Your Value System is the Key to True Invulnerability
Stoicism is an excellent philosophy of life for all seasons, in my opinion. But Stoicism really comes into its own in times of crisis. You already know two good reasons why we should turn to Stoicism in challenging times from the first two parts of this “ How Stoicism can help at a time of crisis” series.
In part 1, we saw how the Stoic Worry Tree helps you to focus on those things under your control. In part 2,we learnt about Epictetus’s Epiphany. It’s not events that disturb us but how we interpret them. So nothing, not even a pandemic, will disturb us too much if we watch our emotionally-charged and negative thinking.
Today we are going to hear how Stoicism’s value system makes Stoicism particularly helpful right now.
Imagine two old school-friends, let’s call them Jezza and Matt.In their teens they shared a taste for fast cars and cheap booze.Thirty years later, in late middle age, Jezza hasn’t changed that much, except now he relishes fine wines and exotic travel as well as fast cars. In contrast, in his twenties Matt chose to forsake his hedonistic lifestyle. He has spent the last 30 years developing his character through reflection and meditation as a Buddhist monk.
Both Jezza and Matt would say they’ve had a pretty happy life. Then along comes 2020 and some pretty unexpected challenges. Who would you expect to fare better in 2020, Jezza or Matt?
Matt ‘s happiness, on the other hand, is much less dependent on external circumstances. He doesn’t need much to be happy.
COVID-19 might even turn out be an opportunity for him to put his character development to a real test and also to help people when they most need it.
Jezza and Matt represent two extreme philosophies of life. Jezza is a hedonist who believes that the good life is all about having pleasant experiences. Matt is a virtue ethicist, of which Stoicism is one form, Buddhism another, and equates happiness with being an excellent human being. It’s clear that the hedonist is a lot more vulnerable to changes in external events than the Stoic. Stoics and other virtue ethicists don’t care so much about “adverse” circumstances, because for them these events aren’t actually so terrible. What matters most in life to them is being a good person. Bad fortune cannot take away their ability to be a good person. The Stoic sage would be happy, even on the rack.
Who is happier?
Matthieu Ricard ?
(images courtesy of Wiki commons)
Jezza and Matt are fictional, but they bear more than a passing resemblance to former Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson and the Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard.
Clarkson is pretty hedonistic and, to be fair, is probably a pretty happy guy, most of the time anyway. But Ricard is almost certainly happier. In fact Ricard has been dubbed the world’s happiest man based on the level of gamma waves in his brain.
One of my favourites stories is about how Ricard reacted when his laptop, full of his (not backed-up) work, was stolen on a crowded Indian train. Ricard did not get angry or upset. In the grand scheme of things the laptop didn’t matter that much, and the thief probably needed the money more than him. Ricard has been quoted as saying that his only regret was that he couldn’t send the thief the power cable!
So how are the real Clarkson and Ricard coping right now in 2020?
Clarkson complained about his predicament in a recent Sunday Times column.
“I’m about to turn 60. I was building a house. And I was looking forward to sitting in a rocking chair on the porch, with a glass of wine … Instead, I’m facing the possibility of my house never being finished and not seeing the countries I haven’t yet visited and losing friends to this effing virus ….right now, among the death and the despair and the absolute destruction of our way of life, I see absolutely nothing to smile about. I think the world as we know it is ending. And I wasn’t ready for that.”
That reaction understandable enough, but now let’s see how Buddhist virtue ethicist Matthieu Ricard responded on his website :
“In the face of the global epidemic of COVID-19, we continue more than ever to promote altruism, to cultivate it and to put it into action.
All of us together, in a spirit of brotherhood, let us direct our altruistic thoughts towards those who are in a very precarious situation.
This unprecedented situation for all humanity is an opportunity to think about the interdependence among all beings. Let us concentrate on the happiness of others, let us offer our help when possible and let us take time to cultivate our mind. Benevolence, social bonding and cooperation — the founding values that unite us — are a formidable solution to this great challenge.”
Jeremy Clarkson is upset because he believes that the pleasurable future he had envisaged for himself has been unfairly taken away from him.
Matthieu Ricard isn’t exactly happy, but he is calm because he doesn’t see his well-being as being dependent on external goods. He finds satisfaction in being benevolent and cooperating with others. Furthermore, he sees these qualities as providing a solution to the challenge of COVID-19. Of course, Ricard is a Buddhist, not a Stoic, but the same would be true for a committed modern Stoic.
The key take-home message from today is this :-
As Epictetus’ epiphany revealed, and it’s logically watertight if you think about it, it is how we see things that impact us, not how things actually are — that was the message of the previous post.
How we evaluate things depends in large part on our value system.
If we choose to prioritise the importance of external goods, like wine, sex, food , health and what people think about us, we make ourselves extremely vulnerable. We may well be happy when things go well. But when they don’t, we will get upset.
If instead we decide that work makes for a good human life, what really matters, is being an excellent human being — being wise, courageous, self-controlled, just and compassionate — then we become invulnerable. Nothing can take away our capacity to be a good person. Challenging times, such as a pandemic, actually offers us perhaps the unique opportunity of a lifetime to use these qualities to make the most difference in the world.
Let’s finish by returning to our fictional heroes, Jezza and Matt. Let’s fast forward a few years from their teenage years to their twenties when they meet by chance in a Parisian bar. By this time Jezza has embarked on a journalistic career, whilst Matt has given up his hedonistic lifestyle to become a monk. We join them as the conversation is about to take a philosophical turn….
Matt:”I see you are still quite the bon viveur, Jezza. But I need to tell you that I’ve quit my scientific studies and am now training to be a Buddhist monk in Tibet”
Matt : “So I will have to pass on your offer of wine. I would also be very grateful if we can find a café that serves vegan food as well as steaks”
Jezza “Good luck finding that in Paris!”
A chic young Parisian waitress moves in their direction as if to take their order but then moves on to another customer. Jezza eyes the waitress and then turns to Matt
Jezza: “I suppose she would be totally out of the question too …”
Jezza “My God, Matt, you are literally going to die of boredom. Look, mate, I’ve got my motor parked right outside. I can drive you back to the UK and you’ll never have to go back to Tibet again”
Matt “You don’t understand. I’m happier now than I’ve ever been. Let’s compare our two policies, you pursuing the good life of pleasure and me pursuing the good life of virtue”
Jezza : (looking a bit distracted and trying to get the waitresses’ attention) “OK …”
Jezza (frowning) “Not so much, but I do enjoy life. At least I do when people do what they are meant to! Where is that waitress?”
Matt : “You see, mon ami, your pursuit of pleasure leads to inevitable frustration because you won’t always get what you want. It’s happening right now!”
Matt: “And of course if you focus on your own enjoyment, you won’t be helping other people so much”
Jezza : “Is that a problem?”
Matt : “What if I was to tell you that will be just as content, perhaps even more so, if you change your philosophy of life. That what I’ve found”
Jezza “Are you sure? Sounds like I’d die of boredom!”
Matt “No, my old friend, when you are compassionate and kind you get on better with people. When you are self-controlled you don’t damage your health and you don’t get those ghastly hangovers we used to get the morning after. The more you develop courage and the capacity to persist in the face of difficulties, the more you achieve.The wiser you get, the more you are able to understand what truly matters in life. Since I adopted this new philosophy of life I am less agitated, take pleasure in the small things like the morning sunrise and a simple cup of tea and get true joy from knowing that what I do helps people.”
Jezza: “But where is the thrill? Where is the excitement?”
Matt: “ Do you think that excitement is the only thing that matters in life? Do you really believe that thrills are what makes a human life good? Will you allow me tell you how I see the human situation and the existential dilemma we all face?”
Jezza (with a tone of resignation) “If you have to. If we have to have an existential discussion, a Parisian bar has got to be the place to have it …”
Matt: “On the other hand — you can aim for a life of excitement and pleasure. Sure, sometimes you will feel good, but built into this quest is the inevitability of severe frustration when you don’t get what you want. And when you look back on your life in, say, 30 years time, what will you be able to say about its overall meaning and purpose?
Is this a dilemma or is it actually a no-brainer? Jezza, it’s you who should be following me back to Tibet!”
Jezza : “No chance of that, mate”
Matt: “Well, I genuinely wish you good luck, my old friend. But before we part, I would like to throw down a challenge. Let’s return here in 30 years to compare notes on how living our very different life philosophies has turned out for us.”