‘The Internet and the Dinner Party: Cultivating Stoic Calm in the Online World’ by Tanya Brodd

The Internet and the Dinner Party: Cultivating Stoic Calm in the Online World

By Tanya Brodd

How to learn to prevent this from happening!

How to learn to prevent this from happening!

Reputations are made and ruined in the blink of an eye these days.  A few months ago, in Indiana, USA, a pizza company gave an interview supporting the new Religious Freedom act.  The proprietor of the small, family-owned company said they would serve a gay couple who came into their restaurant but they wouldn’t cater a gay wedding.  The interview went viral and the Internet responded in a way that has been becoming increasingly commonplace.  Their Yelp! site was flooded with one star reviews (they had only two reviews previously) and by the end of the day they announced they were closing their doors due to threats.  In the predictable followup to this story, they started a Gofundme page which raised over $400,000 in 24 hours.  Clearly, expressing oneself on the Internet goes far beyond trolling, the comments section of the newspaper, and Facebook comments.  People lose jobs and are made to feel in fear of their safety frequently.  Others have been bullied to the point of taking their own lives.  On the other hand, it is very easy to express solidarity with whatever cause by joining in on the side we support of any issue.  When a bus monitor was the victim of bullying by students hundreds of thousands of dollars were raised to support her and, as it was hoped by many, to shame the students.  When a man was shamed for dancing on a subway, strangers halfway around the world offered to throw him a dance party and several pop stars joined in.  Any incident, no matter how trivial or huge, can quickly go viral and change someone’s life forever due to a picture or quote on the Internet.

Memes pop up about social issues, political viewpoints, even parenting styles, disabilities, and anything else that people have strong feelings about.  Navigating this quickly changing world can be very difficult for the modern Stoic and I am no exception.  It may seem as though the ancients would have little in the way of advice to offer us today.  Yet, in many ways the modern Internet can be thought of as similar to an ancient dinner party.  Epictetus, in particular, had a lot to say about this.  These words have helped me form an unofficial policy for my own online interaction.

At the beginning of 2015, I wrote a story for a blog about disabilities featuring my own children and their struggles with autism.  I was really surprised at how quickly this story spread around the Internet.  At first, I was reading all the comments and so many were positive.  Writing about our journey was something I had wanted to do for a long time and this was my first tentative step in this direction.  It was clear that this story really struck a chord with a lot of parents.  But, as the story was shared to groups outside of the autism community some comments turned negative.  My parenting ability, my reason for writing the article,  the value of my children’s lives were all thrown into question.  And when I read those comments, Stoic practice or not, it hurt.  I had to go back and pull out my books and start my practice all over again.  It felt like reading some words, especially Epictetus, for the first time:

“When someone treats you ill or speaks ill of you, remember that he acts or speaks thus because he thinks it is incumbent upon him.  That being the case, it is impossible for him to follow what appears good to you, but what appears good to himself; whence it follows, that, if he gets a wrong view of things, the man that suffers is the man that has been deceived.  For if a person thinks a true composite judgement to be false, the composite judgement does not suffer, but the person who has been deceived.  If, therefore, you start from this point of view, you will be gentle with the man who reviles you.  For you should say on each occasion ‘He thought that way about it’” (Oldfather, 2000, p. 527).

So my first rule:  What is said about me, well, I can’t control that.  Furthermore, they are making a judgement (whether based on an article, a comment on an article, a belief I have, a cause I support, etc.) based on one small piece of who I am.  The best thing to do is to not respond at all.  In the case mentioned above, that story was written to be a snapshot about one instance in my life.  It needed to stand alone and not be defended.  It required  me to be quiet, calm and dignified. In order to do that I had to skip reading the comments – both good and bad.  I owed that to myself and my children.  It can be hard to remember the basics of Stoic principles and to be gentle.  But anger benefits no one in these situations.

That’s not to say that I don’t need to be concerned and careful about what I put out for public consumption.  The Internet is public.  Most of us do need to be mindful of our careers, our families, and to a degree, our reputations.  Epictetus again guides me in my interactions and comments online.  “Be silent for the most part, or else make only the most necessary remarks, and express these in few words.  But rarely, and when occasion requires you talk, talk, indeed, but about no ordinary topics.  Do not talk about gladiators, or horse-races, or athletes, or things to eat or drink – topics that arise on all occasions; but above all, do not talk about people, either blaming, or praising, or comparing them.  If, then, you can, by your own conversation bring over that of your companions to what is seemly” (Epictetus & Oldfather, 2000, p. 517).  Marcus Aurelius also has a lot to say on this subject but perhaps the best is the most simple of all “No random actions, none not based on underlying principles” (Aurelius & Hays, 2003, p. 37).

This, then, is one of  the hardest things to do.  The Internet provides the perfect place for gossip, mindless chatter, praising public (and sometimes private) figures I admire, tearing down those whose values run counter to mine.  This rule, to make my interactions online positive, uplifting, focusing on “what is seemly” is the one easy to say but hard to live by.  Judging by what others post, it is the one most people find challenging.  At least I’m not alone in this.  For even as I know the Internet is public, it still feels like a solitary pursuit.  It is easy to lose our composure, lose sight of our Stoic values, forget what we can and cannot control.  Stoicism can be a hard practice and sometimes it feels as though I am the only one trying.  Especially online.  So this personal, unofficial rule:  pursue what is seemly, is one I try to practice more often.  This includes not forwarding nasty or harsh articles and memes by those who have a viewpoint different than mine under the guise that they are funny.  It also, for me, includes exposing myself to those whose viewpoints run counter to mine.  I do not want to live in an echo chamber where only those who believe as I do are the ones who talk to me.  This helps me to be gentle with those who do disagree with me.

These two simple rules:  Deal gently with those who judge me since they aren’t judging the whole me and try to keep my online interactions focused on “what is seemly” may feel simplistic.  But, in reading Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and even Seneca the essence of this comes out again and again.  If I follow these rules I will have less concern with the negative side of the Internet.  I won’t have to worry about my reputation and dealing with anger and the often unwanted consequences that come from the quick retort.  I won’t have to hide  what I’m doing under a veil of anonymity.  To be sure, I am far from perfect in this regard.  But, this is the ideal I strive to move towards  continually.  This living philosophy which informs my everyday life is one of which I think the ancients would approve.

References

Aurelius, M., & Hays, G. (2002). Meditations. New York: Modern Library.

Epictetus, & Oldfather, W. A. (2000). The discourses, books III-IV: Fragments: Encheiridion. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Tanya just became the Principal at Arizona Autism Charter School.  She has a master’s degree in Special Education – Consultation and Collaboration with an emphasis in Autism and she’s finishing up another master’s degree in Educational Leadership.  Tanya have taught every single grade Kindergarten through 12th grade in a variety of settings. As you can imagine, with this kind of background, at one time philosophy and the ancients couldn’t have been further from her mind. However, she is a true lifelong learner and once she discovered the Stoics and their practices (through her classicist husband) she couldn’t stop reading about it with a view to making it applicable to our modern day.  Tanya has been reading and studying Ancient Stoicism for over three years and this is the first post she has written about it.

‘Falling into Stoicism’ by Mark Leggett

Falling into Stoicism

by Mark Leggett

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“Do not dread death or pain- but rather dread the fear of death or pain”- Epictetus

Last year I read my first book on stoicism. One aspect that appealed to me was that those principles written about over 2000 years ago are still relevant today and can be experienced by normal people in their daily lives. In this article would like to relate an incident that occurred to me 16 years ago after which I ‘discovered’ some of the truths written about by the Stoics.

I had walked and run in the hills all my adult life but in 1998 was new to winter mountaineering. I had decided to climb Ben Macdui, Britain’s second highest mountain in February. In contrast to Ben Nevis (Britain’s highest mountain) which is only a mile or so from the town of Fort William, Ben Macdui stands in the centre of a vast wilderness known as the Cairngorm Mountains. I started my hike from the car park at Linn of Dee near Braemar one Saturday afternoon and camped overnight at Derry Lodge- a disused hunting lodge set in a small pinewood. I was disappointed to find it was raining at this low level.

The next morning I rose and packed away my soggy tent and made my way through the trees and then through the open moor of Glen Derry, soon I was above the snow line. Turning left I climbed to the Hutchison Memorial Hut. The small bothy (editor’s note: a ‘bothy’ is a small shelter) was occupied and filled by a German tourist who had loads of kit spread over every surface; snow shoes, crampons, ice axe, walking poles, tent, sleeping bag, stove- he had everything. I chatted for a few minutes then carried on climbing up to towards Loch Etchachan. The significance of this was that the German might have been the last person to see me alive.

The weather got steadily worse as I climbed; thick snow underfoot and high winds. It was bitterly cold. Loch Etchachan was frozen over and covered with snow.

After many years hiking in hills I knew I was not a natural navigator but I could use a map and compass. I followed the frozen stream bed that fed into Loch Etchachan until it petered out then continued on a compass bearing for the summit.

'A map of the area in which Mark escaped death, and the route he took.

‘A map of the area in which Mark escaped death, and the route he took.

As I climbed the mountain the wind whipped the snow up into a fog until I was in a complete white out. A white out is similar to total darkness (an uncommon experience in our modern world where there is almost always some ambient light) only in a white out everything is white rather than black. The sky is white, the ground (covered in snow) is white and everything in between is white. Wherever you look its white – no horizon, no features, just white. Without any contrast or graduation in tone for the brain to use to detect distance or form one is effectively blind.

I religiously kept to my compass bearing and trudged blindly upwards. It took a while in the wind and snow carrying a heavy pack but eventually I was pleased to encounter the remains of a building – four low walls of dry stone half buried in the snow- that I remembered from previous ascents during the summer. I knew that this ruin was only a few hundred yards from the summit.

The summit was a wild inhospitable place. The trig point was completely encrusted in horizontal windblown icicles. It was extremely cold and blowing a gale. I didn’t stay long; no leisurely munching of sandwiches and admiring the view on this day!

I turned round and started my descent. All I had to do was reverse my compass bearing until I found the top of the frozen stream, follow that down to the frozen loch and then I would be safe. Buoyed up by my successful navigation on the way up, and having timed my ascent so I knew approximately how long it would take to get back to the stream, I was confident I would be ok.

However it all hinged on finding the top of the frozen stream which started as a mere depression in the snow. I had not considered how difficult (i.e. impossible) it would be to find this in white out conditions. If you look at a map of the area you will see that a change of direction is required at the stream because if one continues in a straight line there are some precipitous cliffs ahead. I descended until I was close to the point where I would have to turn, but became confused because I seemed to be climbing a mild incline. I say seemed to because in the white out conditions it was impossible to be sure, my legs were telling me from the increased effort that I might be climbing but apart from the compass in my hand I could see nothing.

Then I fell forward into the whiteness.

At first I thought that I might have tripped on a buried rock, or perhaps there was a small hole or dip in the snow, but when I carried on falling I knew what I had done. I had walked off the edge of the cliffs of Coire Sputan Dearg.

People asked me afterwards if I had fallen through a cornice of overhanging snow. Well I didn’t, I simply walked off a cliff because I couldn’t see the edge. I only fell for a second or two before slamming into the steep cliff side, bouncing, falling and bouncing again. I had seen these cliffs in the summer, I knew their height and steepness, I knew I was dead. This sounds dramatic, and obviously I didn’t die or I couldn’t be writing this, but at the time there was absolutely no doubt in my mind that I was about to die. It was NOT like being in front of a firing squad as the soldiers load there weapons ,hoping for a last minute reprieve, it was like being in front of a firing squad and hearing the command FIRE !, done deal ,no way out, end of story.

“Cease to hope…..and you will cease to fear. Widely different (as fear and hope are) the two of them march in unison like a prisoner and the escort he is handcuffed to.  “   Seneca

I am not a brave person, and several times in my life I have got myself into scrapes in the hills and scared myself witless. I don’t like taking risks and would even describe myself as a timid person. Rock climbing for example is not my thing; it is far too dangerous and scary. However on this occasion I felt no fear. I was looking death in the face and my only emotion was regret that it was all about to end. I believe that if I had fallen but ended up clinging to a cliff edge by my fingertips, with the possibility of survival or death, I would have been terrified. But because I thought death was inevitable I was not afraid.

“It’s not what happens to you but how you react that matters” Epictetus

I bounced and somersaulted through the air several more times before finding myself spread-eagled on a steep snow slope. By amazing good fortune I had fallen in the one area where the cliffs are less steep. When I realised I was alive I felt tremendous relief and elation , my back was hurting, my face was damaged and I was alone half way down a cliff in the Cairngorms miles away from anywhere, but I was alive. I could feel liquid running down my face. It was clear rather than bloody and I soon found I had no vision in my right eye, maybe the eyeball had burst? No matter -I was alive ! Hours later I found out that my eye was ok but the right side of my face had swollen up clamping my eyelids shut so I could see nothing out of that eye.

I don’t know how far I fell or how close to death I actually was. I know people have died falling from smaller cliffs and others have survived far greater drops. For me the two relevant factors were the absolute certainty that I was about to die followed very quickly by the miracle of my survival.

I tried to climb back up the cliff, but soon gave up as it was too steep and I had lost my ice axe in the fall. So I descended down to the valley – not easy on the steep terrain and icy snow with no axe and only one good eye.  Lower down I floundered my way through deep snow to Glen Luibeg.  Soon it got dark and it took a long while but eventually I reached my car at Linn of Dee and drove back to Braemar. There after scaring the people in the village shop with my swollen and bruised face I wound up in the police station where the village Bobby, who was also in the mountain rescue team, gave me a coffee and got the local G.P to examine me. The doctor managed to prise my eyelids apart and it was then that I found that my right eye was intact. He suggested that I spent the night in Braemar and that he had another look at me in the morning.

When going to the hills alone I always leave details of my intended route with a friend or my parents and phone them when I am back in civilization. So I went to the telephone box and called my friend and told her that I had had a fall but that I was alright. I found a ridiculously cheap room in the local hotel and got some food. The room had a television which at that time I didn’t have at home , so it was a great treat to watch TV , I also had  a bottle of whisky ( not ideal given the danger of concussion- but I was celebrating my survival ) so all in all it was a very pleasant evening.

When I got home the next day my friend told me what a terrible evening she had had, I was perplexed and asked her to explain. She told me that she had been very worried and upset after hearing about my fall and it had ruined an evening she had planned with friends. In contrast, I -the supposed traumatised victim-  had a great time !

“If you are distressed by anything external the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment”. Marcus Aurelius

My face healed quite quickly although my right eyelid still droops when I’m tired, my back took months to come right, but apart from that I survived the incident unscathed. Overall it was a positive experience; I discovered that death is not necessarily a terrifying event but that it is the fear of death that is terrifying. By luck, on this occasion my opinion of the events was coloured by the seeming inevitability of my death and then my lucky survival. I learnt that day that it is not external events that cause mental anguish but one’s attitude to those events- and that is something that is in one’s own control. If I had been badly injured or permanently disabled by my fall I admit I might have been left with a different outlook but I think I would still have felt that overwhelming sense of joy when I discovered that I was not dead. It could so easily have been different.

Had I experienced fear or anguish I might have consequently had nightmares about falling and suffered post-traumatic stress. I might have never returned to the hills again. None of these occurred.

“It is not death that a man should fear. But he should fear never beginning to live.”

Instead that trip was the start of a love affair with the Cairngorms. Since then I have spent many carefree days wandering the tops in summer and winter. I learnt to navigate with more precision even in a white out (by counting steps to estimate distance). Some of the happiest times of my life have been on Ben Macdui and the surrounding peaks .I met my wife in the hills and a shared love of mountains help cement our relationship.

Of course I have a healthy respect for the dangers of hillwalking and running especially in the winter, and I definitely do not think that I’m invincible. In fact I do often contemplate death when in the hills especially after seeing a friend collapse and die on a mountain despite the desperate attempts of myself and others to revive him .I try to remember day to day how fortunate I am to have survived my fall and that all my life since then has been a bonus. I hope that when I do eventually meet my death I will be able to leave this world without fear or regret and without leaving behind too much hurt and pain. On that day on Ben Macdui I was doubly lucky , not only did I survive but I learnt a valuable Stoic principle. This was not through prior knowledge of the philosophy or through personal wisdom but sheer serendipity.

“When you arise in the morning, think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love.”  Marcus Aurelius

Mark Leggett is a veterinary surgeon  living on the west coast of Scotland. His passions are ultrarunning, mountains, and watercolour painting. He writes a blog. Mark did the artwork in this piece himself.

German Interview with Bea Pires-Stadler, translator of Stoizismus Heute

Interview with Bea Pires-Stadler, translator of Stoizismus Heute

Bea Pires-Stadler, the translator.

Bea Pires-Stadler, the translator.

The same interview in English was posted tomorrow.

Patrick: Erzähl uns ein wenig mehr über dich selbst, Bea.

Nach einer kurzen Zeit als Sekundarlehrerin in der Schweiz entschloss ich mich 1980, mein Hochschulstudium in Vancouver fortzusetzen. Dort verliebte ich mich in das Leben an der Westküste und genoss vor allem die Freizeit in der Natur. Ich ließ mich nieder, heiratete und erfreue mich nun an drei erwachsenen, unabhängigen Kindern, die momentan in New York, San Francisco und Vancouver leben.

Patrick: Wie war deine Erfahrung mit der Übersetzung dieses Buches? Wie war sie im Vergleich zu anderen Übersetzungsarbeiten?

Stoizismus heute stellte für mich eine gute Herausforderung dar. Einerseits hatte ich nie zuvor eine solch lange Übersetzung gemacht, andererseits wurden meine linguistischen Fähigkeiten durch die Komplexität der Materie und die verschiedenen Schreibstile der Mitwirkenden auf die Probe gestellt. In Bezug auf die im Buch verwendeten philosophischen Begriffe war es oft schwierig, zwischen zwei ganz guten, möglichen Übersetzungen eines bestimmten Wortes oder Ausdrucks zu wählen. Dank dir, Patrick, musste ich nie lange auf Klärungen oder Rat warten. Ich möchte noch hinzufügen, dass ich die Beiträge in diesem Buch höchst interessant fand. Die beruflichen und persönlichen Erfahrungen und Erkenntnisse der Autoren faszinierten mich und motivierten mich täglich zur Weiterarbeit.

Patrick: Warst du mit dem Stoizismus schon vor der Übersetzung dieses Buches vertraut, und was fiel dir bezüglich der stoischen Philosophie während deiner Arbeit auf?

Ich war mit dem Begriff des Stoizismus vertraut und hatte schon über Stoiker gelesen, aber die Philosophie selbst kannte ich nicht wirklich. Bei der Übersetzung des Buches fiel mir auf, dass es zwischen den stoischen Praktiken und denen, die ich aus der Literatur über die Achtsamkeitsmeditation und die kontemplative Meditation kenne, Ähnlichkeiten gibt. Ich wurde beispielsweise an religiöse Lehren bezüglich der Prüfung des eigenen Gewissens erinnert, Lehren, die von den in diesem Buch beschriebenen stoischen Praktiken nicht so ganz verschieden sind.

Patrick: Gibt es Teile des Stoizismus, die du jetzt in Betracht ziehen würdest, in dein eigenes Leben zu integrieren?

Ich praktiziere seit gut zwei Jahren „Centering Prayer“ (Gebet der Stille), eine moderne Form des kontemplativen Gebets, und habe festgestellt, dass es mir hilft, mich in meine Mitte zu begeben und einen Zustand der inneren Ruhe, den ja auch die Stoiker anstrebten, zu erlangen. Ich scheine damit ähnliche Ergebnisse zu erzielen. Insbesondere genoss ich im vergangenen Frühjahr vier Tage in einer Einsiedelei der Camaldoleser Mönche hoch über der pazifischen Küste von Kalifornien. Es gibt keinen besseren Ort, um geistige Ruhe zu finden!

Patrick: Was sind deine wichtigsten Quellen der Inspiration für ein gutes Leben?

Meine wichtigsten Einflüsse sind die Schriften von 1) Pater Thomas Keating O.C.S.O., einem Trappistenmönch und Priester, der als einer der Architekten des „Zentrierenden Gebetes“ gilt, das 1975 aus der St. Josephs Abtei in Spencer, Massachusetts, hervorgegangen ist, und 2) Henri Nouwen, einem holländischen Priester, Professor und Schriftsteller, der durch die Werke von Thomas Merton, Vincent Van Gogh und Jean Vanier, alles Menschen, die ich ebenso zu bewundere, stark beeinflusst wurde. Schließlich glaube ich, dass ich auch von der Kunst und den Schriften meines verstorbenen Onkels, Pater Karl Stadler OSB (1921–2012), einem Benediktinermönch und Künstler vom Kloster Engelberg (Schweiz) beeinflusst wurde.

Beatrice Pires-Stadler ist Dozentin für Fremdsprachen und freiberufliche Übersetzerin (Deutsch/Englisch). Sie hat dreißig Jahre an einer kanadischen Universität gelehrt und lebt in Britisch Kolumbien, Kanada. Bea übersetzt besonders gern Bücher philosophischer/spiritueller Natur und Kinderbücher.