My father first pointed it out. When I say to people I am partially sighted they often respond by saying that they also wear glasses. They then jump in their cars and drive off. My father is now totally blind. He is nearing the end and is dying slowly and sadly. I cared for him for a decade. He went into a home last year. My little sister made the call. I was unable to do it because I loved him too much. I have 20 per cent vision. The joys of genetics. A few years ago I was down to 10 per cent. A cataract operation gave me a reprieve. My life at that stage was a blurry daily routine of silhouettes and shadows. It still is. But at least I can now decipher the label on a whiskey bottle.
I was raised a Catholic. My parents demanded we attend church until our teens. In the later years I slept in on a Sunday and offered to attend a later mass. I then snuck off to the local train station for a smoke with the other nascent non-believers. I would recreate inspired imaginary sermons when my mother queried my attendance. I found the faith aspect of religion hard to accept. The controlling aspects relating to sex and sin now seem little more than the frustrated rantings of pious men trying to deny their natural urges to give their creed substance. The concept of sin still largely eludes me. Most sin appears to be more ignorance or self-harm than biblical wrongdoing.
Yet our reality necessitates a belief system. A code of conduct. Otherwise we truly are dust in the wind. Buffeted by random gales.
I am unsure how I stumbled across Stoicism. My elementary education suggested a stoic was a granite-faced hard man unable or unwilling to display emotion. A man with the emotional capacity of a gnat. How wrong I was.
Stoicism meets a basic need for me. A practical belief system to meet the vicissitudes of life. I am a blind man in my middle years. I am a thinker unable to accept dogma or the preachings of other equally flawed souls who claim to have the answers. The world abounds with false prophets often delusional, frequently self-serving.
The practicality of stoicism is its main appeal to me. I have learned to recognise and appreciate what I can and can’t control. My attitude and opinions and responses lie within my domain of influence. Most else lies outside.
What I can’t control I have learned to let go. I constantly seek virtue in my thoughts and actions yet virtue is very elusive in its definition. I suspect it means right action and thought. It implies constant vigilance to ensure all interactions are as positive as possible no matter how trivial.
I appreciate the stoic concept of logos. A godly power that shapes the universe. Not a nice old guy with an avuncular expression and white beard sitting on a cloud benevolently observing his creations. More an awareness that we are all part of a whole. A universal flow of which our transitory existence is a tiny fleeting part. A flash of compiled unique atoms in a universal drama that will continue to unfold long after we return to the whole, just as it did before we gained consciousness. We are each a unique flash in the pan. No more, no less. This provides perspective. Our individual irrelevance should allow us to explore our positive potential without fear of failure. We should cling to this understanding to ensure we make the most of our transitory being.
I appreciate the stoic emphasis on negative visualisation. Maybe it suits my inherent morbidity. The cult of relentless positivity that accompanies modern consumer capitalism deludes and diminishes our existence in its shallowness. It invites disillusionment. None of us escape aging, decay and death so why deny it? Use this understanding to appreciate the pleasure and potential of existence. To value each moment. Youthful fairy tales of “happily ever after” are destructive in their creation of unrealistic illusions of reality. Of course we should not feed our children tales of holocaust and genocide but the extreme opposite does not invite robustness or an appreciation of reality. I have yet to meet such a blessed soul who has encountered “happily ever after”. Maybe a large element of self-delusion is a requisite for a good life. Pity us realists. Yet we are generally poorly served by the fairy tales of our youth. They set us up for failure and disillusionment. They deny the complexity yet subtleness and beauty of reality. Adversity shapes character for better or worse. If we taught our young this crucial message they would have a greater appreciation that the obstacle is the way. That meeting and dealing with adversities is core to our existence. That a smooth ride is the exception rather than the norm. Instead we feed them tales of an unrealistic nirvana of human existence. Cruelty by deception.
Negative visualisation inspires positivity in me. What is the worst case scenario? Is it really that bad? Can I cope with it if it actually does transpire? The worst case scenario is often death. As a blind man who has cheated death on several occasions I no longer fear this inevitability. What I do fear is not making the most of my potential in the meantime. I once resolved to attain a meaningful tattoo each time I cheated the reaper. I am now running out of concealed body space. Check the forehead and shins of the blind. If they are an active person these body parts will bear substantial scar tissue as a legacy. My falls are legendary. Unfortunately soft yielding females to break my falls have eluded me. Although I did once sit on a patched Hells Angels member at a gym, further adding to my scar tissue.
The stoic belief in daily reflections has been a revelation to me. I am a writer and teacher so always felt that introspection came naturally to me. Yet the physical process of a daily written reflection has greatly enhanced my wellbeing. It provides perspective. I send it to a dearly trusted friend each day. The physical process of writing seems to dissolve minor irritations. Many prove so irrelevant they don’t warrant a sentence. Yet at the time they mattered. Regular written reflection provides useful perspective.
I often read the ancients. Marcus Aurelious, Seneca and Epitetus feel like old friends. This may sound pretentious. I don’t care. They feel like people whose company I would have loved. They talk about timeless issues and this makes them real to me. They are not blighted by prejudice or dogma. They are honest and open in their musings. They don’t hide their flaws. They are not seeking sainthood just wisdom. They are seekers of the “good life”. They are sincere in their quest for understanding what is the best way for a human to live his or her life. To encounter such voices is to recognise that others have thought the same thoughts, experienced the same feelings, sadnesses and joys. It is a panacea for loneliness.
We moderns are constantly buffeted by transitory distractions. We are living in the most connected and affluent age in human history. Yet a void remains. A lack of real purpose and meaning. A sense that materialism cannot fill despite its superficial allure. Hedonism and consumption can provide fleeting satisfaction. Fame and fortune create Michael Jacksons, Elvis Presleys and that Trump guy. Religion requires faith in revealed truths. Stoicism provides a practical recipe for living a good life in the here and now. It is little wonder this gem of a belief system is experiencing a renaissance.
Peter Lyons teaches Economics at Saint Peter’s in Epsom, Auckland and has written several Economics books.