Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Living like a Stoic

Today begins "Stoic Week 2013" (material here). It's an interesting idea to try out thinking about life from another paradigm. But, actually, looking at what the Stoics believed, I see a lot of points of contact with my own beliefs. The materials present 3 central ideas of Stoicism.

  • The idea that value, or the "good life" lies within the self, and is defined by character.
  • The importance of recognizing what we do and don't have control over -- essentially we control only ourselves, and not even all of that. The most important thing we can control are our judgments. Feelings like anger or sadness result from the perspective we adopt, and that perspective can be altered.
  • The understanding of Nature (and society) as an interconnected and cooperative system, rather than a Darwinian competitive mass of individuals struggling individually for existence.
The Stoic prescription is a little improvement every day, guided by reflection on the day's events in the evening, and the formation of improvements in the morning. The meditative aspects remind me very much of what we called "devotions" when I was an Evangelical Christian. It's interesting to find another tradition of the same vintage as Christianity that contains this reflective aspect. I'm not sure about daily improvement -- it's sounds good, but my last experience of this is that it becomes exhausting and leads to frustration.

Today's meditation focused on what we can control, and trying to be aware of feelings and desires and from whence they originate. Today, being just an ordinary sort of work day, it's not as though I have big dramatic examples.
  • I realize the desire to work on fun, easy stuff first rather than more difficult, longer-term tasks.  This is in part a judgment about "low-hanging fruit," partly about wanting to complete a task before I start another one, and partly just doing what I like. So it's not all one way, but perhaps partly this is the kind of thing the Stoics might classify as "wrong desires"
  • I was annoyed with my wife for interrupting me during work. This is the kind of thing the Stoics would say is pointless, since the annoyance comes from outside myself, and I can't change it.
The question is whether I can really not be annoyed by interruptions. I think this is somewhat possible. I am not annoyed when work colleagues interrupt me to ask questions, for example, so the annoyance is contextual, rather than about the act of being interrupted. I also think that I am more impatient than I used to be, and there is no reason to believe that I could not be so again. In a way, this is a good test case, because interruptions are bound to happen, and my schedule is such that they will often be at inconvenient times.

Thinking more about the actual event, the annoyance had as much to do with frustration at not being able to solve a coding problem -- a background level of annoyance, leaving me more prone to reacting to small stimuli. The background annoyance is not all bad. Sometimes, it gives me an edge that keeps me alert and focused on the problem. The feeling of being sharply focused and on the cusp of discovering a solution makes interruptions all the more annoying. 

As a practical matter, I don't think I would want to lose this drive. From a Stoic point of view, I don't know how to classify it. What is it that makes the Stoic try to make each better than the last?  Surely it is some kind of drive, some form of energy derived from the sense of accomplishment in improving the self; the Stoic way is not the Buddhist way of detachment from the illusion of personhood. If so, then Stoicism is about channeling that energy where it matters. So does solving these coding problems matter for the development of my "rational character"? And if not, or if there is only a weak correlation, to what else should the energy be directed?

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