what, me worry

by richibi

philosophy-final-state-1907-jpglarge

    “Philosophy (Final State) (1899-1907) 

         Gustav Klimt

              ______

at lunch recently, a friend was telling 
me about taking her family, kids,
grandkids, to Hawaii

I hope we have a good time, she said

what do you mean, I hope, I asked 

I’ve been worrying a lot lately, I wake 
up in the middle of the night, I worry
about sharks, for instance, off the 
coast of Maui

I know what you mean, I answered, I
worry about an earthquake hitting 
while I’m asleep, the whole city does 
in fact, I confirmed, those here who 
worry

when I was going to Munich in December 
and January with my mother, I continued, 
and people were saying it’d be cold, 
determined that we’d have a wonderful 
time despite whatever obstacles we might 
encounter, I meant it as a gift to my mother, 
after all it was for the magic of the C***mas 
and New Year’s Eve festivities there we 
were going, kind of like your Hawaiian 
beaches, I pointed out

there was the uncomfortable flight over,
the usual stomach upsets, cold and 
snow, which I hadn’t experienced in 
several years, an unruly Internet 
connection, but they were the price of 
admission to the wonderland I’d 
determined to fashion out of the 
elements that we’d find there, and did  

there were neither sharks nor earthquakes 
eventually, nor even the terrorist attacks 
that had threatened, but that no amount of 
worrying anyway could’ve done anything 
about 

and I just read something out of the New 
Yorker, I continued, that put me back on 
track, put everything back together again 
before any great existential fall

it’s all in your head, it said, or rather it
quoted EpictetusEpictetus, the Stoic 
philosopher I’ve always profoundly 
admired, I said, I’ll send it to you, the 
articleStoicism was a way of facing 
the world bravely and seeing it as a 
condition of your worth

is still a way, I extrapolated

also I’ve found that focussing on what
you’ve been worrying about, and 
thinking about what you can do about 
it, helps

about sharks, for instance, what would 
you do – don’t go in the water – after 
which there isn’t much else to think 
about but go on to the next problem 

meanwhile, you’re not worrying, but 
actually being productive, and reducing 
everything to what you can indeed do,
which ends up being most often not 
much

pray for grace, I’ve been telling myself
for the longest while, and make sure 
your tie ‘s on right, that’s all you 
can ever do, I repeat to myself, and to 
anyone who’ll listen, like an incantation, 
a refrain

but still I take my anti-depressants just 
in case, I said

we drank to Stoicism

afterwards we saw a new play about 
Queen Elizabeth

Richard

psst: the New Yorker article 

    How To Be a Stoic

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus was born a slave, around 55 A.D., in the Greco-Roman spa town of Hierapolis—present-day Pamukkale, Turkey. I first encountered his teachings in 2011, shortly after moving from San Francisco to Istanbul. I lived alone on a university campus in a forest. In the midst of a troubled long-distance relationship, I sometimes went days without talking to anyone but my boyfriend’s disembodied head on Skype. I was demoralized by Turkish politics, which made both secularists and religious people feel like victims. If you were a woman, no matter what you were wearing—décolleté or a head scarf—someone would give you a dirty look.

The first line of Epictetus’ manual of ethical advice, the Enchiridion—“Some things are in our control and others not”—made me feel that a weight was being lifted off my chest. For Epictetus, the only thing we can totally control, and therefore the only thing we should ever worry about, is our own judgment about what is good. If we desire money, health, sex, or reputation, we will inevitably be unhappy. If we genuinely wish to avoid poverty, sickness, loneliness, and obscurity, we will live in constant anxiety and frustration. Of course, fear and desire are unavoidable. Everyone feels those flashes of dread or anticipation. Being a Stoic means interrogating those flashes: asking whether they apply to things outside your control and, if they do, being “ready with the reaction ‘Then it’s none of my concern.’ ”

Reading Epictetus, I realized that most of the pain in my life came not from any actual privations or insults but, rather, from the shame of thinking that they could have been avoided. Wasn’t it my fault that I lived in such isolation, that meaning continued to elude me, that my love life was a shambles? When I read that nobody should ever feel ashamed to be alone or to be in a crowd, I realized that I often felt ashamed of both of those things. Epictetus’ advice: when alone, “call it peace and liberty, and consider yourself the gods’ equal”; in a crowd, think of yourself as a guest at an enormous party, and celebrate the best you can.

Epictetus also won me over with his tone, which was that of an enraged athletics coach. If you want to become a Stoic, he said, “you will dislocate your wrist, sprain your ankle, swallow quantities of sand,” and you will still suffer losses and humiliations. And yet, for you, every setback is an advantage, an opportunity for learning and glory. When a difficulty comes your way, you should feel proud and excited, like “a wrestler whom God, like a trainer, has paired with a tough young buck.” In other words, think of every unreasonable asshole you have to deal with as part of God’s attempt to “turn you into Olympic-class material.” This is a very powerful trick.

Much of Epictetus’ advice is about not getting angry at slaves. At first, I thought I could skip those parts. But I soon realized that I had the same self-recriminatory and illogical thoughts in my interactions with small-business owners and service professionals. When a cabdriver lied about a route, or a shopkeeper shortchanged me, I felt that it was my fault, for speaking Turkish with an accent, or for being part of an élite. And, if I pretended not to notice these slights, wasn’t I proving that I really was a disengaged, privileged oppressor? Epictetus shook me from these thoughts with this simple exercise: “Starting with things of little value—a bit of spilled oil, a little stolen wine—repeat to yourself: ‘For such a small price, I buy tranquillity.’ ”

Born nearly two thousand years before Darwin and Freud, Epictetus seems to have anticipated a way out of their prisons. The sense of doom and delight that is programmed into the human body? It can be overridden by the mind. The eternal war between subconscious desires and the demands of civilization? It can be won. In the nineteen-fifties, the American psychotherapist Albert Ellis came up with an early form of cognitive-behavioral therapy, based largely on Epictetus’ claim that “it is not events that disturb people, it is their judgments concerning them.” If you practice Stoic philosophy long enough, Epictetus says, you stop being mistaken about what’s good even in your dreams. 

                                                                                                 Elif Batuman

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