Thursday, 15 October 2015

stoicism: a blagger's guide

Recently - probably prompted by this excellent post on Avonex and 8 Wheels - I've gone back to re-read a book my brother bought me years ago, The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Boton.

I know that he can be quite a controversial character, accused of dumbing down unnecessarily. But I enjoyed this book (again) so I don't think I agree with the view of him as "a slapheaded, ruby-lipped pop philosopher who's forged a lucrative career stating the bleeding obvious".

As I've realised through my brief dips into the worlds of mindfulness, CBT and my everyday life, sometimes I NEED someone to state the bleeding obvious - say it to me enough times and it might just bloody stick.

Each chapter focuses on the works of a different philosopher -  Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche - and showing how they can be of practical use in certain aspects of our lives. So there are philosophical consolations for Unpopularity, Not Having Enough Money, Inadequacy, Difficulties, A Broken Heart, as well as the one which really struck me, Frustration.

Now I can't really remember when my brother bought this book for me - it will have been a birthday or Christmas some years ago. But whereabouts in my MS journey I can't really place. And like another recent-ish re-read - Douglas Coupland's MS-related weepie Eleanor Rigby - the fact that I didn't take more from it beggars belief.

This chapter is devoted to the work of Seneca, a Roman philosopher who died in AD 65. Seneca was a man who took Stoicism to almost lunatic levels.

Although he had once been a favourite advisor to Nero, Seneca was (falsely) implicated in an assassination attempt on the emperor and was ordered to take his own life. So, after consoling his friends and family ("Where had their philosophy gone, he asked, and that resolution against impending misfortunes which they had encouraged in each other over so many years?" (1.)) and two fruitless initial attempts, he asked to be placed in a vapour-bath, "where he suffocated to death slowly, in torment but with equanimity" (2.)

Here's a Senecan definition of frustration:
Though the terrain of Frustration may be vast - from a stubbed toe to an untimely death - at the heart of every frustration lies a basic structure: the collision of a wish with an unyielding reality. (3.)
With the following illustration.
from Alain De Boton, The Consolations of Philosophy, p.80
I don't know about you but to me that seems like the perfect depiction of a natural response to being handed a diagnosis with any chronic illness. I can certainly see a lot of myself in there!

But it's not just the diagnosis, it's all the other little indignities which MS can pile on us. The walking sticks and the wheelchairs. The bladder-retraining programmes. The endless planning for once-simple trips and the many "sorry I can't go, I'm too tired"s. The cog-fog. It's no wonder we can get frustrated.

This great post on Weaving a Way is a perfect example of how I have felt, and frequently still feel.

Reading the chapter about Seneca, I can recognise the value in his stoical way of life. Anger is a kind of madness - "There is no swifter way to insanity" (4.) - resulting from an unrealistically optimistic view of the world.

I don't think that Stoicism is simply passive, fatalistic acceptance. We don't simply have to resign ourselves to "our lot". And this is a passage which really struck me:
We may be powerless to alter certain events, but we remain free to choose our attitude towards them (5.)
I'm not entirely sure I completely go along with the idea that, "That which you cannot reform, it is best to endure" (6.), but there's a lot in this way of thinking which I think is incredibly helpful (maybe bleeding obvious in the cold light of day but helpful nonetheless). 

Our brick wall, our unyielding reality, is the fact that we have a chronic, disabling illness with an uncertain prognosis. As soon as can begin to accept that, then we can focus on living to the best of our potential - seeking help when it's required, advocating for our condition.

All very highfalutin and I can hear my family members choking in disbelief - I am NOWHERE near this level-headed in real-life. But as a man who has a fairly hair-trigger relationship with outbursts of frustration, I'm constantly trying to be better.
...for Seneca, in so far as we can ever attain wisdom, it is by learning not to aggravate the world's obstinacy through our own responses, through spasms of rage, self-pity, anxiety, bitterness, self-righteousness and paranoia... we best endure those frustrations which we have prepared ourselves for and are hurt most by those we least expect and cannot fathom. (7.)
In Seneca's view, Philosophy's main job is "to prepare for our wishes the softest landing possible on the adamantine wall of reality" (8.)
from Alain De Boton, The Consolations of Philosophy, p.81
I bet he was GREAT FUN at parties.

Actual footnotes and everything:

De Botton, A. (2001). The Consolations of Philosophy. London: Penguin.
1. p.76
2. p.77
3. p.80
4. p.82 
5. p.109
6. p.111
7. p.81
8. p.81


Anonymous said...

In the absence of a button I wanted to say I like this post!

stevedomino said...

'Like' buttons are all well and good but I appreciate the personal touch. Thanks for your comment!