The Spider in the Wind
It’s been an anxious season, an anxious year. Too many things going wrong on too many levels, too much progress that had been built, slowly and with much labor, wiped away with the sweep of a pen. The fires we’ve been experiencing in the American West and the hurricanes in the Southeast and the Caribbean seem like metaphors for even greater changes. I know I'm not the only one who’s been having a difficult time concentrating, trying to adjust to each new blow. How do you work? How do you think? How do you live in times like this?
This week, when the anxiety became unbearable following the announcement of some new round of Trumpian madness, I went for a walk in search of the miraculous. It’s something I do to get back in touch with the wonder of the world.
I walked along the breezy crest of a hill in the early twilight, and in someone’s yard, a big spider was weaving its web in the wind. My God it was determined. How expertly it kept weaving, though it was being blown around on its guideline. Surely the web was being torn to shreds. But still, it wove.
And I thought, Ah.
What do they say: when the student is ready the teacher will come? I’m not a big spider fan, though I never kill them. I do carry them outside. Maybe it was repaying me. Who knows. In any case, I watched that spider for a long time.
It never despaired. It didn’t stop weaving, saying, “I can’t think in a wind like this!” It didn’t say, “Where is this wind coming from?” Nor did it pour itself a drink, or go on Twitter to see what others were saying about the wind, or curl up on the couch to watch episodes of Portlandia or Frankie and Grace. It twirled on the end of its guideline and kept weaving. And the web looked pretty good, maybe even stronger than usual, to hold up to the unfavorable conditions.
My anxiety didn’t vanish like a piece of flash paper, it was still there when I got home, but the metaphor stuck. Living in this windstorm, 2017, beset from all sides, we have to continue to work and live despite the unfavorable conditions. And it’s useless and undignified to sit down and howl at the unfairness, or curl up in a ball. Once you’ve done what you can to ameliorate the outer storm – speaking out, sending money to organizations fighting the madness, attending a rally, ranting on Twitter – how do you deal with the inner storm so that you can keep working and clear some kind of inner sanctuary for the good things in life?
I found myself looking up “Stoicism” on the internet, something remembered from my Freshman Humanities course. At the time it had seemed very boring and virtuous, but I had never lived through times like these, where a philosophy might be that guideline that keeps the spider from being blown away.
I found the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, one of the later emperors of Rome and a Stoic philosopher. Marcus immediately won my heart with this quote: “The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane.” As the Native Americans say, A-ho.
“If it is not right do not do it; if it is not true do not say it.” Sadly, our country is not being run by Stoics these days. But what about me, personally? My quest to simply function when every day is a riot of insanity?
Gratitude, Marcus proposes, goes a long way. “Do not indulge in dreams of having what you have not, but reckon up the chief of the blessings you do possess, and then thankfully remember how you would crave for them if they were not yours.”
I recognize the truth of this. But it’s hard to feel grateful when there is so much suffering in the world, and we’re watching so many of our national achievements blasted away, years of work gone in a Tweet, reversed by egotism and greed. What does Marcus have to say about that?
“Here is a rule to remember in future, when anything tempts you to feel bitter: not ‘This is misfortune,’ but, ‘To bear this worthily is good fortune.’”
It seems very Russian to me, this respect for bearing-up under misfortune like a human being. As an American, I have been so fortunate up to now that the idea of bearing misfortune worthily was not even on the radar. That worthily seems to be the key.
The Stoics weren’t proposing quite what we commonly think of as ‘stoicism’— absorbing blows without complaining, putting up with things, shutting down the emotions. “Keep Calm and Carry On.” They proposed that a person’s happiness depends on the development of his or her inner character. That one should work at strengthening one’s inner qualities, and living in accordance with virtue. This, the Stoics teach, gives a person the inner strength and balance to withstand the things life throws at us, and to live a worthy and productive life—which to them is the essence of happiness.
To be happy, or the Stoic version of it, which is more like ‘satisfied’ or ‘well’, you don’t need life to be going well. In fact, a Stoic is supposed to be indifferent as to whether life is going well or badly. One prefers it to be going well, but it is not necessary. If the inner life is sufficiently developed in accordance with the virtues, one can be relatively happy regardless of external events. Or at least be able to get out of bed and function.
And the Stoic virtues? There are only four: wisdom, courage, justice and self-control or moderation.
Of the four, I can tell at a glance that courage is my biggest weakness. Anxiety and despair are so close at hand these days I can feel them breathing in my ear. Or, rather, screaming in it. Obviously, to keep working and living a halfway productive life, I’m going to have to shore myself up in the courage department.
What exactly do the Stoics mean by courage? The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy says: “Courage is subdivided into endurance, confidence, high-mindedness, cheerfulness, and industriousness.” Huh. Endurance I expected, but industriousness is a surprise. And cheerfulness? A tall order. But the Stoics valued that kind of equanimity. They lived in horrible times. They just expected themselves to be equal to those times.
In digging around to learn more about the Stoics, I stumbled across an event called “Stoicon 2017” to be held this year in Toronto. I can only imagine how many people are struggling with these same issues if they have a Con about it, but clearly the 2,300-year-old philosophy is having a resurgence. Makes sense. People have always turned to philosophy for help wrestling with life’s fundamental problems. I’d much prefer Seneca and Marcus Aurelius to quick-fix pop psychologists. I even discovered it’s about to be “Stoic Week”—a free online course developed by philosophy professors and offered through www.modernstoics.com. You live like a Stoic for a week, meditate on the virtues, think about your day and try to put the philosophy into practice. Why not? I decided to give it a try.
I’ll let you know how it goes.