Stoicism and Empathy

Stoicism is the closest thing I have to a set “world view”. It’s a big part of my personal identity, and that’s part of why I’ve had so much trouble writing this piece.

Stoicism, in the basic sense revolves around not allowing anything outside of yourself to affect your thoughts or actions, unless it’s an influence that helps the practitioner become a more rational person. It’s been compared to Buddhism by some, in that the practitioner is trying to achieve some sort of enlightenment via detachment and the performing of actions that benefit society as a whole.

Lately,  I’ve hit a stumbling block with it though. The thing that keeps tripping me up is how little room it seems to leave for empathy on an interpersonal level if you focus on the dogma of detachment instead of the philosophy as a whole. A friend of mine, who’s one of the most empathetic people I know, and I had a bit of an argument about something I’d done that upset her. It spiraled into an overall assessment of our friendship in general. The discussion eventually reached an impasse of sorts. With one of us needing more understanding and communication, and the other (myself) being pig headed and stubborn in the way only someone trying to detach themselves can accomplish. All she was asking what that I voice concerns and complaints so that they could be discussed. All I wanted was to let the anger I felt about the situation go, and get on with it. (If my mother’s side of the family had a motto, it’d be “Just shut up and do something”. Not a talkative bunch when it comes to complaining about personal things)

Here’s the thing. When I finally “let things go”, for the most part, they really go. Some of the bigger things take a while (Still haven’t forgiven my brother Joe for pushing me off our bunkbeds years ago). Otherwise I’ve gotten pretty good at detaching myself from the outcome of things, especially over the last couple of years. That’s not necessarily a good thing. It shows that I’ve been too focused on the detachment side of the stoic philosophy, and not enough on the “grow into a more rational human being” side of it.

“If someone can prove me wrong and show me my mistake in any thought or action, I shall gladly change. I seek the truth, which never harmed anyone: the harm is to persist in one’s own self-deception and ignorance.”

~Marcus Aurelius

It’s easy to fall into that “Self-deception” aspect, especially with personal beliefs that we hold dear. I’m particularly guilty of it in interpersonal interactions. The politician and debater in me wants to come out on “top”, rather than accept criticism of my stance on a subject. It’s part of the reason I left that field of study. I saw the traits and habits I used in my work start to bleed over into my personal life, and the relationships I had suffered for it.

Sometimes in killing one aspect of ourselves we find superfluous, we allow room for something else to grow. In this case, it was apathy. Apathy is actually one of the goals of stoicism, but only towards suffering and discomfort the person practicing it experiences. I’ve gotten a good handle on that, but I let it encompass a lot of other aspects of life it shouldn’t.

It’s taken me weeks to work out a solution to this. Not because it’s a hard answer, but because I’m stubborn and proud. Nobody likes to admit they’ve been wrong, but I take that distaste to a level that’s probably analogous to a “Scorched earth policy”. So I’ve come to realize the answer is to only use ONE can of gasoline on friendships that are difficult.

 

Kidding.

 

A big part of the solution for me personally is just to listen, and listen well, to what someone else is telling me. It’s not an easy thing to do. My mind automatically looks for openings and weaknesses in their “Argument” instead of just boiling down what their saying to the root of their personal grievance and figuring out, “Is this something I can fix and by doing so improve myself as a person? If not, what is the most appropriate way of explaining why I won’t or can’t change my behavior? ”

Easier said than done. That big ol’ bit of pride in my belly is going to rear it’s head over and over. Maybe I’ll hold onto that can of gasoline. I’m not how you burn a character flaw (probably involves some sort of unholy ritual, I’d guess) but I’m certainly going to try. I’m not big on mantras, but if there’s one that’ll be bobbling around my head while I work on this it will be this.

“Whenever you are about to find fault with someone, ask yourself the following question: What fault of mine most nearly resembles the one I am about to criticize?”

Fix yourself, not the people around you. If they bring you a valid concern over your actions, take it to heart instead of trying to rationalize it. If it is valid, and they’ve brought it to your attention, they’ve done you a favor. Be grateful for it, and do your best to improve on the problem. That’s not to say that you should accept any criticism as gospel, down that path lies a personality akin to a damp towel. If you can see that what you did produced more harm than good, start to work on cutting that habit out of your daily life. It’ll take time. Rome wasn’t burned in a day.

Oh wait. Yes it was. Maybe there’s more to the scorched earth policy than I thought.

Kidding. Again.

 

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Death to the pack rat. 

(Don’t need much more than this)

The best part about moving is the inevitable downsizing that comes with it. I don’t particularly like “stuff”. Well, that’s actually sort of inaccurate. I like stuff. I have a habit of picking up junk whenever I travel, little trinkets that remind me of where I’ve been. Sentimentality should be for people and experiences, not trinkets. I know it’s a bad habit, and I’m breaking myself of it. 

For the past six months I’ve been staying with my grandparents, and that experience has really brought the value of a minimalist approach to life into a tangible experience. They have rooms filled with things that probably had some value when they bought it, but now they don’t even remember what half of it is. That’s the path I was heading down I think. Buying things and assigning value to them, then putting them somewhere and forgetting about them. To hell with that. 

So how do we alter that course once we realize we’re on it? 

The biggest step for me was thinking about every object as a tool. An implement that I use to improve some aspect of life. Once that value has been assigned, it’s a lot easier to get rid of meaningless objects. 

The hiccups you run into tend to center around the thought that you may need or use something at some point in the future. There are a few approaches to avoiding this. The first is one purported by “the minimalists” (they run a podcast that’s chock full of advice on removing excess). Their idea involves setting an amount of time, 90/30/60 days etc. Go through each item and ask yourself if you have used, or will use it within that set amount of time. 

The process I’ve been using is actually one I was taught ages ago by my mother, and probably should have paid more attention to. She called it “sometimes, always, never”. In this case, the process sort of speaks for itself. Group things into categories of sometimes, always and never. Get rid of the “never”, keep the always and the next time you go through the process, anything you haven’t needed to take out of “sometimes” gets tossed/donated/sold. 

Having lived on the road and trail the way I have, I’m almost cutthroat when I do this. It’s not necessary to be, but for me it works.Except for books. I haven’t had the heart to get rid of any of them. We all have our little vices. 

So, the holidays are coming up, and with that comes more things you don’t really need. There are ways around offending those family members and friends that find joy in giving things. I’m personally a big fan of Heifer international, so that’s usually what I ask for, but there are plenty of other charities that can serve the same purpose. 

If you’re really serious about trying this, and those friends don’t support it, in my eyes they might not be friends worth having. Hell, there’s probably another article worth writing about learning to declutter your life of friends who aren’t good for you, or don’t support you. I’m notoriously bad at it, another type of sentimentality I’d be better off without. 

So, as the title of this piece implies; try and kill the pack rat this holiday season. At the very least give it a couple knocks to the noggin for good measure. 

Take care everyone, and enjoy the holidays.

Silken Hands


Hands are a testament to the life we’ve led.Each callous and scar a reminder of work done, or drops of life shed.  

Give me a pair that’s ragged and worn, filled to bursting with sinew and cracks in bone.  

Show me the places where skin has cracked, then filled itself in. Each swing of a hammer, or knick of a knife. Tiny memories carved of living tissue. As hands build, they build themselves. 

They grow, wrapping themselves in corded experience. Skin grows over splinters, and slivers of metal. Cementing themselves as a part of the hands themselves. 

Hands of silk are fine for poetry and song, but in practice tear and run. Rough hands hold the beauty of memory in them, telling the story of someone’s life. 

So again, give me that pair that’s been shaped and molded by life. 

The Calvert Cliffs


I forgot how much Maryland has to offer. It’s “America in miniature”, after all. An hour or so in any direction will put you in a completely different ecosystem. My favorite has always been the marshes here, especially the ones on the coast. That “in miniature” aspect of my home state is compressed even more in them, and I’ve never seen a better example of that than the cliffs of Calvert. 

Calvert cliffs are about two hours south of Baltimore, almost at the edge of the Chesapeake bay. I didn’t even know about them until my uncle sent me an article. I invited my grandfather along. He’s always had a camera in his hands, and since he retired that’s become even more true. I figured it’d be a nice outing with him, and a chance for him to snap a few shots along the hike. 


The trails aren’t long (none of them are more than two miles) but that’s sort of why I loved them. They compress the hardwood forests with the beach ecosystem and create a marsh of brackish water in between them. Beavers have dammed the stream that runs through the park and flooded the area until a wide, still pond was born. It’s been populated by all manner of wildlife and in most places enough water lilies to obscure the water itself from view. 

The park is a hotspot for fossil collecting. There were quite a few families on the beach sifting through the sand looking for shells and fossilized shark’s teeth. Gramps and I spent forty-five minutes or so meandering around the beach looking for driftwood for my grandmother, and enjoying the sound of the waves. I found a few fossilized scallop shells, and waded out into the sea (no matter how cool the weather, I can’t resist the chance to get into the water). 

The outlet of the stream into the ocean was my favorite part of the hike. Seeing the reeds and cattails give way to sand, stone and salt water just had something beautiful about it I’ve yet to find words for. 


The park itself seems to be a pretty popular place for people to visit, and that meant a scarcity of wildlife, but it was clear that life was there. Heron tracks ran along the small stream where fresh water turned to brine, and beaver dams and old lodges littered the ponds. I’d love to visit on a weekday, early in the morning and watch the herons Wade through the brackish water, capitalizing on the overlap of freshwater prey, and trapped crabs and fish from the ocean. 

The walk back to the car was a great chance to chat with my grandfather. I’ve always admired his quiet way of seeing the world. He lives in a family of talkative, argumentative folks, but he just sits and listens. He notices things that a lot of people wouldn’t, and takes his time forming opinions. He talks a lot about being proud of his children and grandchildren for being educated, but doesn’t consider himself to be “smart”. The truth is, he’s the wisest person I know, and it was good to just walk through the wild with a person who imparted the love of it to me, and talk about life, and the things we find beautiful in it. 

This may have been the last little weekend trip I take, and I’m glad I got to spend it with Gramps. I’m beyond excited to get back up north, but it’s going to be hard to leave my marshes and wetlands behind when the time comes. 

Creating My Own Vices

I whittle and carve when I’m bored the way people more intelligent than me read the news, or do Sudoku. Most of the time I’m doing that I’ve got a pipe in my mouth. 

It’s seems like the idea would have come to me sooner. It certainly crossed my mind before. “Carve yourself a pipe”. The truth is, I didn’t feel up to carving  something like that. The things I made tended to have a roughness to them. Serviceable, but certainly not pretty. I wanted to know for sure that with just my handtools (knife, cabinet scraper, chisels and sandpaper) I could still make a pipe that had curvature to it. It’s harder than it sounds. 

I’ll admit, I cheated a bit. I found a kit with the bowl pre-bored, and the stem already shaped and drilled. The next one I make, I’ll do those myself as well now that I’ve got a handle on the process.

These little projects always calm my nerves, and they’ve been stretched pretty thin as I get ready to leave Maryland for the foreseeable future, for the second time in my life. 

The shaping process was the hardest. I was concerned about using the chisels, in case I cracked the wood though to the bowl, and ruining the whole piece. So I found a middle ground with my 3/4ths chisel and took my time. I slowly pulled out a rough octagon, then switched to my whittling knife. Let me tell you, the edge I keep on that thing made it so easy to take off paper thin slivers. Admittedly, I did in six hours what a belt sander could have done in twenty minutes. Christ it felt good though. Seeing the knife shape the wood at a glacial pace, watching as each corner slowly turn into a slight curve. 

The whole process took me the better part of the weekend. I get pretty dogged about my projects, so I carried the thing around in my pocket wherever I went. Chipping away little bits of wood, as little bits of time presented themselves. I finally got it down to the shape I wanted then switched to a cabinet scraper and some sandpaper. This is my favorite part of carving anything. The place where your hand slipped and left an unintended gouge? Smoothed away. That spot where you knicked your thumb and bled into the edge of the bowl? Gone. 

After about two hours of grumbling at anyone who asked me anything, and snarling at myself when my hands locked up (as they are apt to do), I got the shape I wanted pulled out. 

I’ll be honest, I am WICKED proud of this project. 

I considered just leaving it natural, and clear coating the outside. I put it down and went to carve pumpkins with my family. I couldn’t make a decision on where to go from this point. Halfway through carving a witch into a gourd I remembered seeing a friend stain a little project of hers with blackberry juice and ash mixed together. I gave my family an Irish goodbye and went to buy blackberries. 

I hope they’ll forgive me, but it was absolutely worth it. 

It’s amazing how quickly the weekend past working on this. Which is exactly what I wanted. I’m in autopilot now, with such a short time till I get to go back where things make sense and start working on projects I care about.