Stoicism (My Personal Best)

Coin with the quote

I’ve mentioned before that I’m currently studying Modern Stoicism; In a nutshell Stoicism focuses on what makes a virtuous person and how a virtuous person should act as the starting point for answering life’s big Philosophical questions. Stoicism advises that a good life is one where you “live in accordance with nature”. By “nature” Stoics aren’t talking about flowers, trees and butterflies (as lovely as they are), but rather they are referring to human nature which they define as 1) humans are social animals and 2) humans are “rational” beings, as in “capable of complex thinking”.

Stoicism is definitely not a one-size-fits-all way of thinking. In fact, I wasn’t even sure if it was going to work out for me, but I’ve been practicing and I’m happy to say that I’ve made some progress. The main exercise I’ve been working on is being rational in emotional situations. Like I said, this is a work in progress. I’ve gotten really good at calming down quickly after irritating instances, particularly at work. I’ve ranted about dumb customers on the blog before and how I dwell on the issue for waaaaaaaaaaaay too long and so being able to calm down almost immediately is huge progress for me.

Naturally I want to continue this positive trend of improvement so I usually like to try and find courses and lessons and the like that the folks in the Modern Stoic movie are kind enough to publish. Most of the courses are usually free because the folks in the Modern Stoic groups generally do really want to help people.

It just so happens that I picked up the latest book for beginner Stoics and I keep running into the same problem; Their examples aren’t really geared for an LGBTQIA audience so I have translate their heteronormative jargon into something I can actually use. 

Here’s an excerpt from the introduction:

Mike’s twenty-five-year college reunion was supposed to be fun. Instead, it has turned into an exercise in inadequacy. His classmates, Aziz and Slaiah, are still together, ever since their first date during sophomore year; Mike’s marriage lasted less than five years, leading to financial trouble and insecurity about romantic relationships that persist to this day. Steve, Mike’s former roommate, has maintained his athletic physique while Mike’s potbelly has only grown, a charming accompaniment to his thinning hair. And his roommate’s business major propelled him into the C-suite, while Mike has stagnated in middle management of a company whose products he doesn’t even believe in. Everywhere he looks, Mike sees success, but when he faces himself in the bathroom mirror after the cotail hour, he can’t help but feel like a failure. ‘No wonder I’m unhappy’, he thinks. ‘It’s because my life is bad. Everything is awful.’

-From the Introduction section of A Handbook for New Stoics; How to Thrive in a World Out of Your Control

I understand that this example is playing on a series of well known tropes to help the reader easily pick apart the points of the lesson later on, but I’m already frustrated by this example because, dude, Mike is obviously coded a cis-hetero male and it’s actually really distracting how unrelatable he is. They made him too much of a cardboard cutout person and I really can’t deal so I’m going to have to write up my own, hopefully more relatable, example:

Lib receives an email invite to a five year reunion with their former fellow Americorps NCCC team leaders, a “camping reunion”, and is decidedly very uncomfortable with the prospect. Their year in Americorps was suppose to make them into positive influences and leaders that were going to change the world. Lib has been keeping up the other team leaders’ exploits on social media. One of the couples from the group just got married. Another couple is obviously still together and going on strong. Another former team leader has their Instagram filled with travel pics from mountain hiking, cannoning on rivers, her boyfriend by her side and their two dogs as loyal traveling companions; She’s obviously living the good life. One team leader has turned their Instagram into a fitness advertisement for whatever program she’s currently doing. Everyone seems to be hitting the major milestones in life and knows what they’re doing. Meanwhile Lib can’t even look in the mirror without the feeling of dysphoria crawling over them. Lib doesn’t date because the only thing worse than an awkward first date is having to explain what “asexual” and “aromantic” means to a potential life partner and Lib is terrified of rejection because of it. If Lib struggles to maintain healthy-supportive friendships with other people how are they supposed to find a life partner that won’t emotionally scar them for life? Lib can’t afford to take a vacation or travel every year. Lib lives from pay check to pay check from a part-time job at the local grocery store and just learned yesterday that the department was going to lose 90 labor hours (which translates to about one shift a week) because of the new automation features, like self check outs, that the company is adding to the store. Lib needs to lose 15 pounds by the end of the year to get the company’s insurance refund, but Lib can’t even think about making it through the day dealing with people without a coffee and a donuts on their break. Lib sends a polite email declining the invite to the reunion and then sinks down in their chair stressing about how much the trip would have cost between buying the camping equipment, the plane tickets, and the humiliation feeling like they’re the only one who doesn’t have their shit together.

There, I fixed it.

Obvious, I have a LOT of things not going the way I want. When I first started learning about Stoicism I wasn’t actually sure it would work out because they have you do a before and after survey and my reported levels of happiness actually dropped after I had finished the free course. Part of the problem is how much I was tying my “happiness” to external events outside my control. Taking the course made me realize I was doing that so the before results were more like a false positive and the end survey results were a better reflection of how happy I really was. I wan’t exactly miserable, but I wasn’t happy with the direction I was going. What convinced me that sticking with Stoicism was actually a good fit for me despite the initial negative results was Stoicism helped me accept my asexuality and gave me a non-medical, healthy way to deal with my gender dysphoria.

I didn’t realize I was asexual until I came back home from Americorps and part of that was thinking about how I hadn’t “met someone” like some of the other folks had. They really do sell the romance bit during orientation so when didn’t get my sparkly anime-roses moment I started questioning what was up. I still get a little jealous when the other former team-leaders start flashing their engagement rings all over Instagram and Twitter to the point that I have to shut my phone off for a little while, but the point of the lesson is that there are somethings in life that we can control; how we feel (or don’t feel) attraction is one of those things we can’t control. It took somebody spelling out that we can’t actually control our bodies that finally allowed me to accept that being asexual wasn’t “my fault” and I could stop feeling guilty about it. 

It took a little longer to accept that I would have to adjust my world view to the reality that I’m probably going to be a life-long single person. It took a little longer than that to accept that while I do have some control over what I buy and where I spend my money, my over all financial situation is determined by other factors that I can’t really control (no matter what USA Today says on Twitter) because of systemic issues that have been in place for decades. Knowing that gender dysphoria is just something my body does because biology is weird helps me develop healthy coping strategies like unisex clothes, gender neutral hair styles, and not judging myself for having a random dysphoric episode. 

Other than having to rewrite the introduction to the book to make it applicable to me, I’m actually pretty excited to start the exercises. The first thing any course on Stoicism is going to emphasis is the dichotomy of control from Epictetus’s teachings and the exercise is to go through out the day analyzing what is in my complete control and what isn’t. I’m already familiar with the exercise, but I definitely don’t do it enough on a daily basis and it’s a really good habit to get into and the thing about good habits is the more often you can do them the better.

The exercise is simple enough;  you take an incident let’s say I was late to work because of the new construction on my commute. Well, I certainly don’t have any control about what the road conditions are like or how traffic moves, but I can control what time I leave for work. On my end I’m responsible for making sure that I go to bed at a decent time so I get plenty of sleep, set my alarm early enough that I can get everything I need done before I go to work, and I need to plan ahead and leave early enough that even if the road conditions are less than ideal I can make it to work on time. If I’m early to work that means I have time for a cup of coffee so that’s also a win.

Training yourself to think “What is in my total control/What is not in my total control” does take practice and I’m not going to be hard on myself if I don’t master it right away. The nice thing about Modern Stoicism is that there are no sages. You’re some times asked to visualize what a wise person or sage would do in a similar situation to yours and you try model yourself after that behavior, but nobody who practices Stoicism claims to be a perfect sage who has all the answers. We’re all just doing the best we can with the knowledge we have. I personally find that comforting even if, as with most things, there really needs to be more LGBTQIA representation and consideration. 

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