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.

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s