What is driving the hysteria? I suspect it’s neo-fascism behind the hyper-nationalism and xenophobia of the day and I hope that we can get past this after November 8th, but will the election change anything? How can anything change without a discovery of the root of this rancor and dealing with that?

Interesting times. Tomorrow begins International Stoic Week, and I’m going to try to participate in that as much as I can in order to clarify my thinking. I have absolutely no expectation that I will be any more able to control anything beyond my control, but perhaps I can see it better.

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California Ballot Propositions, the Last 6

I’m going to do these out of order because Propositions 62 and 66 both deal with the death penalty in California. The two propositions are diametrically opposed in their approach with one repealing the death penalty and the other attempting to expedite the process for carrying it out.

Proposition 62 is a measure to repeal the death penalty in the State of California. We can lock them up and throw away the key, but we can’t kill them.

Proposition 66 is a measure to “mend not end” the death penalty. A prisoner sentenced to death would have 5 years for appeals with an appeals lawyer assigned on sentencing.

We’ve all heard all the arguments back and forth over the years and no one is going to change anyone’s mind. It feels like the freaking Presidential campaign. For me, I cannot elect to take someone’s life, and I know how hypocritical that really is because if someone hurt my babies I would likely kill them myself. I will vote my conscience and keep my fingers crossed that I never have to kill anyone. If I do I kind of hope it’s in a death penalty state because living in prison doesn’t sound that good to me.

Proposition 67 is a measure to ban those cheap plastic bags they give us at stores. Does anybody have a use for those besides killing wildlife? I have 6 plastic bags full of plastic bags and I’m afraid to throw them away even into the recycling bin for fear they’ll just get dumped in the ocean.

Proposition 65 is because of Prop. 67. If we ban those cheap plastic bags, the people who make those bags will have to make something else and that would be a bother so they’d like for us to punish the grocers not only by making them sell us paper bags for 10 cents each but then making them send the money to the state. They would have to store these bags, keep them dry, move them around, pass them out, and pay for selling them. No.

Yeah, there’s a Proposition 64, and it’s to legalize the sale of marijuana. There’s a lot of lipstick and a dress on that pig, but that’s the gist of it. It scares the heck out of me.

I may or may not have ever operated a motor vehicle under the influence of marijuana several years back, and, if I had, it might have scared me that, unlike having just one drink, a little of that was so disorienting. Having said that, it’s still hard to make a case for one thing being legal and the other not. Just be careful out there.

Heck no, we’re not done yet! There are still the down-ticket offices and the local measures. That’s where democracy lives is in the local issues.


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California Statewide Propositions – Part 2

Proposition 56 is a hot mess and the only reason I care one way or the other is that it addresses extending tobacco taxes to e-cigarette compounds containing nicotine (which is, after all, the addictive poisonous component of cigarettes). The deal is to add $2 to each pack of cigarettes and a proportional amount to other tobacco products, and, for the first time, would impact e-cigarettes. (Note: I haven’t had a cigarette since June 23, 1998.)

The sponsors allege a case for it because a) it will save your children and b) why the hell do you care if you aren’t a smoker. Opponents, with substantial sponsorship from the tobacco industry, allege that the fat cats at Medi-Cal will blow their money on stuff and where’s the love for California schools? If you do read the Voter Guide – and I encourage that – you’ll see on page 49, figure 4, that the first bite of the apple goes to replace sales tax revenues “lost” because of decreased tobacco sales, then 5% of the remainder to the Board of Equalization, $118 Million to specific state programs, and only then does 82% of the remainder go to Medi-Cal and so on with (only) 2% going directly to schools.

If you do read the Voter Guide – and I encourage that – you’ll see on page 49, figure 4, that the first bite of the apple goes to replace sales tax revenues “lost” because of decreased tobacco sales, then 5% of the remainder to the Board of Equalization, $118 Million to specific state programs, and only then does 82% of the remainder go to Medi-Cal and so on with (only) 2% going directly to schools. If this actually works to reduce tobacco use over time, who cares. I’m a “Yes.”

Proposition 57 is interesting to me because it speaks to the goals of our Criminal Justice System. My perception is that we spend a crapload of money to warehouse people in prison and to keep them there with not a lot of regard for what they did and the likelihood they’d do it again. I encourage you to read and think about it.

The arguments against developing more effective rehabilitative programs and parole programs for non-violent offenders are disappointingly ad hominem, but I understand where they’re coming from. It’s just that most people – even those who belong in prison – are going to get out, and we should probably plan for that. I have to say “yes” to this.

Proposition 58 is also interesting to me from a social justice perspective. Several years ago Californians passed Prop. 227 to require English-only primary education, and Prop. 58 seeks to repeal that. I have immigrant friends who have mastered English quickly and speak with no accent at all and others who’ve been here for decades and still have very thick accents and occasionally revert to their native language. Personally, I have not been able to develop conversational competency in any language other than English, and I’ve tried. The arguments against it are once again peppered with words in all caps.  I have asked a couple of youngsters recently out of high school for their thoughts, but I’m going with bi-lingual programs at this point.

Proposition 59 asks if California should pursue a Constitutional Amendment to overturn Citizens United v Federal Elections Commission and I am all over that. Hell yes.

Proposition 60 would require the use of condoms in the adult film industry during intercourse on adult film sets “in which performers actually engage in vaginal or anal penetration by a penis.” It says a law like this is already in effect in LA County since 2012, but apparently it’s still enough of an issue that the State needs to take a position. It would empower California residents to file a civil lawsuit if they see violations, which I guess would be a reason to watch. There are requirements for health screenings, and some other stuff, too. Have I mentioned how much I missed California when I was gone?

Proposition 61 would set the price the State would pay for a prescription drug at no more than the VA pays for the same drug. PhRMA hates this a lot and they’ve been willing to pay to express themselves. (Between them and the tobacco industry, the bad guys seem to have a pretty good stash to fund opposition campaigns.) The proposition itself is flawed and there are a lot of unanswered “what-if” questions including what the VA pays for its prescription drugs, but if PhRMA hates it this much I think we should give it a shot.

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