Looking ahead to Sunday’s trip up I-24 to help Older Daughter gather and schlep her stuff back to Tennessee, and to Monday’s Happiness, when we’ll be talking Stoics and Skeptics.
When she was home last summer, Older Daughter and I bonded over homemade Reuben sandwiches and Tina Fey. She was on a Netflix binge-mission to see every last “30 Rock” episode. When she discovered my proficiency at grilling kraut, corned beef, and rye (with a side of vinegar chips and a deli pickle) the show and the sandwich became our lunchtime Thing.
So naturally, when I thought about her homecoming yesterday around lunchtime I just had to make a Reuben and text a picture of it to her. “Brushing up.” –“Can’t wait!”
Do Stoics get excited about family reunions, and express their excitement in silly-happy gestures? Or is that too emotive for a sensibility that, in the popular imagination at least, generally dampens and discourages overt displays of affection that risk deepening our dependent attachment on sources of happiness (like beloved other persons) beyond ourselves and our immediate control? You can’t master events, they say, but you can and should manage your mental response to events.
I hope most Stoics are still in touch with an affectionate inner responsiveness, even if it doesn’t always show. Just as we were saying the other day, happiness so frequently is the unforced flower of simple life and its small occasions when we allow ourselves to feel it. Every day can be Mother’s Day.
The popular imagination is fed by pop-cultural stereotypes. I’m always picking on Mr. Spock, in class, and pointing out how ill-served his human half is by the suppression of spontaneous good cheer. Violent emotion may indeed be a kind of madness, but severe self-repression and hyper-reserve are just as crazy. To paraphrase David Hume: be a Stoic, but amidst your stoic vulcan philosophy be still a (hu)man.
Oliver Burkeman is a modern-day stoic/skeptic, author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. He disparages “the modern-day ‘cult of optimism'” and extols the Stoics. “For the Stoics, the ideal state of mind was tranquility, not the excitable cheer that positive thinkers usually seem to mean when they use the word, ‘happiness.’ And tranquility was to be achieved not by strenuously chasing after enjoyable experiences, but by cultivating a kind of calm indifference towards one’s circumstances.”
I can’t be indifferent to any positive “circumstance,” from a well-grilled Reuben to an overdue reunion. Excitable cheer is not everything, but it’s still a big part of what happiness means to me.
In the right frame of mind, Oliver, we don’t have to “chase after enjoyable experiences” – they’ll come to us, naturally.
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