Today is Thanksgiving Day in the U.S. Americans tell ourselves many stories about the history of Thanksgiving, but one of the most common (especially when considered along with the modern celebration of the holiday) illustrates the concepts of acceptance and mindfulness. I know StoicLawyer has gained a bit of an international audience this week, so I’ll briefly retell the tale.
In 1620, a group of approximately 100 men, women, and children traveled across the North Atlantic from Plymouth, England to North America. Many of them were members of a religious sect, seeking freedom from persecution by the Church of England. Although these travelers originally intended to establish a colony near the other English colonies in what is now Virginia, harsh weather and chancy navigation prevented them from reaching that area. Instead, they anchored in a harbor in what is now Massachusetts, at the beginning of a harsh New England winter. During the voyage and upon arrival, there was constant temptation and pressure to turn back to England. After searching for several days for a suitable site for their colony, the immigrants discovered an area that was “miraculously” clear. (In reality, the area had been cleared by the Patuxet villagers; Native American Indians who were wiped out by an epidemic shortly before the colonists’ arrival.)
The colonists began to establish their settlement during the winter of 1621. During that winter, about half of them died from a combination of illness, exposure, and malnutrition. In March 1621, however, another “miracle” occurred: two of the local Native American Indians, Samoset and Tisquantum (Squanto), turned out to speak English and approached the village. Even more miraculously, Squanto was intimately familiar with the area surrounding the colony, being a former resident of the Patuxet village. With Samoset and Squanto as interpreters, the colonists established a peace treaty with the local Native American Indian nation. In addition, Squanto used his knowledge of Patuxet tradition and the area to teach the colonists how to produce food and survive in this unfamiliar land. By the fall, the colonists’ fields were filled with a bountiful harvest and their larders were full of a variety of game and wild foods. The colonists threw a great feast of Thanksgiving to celebrate their good fortune and thank God for the miracles that had allowed their survival, and invited the nation with which they had established the treaty. It is this feast that Americans commemorate today.
(Keep in mind, the above is not meant to be an accurate history. It contains several omissions, errors, and flat-out falsehoods. It is, however, the story that Americans tell ourselves about the holiday, the one we teach our children and memorialize in cartoon specials. The point here is to examine this American myth to draw out meaning, not to write an accurate record of past events.)
Examining this American myth, we can derive a few lessons in behavior. According to the story, the colonists arrived in a strange wilderness after a harsh and uncertain voyage across a hostile sea Half of them died during the first few months after landing. The rest of them faced unceasing work to establish the conditions to survive any further. And even with an excellent harvest in 1621, their survival was not assured. Despite all of that hardship, the colonists arranged a celebration and a day of rest to give thanks for their incredible fortune and the miracles that had enabled their survival.
And that is where the story intertwines with the lessons of Days Three and Four of Stoic Week.
Wednesday’s lesson was “Acceptance,” the practice of accepting that some things are beyond our control and that our ventures can be successful only “fate permitting” or “if nothing prevents.” A key part of Stoic acceptance is the understanding that the fact that something may intervene to prevent success is no excuse not to try our best to accomplish our ethical purposes or to obtain preferred indifferents when possible. In the Thanksgiving myth, acceptance is demonstrated in two places. First, in the voyage and the first winter, when so many of the colonists died. Despite all of their labor and devoting their savings to the colonial venture, half of the travellers never saw the fruits. Fate did not permit; something prevented. But, from the colonists’ perspective, the possibility of failure was not a reason to stay in England and face continued persecution. Second, acceptance is demonstrated in the Thanksgiving feast itself. The colonists had seen the end that fate could have in store for them; the graves of their fellow-travellers were barely covered with grass by the time of feast. And success in one year could hardly be seen as a guarantee of success in the next. But the colonists looked forward to the next year, planning at the Thanksgiving feast to continue with their plans, even with the specter of failure always present.
Thursday’s lesson is mindfulness. And I submit that is something every American should consider in the story of the first Thanksgiving. Mindfulness is embraced by being aware of one’s thoughts and the feelings those thoughts might engender. It also involves putting off the consideration of very negative (or very positive) thoughts until they can be considered in light of calm and reason. The feast of Thanksgiving embraces that concept in a few ways. First, Thanksgiving was a day set aside for the consideration of the events of the previous year-the successes and failures. Second, when setting aside that day and reflecting, the colonists did not allow themselves to be carried away by the risks or the possibilities of success. Instead, they celebrated the day in the spirit of thankfulness; they chose to be grateful for the opportunities afforded to them and the “miracles” that fate had given them.
I suggest we celebrate Thanksgiving in the spirit of these two Stoic lessons.
- Acceptance — For those preparing a feast today, cook your best, but be aware that something may arise to prevent your dishes from turning out exactly as intended. If something does, recall that event is merely indifferent and that you remain in control of how you respond to that event. But do not let the knowledge that the result is indifferent prevent you from using all of your skill to prepare your dishes with excellence. For those welcoming family into your homes, remember that you are in control only of how you treat them and how you react to them. You cannot control your uncle’s crazy political ranting, but you can accept that it is and respond to him with love.
- Mindfulness — For all of us lucky enough to have the day away from work and responsibility, consider this a whole day set aside for reflection. Reflect on the events of the past year in the light of reason. And consider the events to come in the same light. Remember to distinguish between what is Good, Bad, and Indifferent. Do not let yourself despair over the failures through the past year or be carried away with exuberance over the deals available in Black Friday sales. Instead, be thankful for the fact that you continue to be endowed with reason, with control over the choice between virtue and evil, and for the understanding that you can act only in this moment.
The morning reflection this morning was an excerpt from Seneca’s letter to Paulinus usually called “On the Shortness of Life.” There is a free audiobook version at Librivox that rewards listening. The reader is a bit quiet, but I feel like he captures some of the nuances.
It struck me today that time is like many other things that are indifferent. We stress about how we’re going to spend time, how we’ll ever find the time, and where the heck the time went. As a solo lawyer who works on a largely billable hour basis, I understand exactly how time=money. When you break down your time into 6 minute blocks as a professional habit, it really hammers home just how much time is spent on different tasks. (And just how much escapes without being put to a productive use–but that is a topic for my business plan, not for a philosophy blog.)
But there is another side to time=money. A Stoic side.
Time, like money, is an indifferent. It is neither Good nor Evil, but it can be turned to different purposes. Possessing it does not contribute to developing virtue; lacking it does not detract from the pursuit. The important thing with Time, as with all indifferent things, is how one uses it. That is a theme that comes up so often in Stoic writing that it is easy to miss it, if you don’t know how much it means.
For example, in the evening reading, notice how Lucan describes Cato as taking enjoyment in the meanest things:
In his eyes to conquer hunger was a feast, to ward off winter
with a roof was a mighty palace, and to draw across
his limbs the rough toga in the manner of the Roman citizen of old
was a precious robe, and the greatest value of Venus
was offspring …
Lucan, The Civil War. That passage could be read to mean that Cato was a tough and old-fashioned grump, who did not believe in the luxuries that began to be publicly enjoyed by the patricians during the late Roman Republic (and I believe my Roman History professor suggested to read it that way). But thinking about Cato as a Stoic, a Sage according to some, another interpretation comes to mind. Cato treated meager quantities of indifferents as another might treat riches. He took full measure of each of those things in just the same way that Seneca later urged Paulinus to do with time. By doing so, he used the indifferents presented to him by Fate as objects through which to exercise his virtue.
Erik Weigardt described the same idea in The Stoic Handbook (Second Edition), through a metaphor that I found helpful when struggling with the idea of indifferents:
It’s like the potter sitting at his wheel. The indifferents are like the clay. How can the potter be indifferent to his clay? Without the clay he has nothing to do but watch the wheel spin around. The potter cares about his clay. The skill of the potter in working with his hands to form a beautiful and useful vessel from this lump of clay is like the skill of the Stoic in working with the cardinal virtues in forming a noble character. The Stoic’s clay is made up of the indifferents. Without the clay and the indifferents, the potter and the Stoic have nothing upon which to practice their skills.
So that’s what I tried to do today with Time. I endeavored to exercise the virtues– wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice–with respect to Time. How I spent my time was in large part a matter of justice: how is my limited time most ethically distributed? But courage came into play more than I expected. After all, sometimes the best use of time is not the most desirable, so an unpleasant task must be faced and cannot be put off any longer. And moderation was also a concern. Surely, it is preferable to spend time in luxury or relaxation when it is available. But just as surely, it is important to spend time laboring when that time comes along. Practicing moderation (or decorum) through Time is a matter of knowing when the time is appropriate for one thing or another, keeping in mind all the time that the way time is spent in general has no necessary ethical value.
I didn’t do this perfectly. I spent too long at lunch with my wife to complete my entire task list. And I spent enough time working on my new firm’s website that I nearly ran late to pick up my daughter. But (except for some momentary anger at myself when I anticipated being late to pick up the kid), I managed to embrace making the most of time without falling into the trap of becoming entangled in managing time as a passion.
This would be a worthwhile exercise to repeat until it becomes a habit, lest I become a slave to the billable hour.
I chose the above passage, which I remembered imperfectly from the last time I read the meditations, for this morning’s reflection. Admittedly, it was a lazy choice; I was too bleary-eyed to contemplate what I might do to further my pursuit of a specific quality. On the other hand, looking it up and concentrating on the meaning had some benefit through the day.
Part of this passage is about managing expectations. That is an important part of making accurate judgments. When one’s expectations are not fulfilled, that tends to create stress or anger as a first reaction. This is partly because we tend to anticipate the things we see as “good.” But it is important for the Stoic to contemplate the world as it exists, not as he or she might wish it. After all, our chief doctrine is to live in harmony with nature, not with our ideal vision of nature. To prepare himself for each day, Marcus suggested considering how the people he encountered might not meet his ideal. By adjusting his expectations to include people who were unpleasant, Marcus readied himself to exercise more accurate judgment in his dealings; he wouldn’t be carried away by frustration.
The remainder of the passage is a reminder of how a Stoic should view other people. In that way, Marcus prepared a judgment to come readily to his mind. That preempted the rash or inaccurate judgment he might otherwise make. The view Marcus reminded himself to take is that each human being is part of the same whole. To a Stoic, the entire cosmos is an entity and all people are parts of the entity, each endowed with divine reason and able to fully participate in the experience of the cosmos. That remains true even when people don’t act the way we would want them to.
Contemplating both parts of the passage prepared me for a day of dealing with the people I encounter daily: adversaries, clients, officemates, other drivers, other shoppers, etc. It readied me for the fact that some of the people I deal with will be difficult. But it also readied me with the knowledge that all of them are very like me–in substance and in spirit. They are as deserving of respect as I am.
And that was the point where this passage helped me expand self-love a little beyond myself into love for others. The realization that I am not always easy to deal with either and that other people are sometimes difficult not because they hate me or because they are awful people, but because they are just having a bad day. But just as I am powerless to change their attitude into beneficence, the mean or nasty are without power to turn me ugly. Unless I give it to them.
With this in mind, today was just a little smoother. I was less inclined to take someone cutting me off in traffic as a personal affront. I didn’t assume a cashier’s frown in response to my smile was because she felt sexually harassed. Hell, I bet her feet hurt. Mine always did by the end of a shift when I worked at Big Bear.
So as I prepare for sleep tonight, I’ll mark a page in Erik Weigardt’s 32 Principal Doctrines of the Stoa to reference in meditating upon a virtue to contemplate. Justice might be particularly appropriate.
So, in the spirit of tonight’s text for reflection, from Seneca’s 12th Letter, I await tomorrow, if it comes, ready to say, “I have lived.” And ready to practice the Stoic art of living for another day.
StoicLawyer hasn’t been updated in a little over a year. In that time, I’ve: left private practice; worked in an in-house position; all but had a complete mental breakdown; tried my damnedest to ruin and end my marriage; confronted flaws that have plagued me in silence for much of my life; reformed and improved my relationship with my wife; left my in-house position; and returned to the private practice of law. Through all of that, I’ve continued to read and study Stoicism. And I thought I was living it.
Stoic Week 2013 starts Monday. The first step for participation is a series of pre-study questionnaires to gauge items such as satisfaction with life, the balance between positive and negative feelings, and (most tellingly for me) the extent of Stoic attitudes and behaviors. My answers revealed what I should have been able to tell from the past year; although I understand a great deal about Stoic thought and history, I am not living like a Stoic.
Here are a few examples from my pretests:
Positive and Negative Emotions Scale (how often over the past four weeks have you felt…)
Those weren’t the answers I wanted to give, but they were true. In fact, I think the last two were on the conservative side. I probably should have answered both with “disagree.”
But I have a remedy. One of the insights from Stoic thought is that the present is the only moment in which we can act; the only one that is “real.” The past is beyond my ability to control. So for me, Stoic Week 2013 is going to be a boot camp or 7-day cleanse type of exercise. Each day of Stoic Week, I can take a quote from my early Latin lessons and say “ME PHILOSOPHIAE DO!” By doing that for a week, I can start to build a habit that will lead me back to practicing living a Stoic life every day.
I intend to post progress every day of Stoic Week, and I invite you to join me in the experiment. Take the pretests and download the Stoic Week Handbook before Monday, November 25. Learn for yourself why the Financial Times and the UK’s Channel 4 have noted the tremendous history and growth of Stoic thought.