The Wrong We Inflict

So I was scrolling through Seneca’s Letters from A Stoic to look for something tangible to tie my day together, one marred by the random lies and misdeeds of others leading to these peoples’ own questioning of how and why they are perceived poorly, unable to understand or be at least self aware but trapped in a state of anxiety for it.

“Never do wrong to others takes one a long way towards peace of mind. People who know no self-restraint lead stormy and disordered lives, passing their time in a state of fear commensurate with the injuries they do to others, never able to relax. After every act that tremble, paralysed, their consciences continually demanding an answer, not allowing them to get on with other things. To expect punishment is to suffer it; and to earn it is to expect it. Where there is a bad conscience, some circumstance or other may provide one with impunity, but never with freedom from anxiety; for a person takes the attitude that even if he isn’t found out, there’s always the possibility of it. His sleep is troubled. Whenever he talks about someone else’s misdeeds he thinks of his own, which seems t him all too inadequately hidden, all to inadequately blotted out of people’s memories. A guilty person sometimes has the luck to escape detection, but never to feel sure of it.” – Letters from a Stoic, CVII

There’s a lot in that that feels a little directed at me for my own mistakes in the past where a machiavellian tendency and self-destructive lashing out led to finding myself in numerous vulnerable situations both physically and morally.

Yet, reflecting on this, I look at those from my day, reflecting on their actions and choices too as well as my own remembering truly that he who is without sin should cast the first stone. Yet it seems all too common in the modern climate to rush to make false apology videos for wrong doing as a confessional, as if the court of public opinion and own soul will absolve someone of their sins as quickly as their Hail Mary’s will. Actions like lying about illness or threatening others with no other reason than those self-serving seem to be common place. How far have we come that we feel so powerless in our own lives that we must pretend to be dying for a little social control? I’ve seen two cases of this in a week, not even that: three days.

Often, I believe, in 2021, it’s not our actions that follow us it’s the lies we tell to hide the truth of the action that weighs heavier not just on the self but also in people’s minds. If someone does wrong and admits to that, the situation is dealt with and often people move on, yet the cover up of an act is seen as more unforgivable than the act itself. Look above to Seneca: “never freedom from anxiety“.

So, when I say wrong in the title, in reference to inflicting wrong, we have to ask first what that means. Just punishments are teaching moments and quips and remarks sure, who hasn’t done those things in service of the greater good even with an air of emotion to them? Even telling someone to piss off is even rather blunt tool to demonstrate that now is the time for solitude but people tend not to want to hear that. When we talk about inflicting wrong here, as Seneca speaks about is the case of acting in a way that serves only vice and that exists to subvert the natural way of being, rejecting all the maxims of what it means to at least try to act in a virtuous way. The list is rather long.

So what do we do in these situations, if we inflict wrong? Other than take time to improve and to reflect on this action and take responsibility for it, not much. The gratification of forgiveness from those we wrong is self serving and unfulfilling even when our actions are exposed. So we apologise not for ourselves but for the people we have wronged as a sincere notice of reflection and implication that all efforts will be made to not do that thing again. You can’t unring a bell or unfuck your partner’s friend (or whatever), so realistically the only thing we can take responsibility for is the self and self improvement not the hurt inflicted because that is often immeasurable. It’s easier said than done, yet with all things, it’s the journey not destination that matters most as the destination for all of us is that very long sleep.

Z3N0

Stoic Lent

Today will be my final day as a meat eater for the foreseeable future. Maybe I’ll indulge in proteins from fish on occasion but for the rest of the time my diet will be wholly vegetarian. It’s not a massive inconvenience, the M&S veggie burgers are the best I’ve ever had, better than the beef equivalent in fact. It’s not a new experience, I was previously vegetarian for three months of last year, pushing myself to go as long as I could never attempting such a diet before. Christmas broke me of course, who can resist?

I never really thought of it as a lent as such until I was reading Seneca today on my lunch break. Beforehand, it was instead a strange need that I felt despite having no real moral stance on vegetarianism before. As someone growing up in a household with an Italian heritage, to refuse meat was seen a little like an alien request and even months into this attempt, the packs of salami in the fridge were looking very friendly.

“Still, my determination to put your moral strength of purpose to test is such that I propose to give even you the following direction found in great men’s teaching: set aside now and then a number of days during which you will be content with the plainest of food, and very little of it, and with rough, course clothing, and will ask yourself, ‘Is this what one used to dread?’ It is in times of security that the spirit should be preparing itself to deal with different times; while fortune is bestowing favours on it then is the time for it to be strengthened against her rebuffs.” – Letters from a Stoic XVIII

It’s like this summer heat, desiring the cool weather while in the winter we crave the heat. We teach ourselves to appreciate what we have, what we don’t have and that we never needed a thing to begin with. I read somewhere that some stoics have slept on the floor of the kitchen with nothing but a single pillow to appreciate the beds. Perhaps this trial of the self is similar yet also extended and not as fleeting as a night on the tiles. While a simple task for veteran vegetarians, for me this is a task each day after day reflective of the path of philosophy itself. Who knows, if it sticks as a matter of conscience and tribunal of the self, so be it.

When I think about it, I realize that I could give up plenty and still live my life wholly. Someone said to me today that they aspire to be rich. And I replied:

“To be rich you must first be prepared to be poor.” – Z

We can all afford to be poor. Being rich is not a thing of material but of self and for that you need only the items you were born with. It’s good practice at least, this little test of mine to go meat free. Test yourself, see what you can afford to lose and still remain wealthy.

Z3N0

Progress

I was thinking about progress today and how far I’ve come on my journey from where I was and reflecting on criticisms that I set too much of a high bar for myself when it comes to personal conduct because I am disappointed when I fail to meet it. It’s a same situation perhaps when people say things like: “why do you want to lose more weight you’re already fine“. No, we set our own standards to live by and our own goals, it’s the only way to have integrity of the self. If we set our standards by others we will find ourselves trapped in moral dilemmas contrary to our own nature.

“You have to persevere and fortify your pertinacity until the will to do good becomes as disposition to do good.” – Letters from a Stoic XVI

It amazes me the standards other people put onto us and the expectations that we follow their standards of what it means to be in line with our nature. The only person who can truly tell us what is and what isn’t correct within our own minds is the directing soul. So being that we hold ourselves as the highest order within our own lives why do we put so much stock in the standards of peers who no little of what it means to be aligned with their own path let alone ours.

“Philosophy is nor an occupation of a popular nature, not is it pursued for the sake self-advertisement … It moulds and builds the personality, orders one’s life, regulates one’s conduct, shows one what one should do and what one should leave undone, sits at the helm and keeps one on the correct course as one is tossed about in perilous seas. Without it no one can lead a life free of worry. Every hour of every day countless situations arise that call for advice, and for that advice we have to look to philosophy.” – Letters from a Stoic XVI

People will ask you to lower your standards of the self and spirit but you should ask of those questions to why they would ask such a thing? Most of the time it will be out of concern, yet what concern is there for a mind free of the worries of the aggregate? What need is there to worry about you not worrying?

“You’re masking mental illness with philosophy.” – X

I disagreed with this statement. I have a mental illness that being anxiety and depression, the former causing episodes with similar symptoms to asthma. Philosophy is a key part of my recovery from this underlying condition, I use it to build myself a fortified fence along the cliff edge, fallen from so many times before into the dark only to have to pull myself up again with a ladder made from the same stuff.

Whether it be weight loss, weight gain, a speed record, a perfect soufflé or the stoic path – The Way -, we set our own standards. What matters to them should not matter to you. Working in the highest and greatest good of yourself and humanity always, your goals can scrape the stars, all you have to do is reach for them.

This post is going to remain short, the message is clear to you, to me, to us all.

Z3N0

The Difference A Day Makes

If you need more evidence about the transience and flux of time, see how much can change in a single 24 hour period. From the micro to macro, we have examples throughout history of how single moments in minute corners of our experience can change the course of fate. Of course, by changing the course of fate, I mean to divert it for a brief instance in the history of the multiverse, before it returns to it’s new equilibrium on a path of fine.

Take the current UK COVID-19 response, for example. Lockdown lifting seems imminent one day and hopes of holiday dashed by the next. One day the Conservatives seem set for an electoral landslide in the next GE only for Dominic Cummings to appear with enough bombs dropped to level Whitehall.

One of my favourite comic books, The Killing Joke talks about this from the perspective of The Joker.

DC Comic, Warner Bros.

It’s entirely nihilistic and on brand for the supervillain but is he wrong to define how changeable the world is, our reality is? A single experience can change our entire outlook on life for the better or worse, dependant on how deeply we allow it to affect us. For that, I refer to Stilbo:

“…when his home town was captured and he emerged from the general conflagration, his children lost, his wife lost, alone and none the less happy man, and questioned by Demetrius. Asked by this man, known, from the destruction dealt out to towns, as Demetrius the City Sacker, whether he had lost anything, he replied, ‘I have all my valuables with me.’ There was an active and courageous man – victorious over the very victory of the enemy! ‘I have lost,’ he said ‘nothing.’ He made Demetrius wonder whether he had won a victory at all.” – Letters from a Stoic IX

While the film of The Killing Joke was an insult to the source material, I can’t deny the raw talent of Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy all the same… I digress.

The Joker isn’t wrong but his nihilism is terribly destructive and selfish – realistically, what can we expect from a comic book villain? In a sense, it’s so meaningless and transient that it is maddening but its also brilliant. So brilliant in fact that we should not be surprised by anything at all nor upset by it. One day we sleep under a roof the next day open sky, yet we endure and overcome. We do this together, for the sake of each other not just ourselves.

The Way flows ever onwards never stopping, as our blood and our breath, even in death: we return to the blood and breath of the universe.

Each day when we wake up, take stock. See all the things you have and all the things you need. Take stock of what you are grateful for having because in seconds it may all fade with you or without you. From your friendships and relationships to the sheets you sleep in.

Amor fati and you will love whatever it brings, whatever the day.

I suppose, despite how sad it all seems, how lonely it is in the moment of these things happening, we learn quickly. I’m not above feeling sad and alone and despairing but I’m also someone who can find the root causes of these things. Fate, and love and all that comes with it are surmised by a metaphor my friend told me today.

“If you have a horse at your stables, that you love taking care of and it enjoys your company. You do activities together and everything’s perfect. Then a storm strikes, the horse is not being itself, it’s afraid and stressed. As the owner, you wish to calm it down and let it know that all is well. You tug at its reins, but it does not comply. It shoves away instead, so you naturally tug at it harder to make it come back to you. It’ll eventually relent and do as you wish but then it’s no longer genuine. It’ll look for chances to escape and be free again while you as the owner forces it back, it’ll be unhappy and so will you since things are no longer the same.” – X

Don’t tug on the reins and let this happen organically. Or rather as Bukowski said about fame and success: don’t try. You’ve got this more than you realize, fellow traveller; trust me and trust yourself.

Z3N0

Seneca’s 16th Letter

I’ve found time to read again, or rather I’ve made the effort to read and the time has just been there all along, hiding between my naps and pacing. Once again, Universe or God or Allah or The Way seems to be guiding me towards conclusions with happenstances lining up exactly as I need them. I read Seneca’s letters and at the same time, a friend of mine talks to me about faith and trust and holding the faith and trust in the self and others. Of course, the story wasn’t that at all, but boiled down to its core, its about those factors. And, perhaps like all human stories, it was about love.

If you don’t know, we can’t exist without some kind of love. Even wars which we think are based on hate, are in fact based on the love of ones own ideology and others. You may curse fate for bringing war to your country but you will endure because you love your family and you love the life you have and the fight for the new equilibrium.

“Whether we are caught in the grasp of an inexorable law of fate, whether it is God who as lord of the universe has ordered all things, or whether the affairs of mankind are tossed and buffeted haphazardly by chance, it is philosophy that has the duty of protecting us.” – Letters from a Stoic XVI

Being a good person and true to one’s own discipline is a daily task and not an accomplished feat that you can overcome just the once. I was met today with a test of my own faith in another, and I was told that to be disciplined in trust is a virtue. Of course, with those words I could have kissed the person who said it on the mouth then and there but I was practising discipline. It reminds me of one of my favourite lines from the show Bojack Horseman, a series that everyone should watch, to reflect on themselves.

“Every day it gets a little easier… But you gotta do it every day — that’s the hard part. But it does get easier.” – Jogging Baboon, BoJack Horseman

The destination in your life when it comes to philosophy is not a finish line of enlightenment and a medal but the truest end – death. Philosophy has no finish line and its a path we all walk in some way or another. Don’t cry over potholes, step around them and brace for the incline. What goes up must come down and what goes down must come up.

“Carry out a searching analysis and close scrutiny of yourself in all sorts of different lights. Consider above all else whether you’ve advanced in philosophy or just in actual years.” – Letters from a Stoic XVI

Reflect on each of your steps before you make them, if you find yourself stepping on someone else’s head, you’ve gone off course. Today I found myself checking to see where I was treading, to see if I was finding gratification in easy shortcuts rather than walking the moral path. It was well intentioned and not malicious by anyone’s standards yet I found myself at a place of unease and needed to check my own map before continuing. The path as a wise person said to me today, is going to be fine and we need to have faith in it. It is difficult to see how ours will intersect with others or how another’s path with transpire before them yet when we have faith in ourselves and the universe, what need is there to worry? We keep walking, every day, with each breathe we walk. It is in our nature.

“Here is another saying of Epicurus: ‘If you shape your life according to nature, you will never be poor; if according to people’s opinions, you will never be rich.’ Nature’s wants are small, while those of opinion are limitless.”

You may never be the president if you choose not to step on heads and people may look down on you for your conviction. They make mistake your calm in a situation for apathy; your passiveness as callousness; your love as foolish, and your faith as delusion. The solution is that you keep walking your path undeterred in the light and goodness of the philosophy. You may never have sheets of gold but those who do, can wake up as paupers as easily as the rest of us so why do we care about the opinions of such things? Love your own way and you will find it easier to walk. Your way, The Way: amor fati.

Z3N0

The Entertainment of Conflict

From Grey’s Anatomy to Batwoman to The Vampire Diaries most stories in the modern fiction landscape have the singular focal point of emotional conflict. With conflict there is no story. It’s almost as if there were so few solely dedicated Mr Tuvok stories in Star Trek: Voyager because the stoic Vulcan had no conflict and when he did, it required the influence of outside actors. Another good example from Star Trek is the case of Mr Data who’s best stories came from times that he activated his emotion-chip. Would we watch House MD if Dr Greg House shrugged off things? What would WandaVision be, if Wanda Maximoff viewed death in a stoic way? Kids love Anakin Skywalker and see him as the coolest Jedi despite being the antithesis of stoicism.

Stripping this back, taking this back 2000 years, to the gladiator pits of Ancient Rome, we see the nature of our love of conflict bare faced. Because that’s what is it is. We find entertainment in stories of people inflicting pain on each other. It’s almost a human desire to see it whether that’s in the Colosseum or in a deathmatch in Halo or in some trashy teen rom-com on Netflix. What’s the difference between inflicting physical pain and emotional pain? Both leave scars.

“The spectators insist that each on killing his man shall be thrown against another to be killed in his turn; and the eventual victor is reserved by them for some other form of butchery; the only exit for the contestants is death. Fire and steel keep the slaughter going.” – Letters from a Stoic VII.

Here, Seneca is speaking about the barbarism of the half-time shows at the Colosseum but doesn’t it sound familiar? We delude ourselves with sophistication but with each comic book, each novel, each TV show, each film franchise, each is just a protagonist going against and an antagonist over and over again. The only escape is death for both the spectator and the participant.

I was a habitual watcher of The Jeremy Kyle Show before that was cancelled. It was an emotional and at times literal gladiator match under the guise of conflict resolution broadcasted everyday. It was fantastic and I hated it because of how much I liked it. Of course, I never enjoyed the conflict and drama when it was thrust upon me, as is the way. We haven’t changed as human beings from the Romans to our post-modern reality televised Truman Show 21st Century existence.

I even know people who start fights because they’re bored to watch the chaos. I used to do it in secondary school for the shit and giggles. It’s wanton violence on the soul for what? A little butchery at lunchtime? Can we humans be truly entertained without an antagonist to conflict with?

There are six types of conflict in all fiction even in non-fiction: person versus person; person versus society; person versus nature; person versus technology; person versus self, and person versus supernatural.

All conflict in our lives can be boiled down to those six things. Why are so entertained by it? In Taoism, this conflict between yin and yang is life so does it stand to reason that life is conflict? Is our purpose in life is to stand as a rock in this conflict uninterested, apathetic? Is that even possible? We are both the conflict and the peace. We neither one thing nor the other, are we? And, in the end:

“Yesterday a sperm: tomorrow a mummy or ashes.” – Meditations 4.48.2

I don’t think I’m educated or experienced enough to decide. I’m certainly not far enough along the path to come to any rational conclusion on my own right now. Does it make me any less of a good man for indulging as a spectator in what I can only see to be human nature?

“Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.” – Meditations 10.16

Only one thing that I can be certain of is that Anakin Skywalker is a terrible Jedi.

Z3N0