A Career in a Life

In addition to a lot of time to meditate, my last year of serious illness has given me a lot of time to think, including about my job and career. I seem to be of the age where people start considering what they’ve done with their life so far, and evaluating whether it was worth doing and whether they were successful at it. What does it mean to have a successful career? The question can’t really be answered until the end of a career, since even thriving careers can end badly, but there are at least two ways to evaluate success before the end: inner-directed and outer-directed. (One can think of these perspectives as based on authenticity or conformity, but those terms are much more loaded.) I have adopted the inner-directed approach where success depends partly on how you interpret your own career, on the story you can tell about your career within the story of your life.

The outer-directed evaluation is the most common and the hardest to escape given that we’re individuals within a profession and professionals within a broader society of professionals. Both of those social contexts can provide criteria for evaluation. How do we rank compared to other academic librarians, especially ones of our own age/experience cohort? And how do we as academic librarians compare to other professions, especially those to which we might have aspired?

Like many people who become academic librarians, I started out on a more traditional path to academia. Had I not decided during my graduate study in English that the chances of getting a tenure-track job I would want were extremely small, and if I had continued on the track I was on, and if I had despite the odds been successful, I would have become an English professor, probably of early modern British literature. Would I have been happy in that career? Probably as happy as I am now. But I decided my chances of gainful employment were too slim to make it worth the effort, so I left grad school after my M.A., and the world lost the opportunity of getting another Shakespeare scholar. I’d already decided in college that my chances in English were better than in my other love philosophy, so the world had already lost the opportunity of getting another philosophy professor. The world doesn’t seem any worse off.

Would my career have been more successful as a professor than as an academic librarian? Certainly professors are higher in the academic hierarchy than librarians (I’m skipping the faculty librarian debate). They generally make more money and have more social prestige. However, as a professor I would still have had others with which to compare myself, since professors are far from equal. Had I ended up at a small state university, I could still have thought, “if only I were a professor at Harvard or Princeton, then I would really be successful!” Or I could have been a moderately paid English professor looking at my colleagues in the business school and irritated that I wasn’t paid as much as them. And, possibly, I just wouldn’t have been very good at it.

However, an honest comparison of my prospects might not be between English professor and academic librarian, but between academic librarian and adjunct writing instructor. Here the story changes considerably. I understand the motivation of people who would rather teach for low pay without benefits or job security, who would rather identify as a professor than anything else despite their tenuous employment. I love teaching, even the academic grunt work of teaching writing, and most of my years as a librarian I’ve also taught either in a writing program or in a library school. Discussing difficult texts with interested undergraduates is a great pleasure, but I would rather be an academic librarian with a full time job and benefits than an adjunct writing instructor with neither, and those were probably the best options within the competing careers I was likely to achieve while remaining in academia. So am I more successful or less than I might have been?

The other outer-directed evaluation is with other academic librarians. A frequently used criterion is moving up, where “up” always means into administration. It’s an objective fact that in any library there can be only one library director, and at best only a handful of high level middle managers even in a large organization, and those librarians are at or near the top of their profession in an easily measured way. So attractive is this model that librarians often uproot their lives and move every few years to advance in their careers. By this standard, my career so far hasn’t been too successful. I’ve spent my 18 professional years doing variations on the same kind of work, and 16 of those years doing it at the same library, because I like what I do and better opportunities haven’t come along.

There are other ways to measure the success of academic librarians in an outer-directed fashion, ways in which I’m not such a loser I guess. I could compare institutional prestige, for example. I moved up in a sense when I moved from Gettysburg to Princeton, but like a lot of liberal arts colleges in small towns Gettysburg has its attractions, and had I not been locked in a professional battle to the death with my then supervisor, I might have stayed a lot longer than I did. And my first few years at Princeton weren’t much easier than my fraught time at Gettysburg, so I learned early on there’s no library workplace utopia. Besides, the institution doesn’t confer value on the individual; the individual creates value for the institution.

Academic librarians also have the opportunity to compare themselves via their scholarship, reputation, professional service, etc. Here I fair moderately at best. I’ve published some, and I’m pleased with what I’ve published, but it’s out of the mainstream of library science publications and my impact has been minor. I’ve presented some, but not much compared to more prominent academic librarians. I’ve been active in professional organizations, but I’m unlikely ever to be president of ACRL, so how successful could I really be? Within my own institution, I’ve earned two rank promotions, but what difference does that really make? I’m surrounded by smart, capable people on the same route. By these standards, I’m more successful than some other librarians, but much less successful than a lot of others. And yet, I’m very satisfied with my career, so whence comes my professional satisfaction?

I have tried never to evaluate my life or career by the standards or accomplishments of other people. Jobs always have outer-directed aspects to them. Part of living peacefully in society is conforming to at least some social conventions, and part of being employed in a capitalist society is pleasing other people. My library has rules and procedures for advancement as do most libraries, and I’ve tried to comply with those rules. I try to fulfill the expectations others have for my work without falling into bad faith, without “playing at being a librarian” in a Sartrean sense, but I conform to those expectations as much as I need to. In other words, I’m not a rebellious outsider chafing against the rules, mostly because I chose a profession where I agree with the rules. Professional longevity, if not success, is inevitably judged by some conformity. You can’t have a career if you can’t get or keep a job.

However, most of the time I conform to the expectations by chance rather than by design. To the extent that I’m successful in my work, I’m successful because I believe the work I do has value and because it fits into a larger life project, and it’s that larger life project from which I derive much of my meaning, purpose, satisfaction, ikigai, or whatever one might want to call it. I’m good at what I do because I like and value what I do and it exploits skills that I would have developed regardless of my job.

The overarching life project that has motivated most of my professional decisions over the years could be described as self-cultivation through the study of humanity, an engagement with Culture as Matthew Arnold defined it, “a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world, and, through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits, which we now follow staunchly but mechanically, vainly imagining that there is a virtue in following them staunchly which makes up for the mischief of following them mechanically.” Academic libraries and the access to scholarship they provide are important for that life project. I want to be able to research any subject that I fancy in any depth I desire.

Furthermore, because I believe in the life-enhancing importance and value of such research, I want to help others to achieve that goal. Hence, building research collections and helping people use them–a significant goal of research libraries and a big part of my work–is satisfying to me. Being a part of a larger enterprise that has given my life such meaning gives my career meaning as well, at least based on my own standards. In an address on the idea of the university, the rhetorician Wayne Booth said that “the academy attracts those who aspire to omniscience.” I’m one of those people. To paraphrase Aristotle, Wayne by nature desires to know, and the academy attracted me like a moth to a warm, bright light.

Thus, it didn’t matter that much for my own career satisfaction whether I became an English professor, a philosophy professor, an adjunct writing instructor, or an academic librarian, although being outside of academia might have been less satisfying. I am not my job. My life isn’t my career. My life doesn’t become meaningful because I’m a librarian; I work as a librarian because it fits well into the larger project that does provide meaning for my life. When I was an adjunct writing instructor prior to library school, I wasn’t dissatisfied with my work. Gladly would I learn and gladly teach. I made considerably less money, and there’s a sense in which I sold out to become a librarian (just as I sold out to go to grad school in English instead of philosophy), but money for me has always been what Stoics call a preferred indifferent. I probably make more in a few years than my parents made in their working lives combined, but I was still pretty happy pursuing my studious life course when I was an impoverished grad student.

This happiness isn’t about the subjective well being that positive psychologists study. It comes from interpreting my life in a eudaimonic sense. Eudaimonia is usually translated as “happiness.” One article on positive psychology I read recently went so far as to claim that for Aristotle, eudaimonia was just the word he used for happiness, but it’s the other way around. I do like a definition formulated by another psychologist, Carol Ryff, who wrote that “the essence of eudaimonia” is “the idea of striving toward excellence based on one’s unique potential,” in Nietzsche’s phrasing, “becoming who you are.” Although I’ve written about the calm and joy when dealing with adversity that Stoic Zen stuff brings, I’ve long understood my life and my career in existentialist terms and interpret eudaimonia within them: facticity and transcendence, authenticity and Bad Faith, anxiety and guilt, freedom and responsibility. Our potential transcendence is always circumscribed by the world we’ve been thrown into, our facticity. Eudaimonia comes, possibly, from making the most of that to shape our lives within values we choose. We might have anxiety facing our possible choices, and experience existential guilt that we didn’t choose other than the way we did, but ultimately we’re free to choose and live better lives when we take responsibility for those choices, even though we had to make them within more or less narrow circumstances.

Regardless of my subjective well being at any given time, or how much of a success or failure I might be by various outer-directed criteria, if I interpret my career in the sense of striving towards excellence based upon my unique potential, I can be happy with it both in itself and in how it fits into my life as a whole. I made most of my major life and career choices not because they made sense by someone else’s standards, but because I understood them at the time either to enhance, or at least not interfere with, the projects  and roles I chose to give meaning to my life. Even now, I feel confident I could use my library experience and my rhetorical skills to work in sales and make a lot more money. By the world’s standards, that would make me more successful, but the work wouldn’t align as well with my life projects and so would at best be a distraction. More money, or a bigger house, or a more expensive car, wouldn’t make me significantly happier. I could afford a bigger house or more expensive car than I have now, but the only reason to buy them would be to impress other people whose values I don’t respect precisely because they’re the sort of people who are impressed by big houses and expensive cars. Even if they made me happier in a hedonic sense in the short term, I would probably get used to them eventually and lose that happiness. Such is the hedonic treadmill.

Moving up in libraries would be just fine as long as the work still supported the research mission, but the last job opportunity I explored for that left me so disgusted with the person I would have reported to that I deliberately but subtly sabotaged my interview so that I wouldn’t even be offered the job. If I’m happy, in both a hedonic and eudaimonic sense, with my work, there’s no reason for me to leave just to move up. However, I like it when people I respect and value move up, and I’m glad when they find meaning in their work. I don’t think they’re more successful than others because they’re further up the hierarchy; I think they’re more successful than others because they find meaning and satisfaction in work worth doing. I judge their success by the same subjective standards by which I judge my own. For those of us who find meaning and satisfaction in our work, what objective standards make sense for judging relative success? I do question the motivation of people who move up because they think that’s what they’re supposed to do, to conform with the expectations of what Heidegger calls Das Man, “the They,” or the ones who want to move up because they want to control everyone. They’re the ones who’ll be the most unhappy with their work, and probably make others unhappy in the process.

You can successfully engage in life projects of your own choosing, even within your natural and social limits, and be successful and happy without feeling good all the time, maybe even most of the time, and without achieving what others think you should have achieved. As the Buddha said, “all experience is preceded by mind, led by mind, made by mind.” What matters is how you interpret your career. Think of life as a narrative. In the story we can tell about our lives, a story for all of us not yet finished, does the story make sense? Does it have meaning? Does the main character develop? Do the plans and choices ultimately come together in a satisfying form, regardless of how random or chaotic they might seem at the time? Does the main character learn from mistakes or keep making the same ones? Does it look like the story will end well? And how does the career fit into the larger story? Whether I have a successful career depends partly on the story I tell myself, or at least that’s the story I tell myself.

Stoic Zen Stuff

It’s been a long time since I’ve written much longer than an email. The last ten months (and counting) have been a time of extraordinary health problems, with six hospitalizations, three abdominal surgeries, bouts of diverticulitis, pneumonia, and gout, and eighteen weeks away from work either in the hospital (44 days total) or home recovering from surgeries. I lost over fifty pounds, not all the “good” kind of weight loss, and went from feeling big and strong to frail and weak, and at the time of writing I’ve gone ten weeks without being able to tolerate solid food, so almost all of my nutrition comes intravenously. I live in interesting times.

While there’s been a lot of physical trauma, and months of fatigue, and the whole not-being-able-to-eat-solid-food thing, with the exception of a few low moments my mental state has been good. Often I have experienced extended periods of psychological peace, equanimity, and even joy. A nurse not so subtly grilled me about depression (a bad symptom to have if you want to be released from the hospital), and I replied that I don’t get depressed. I learned to deal with general depression and existential angst decades ago when Nietzsche and Camus saved my life, but in the past few years my mental health and my ability to remain calm and focused have improved significantly from the Stoic study and practice I wrote about a few years ago, as well as the Zen study and meditation practice I began around the same time (strictly shikantaza until now, almost all alone). They were preparing me even better for adversity I couldn’t have foreseen, and adversity you can’t foresee pretty much describes life. Handling professional problems with equanimity has become very easy compared to dealing with almost a year of major health problems without anger, depression, or resentment.

Stoicism and Zen (and other varieties of Buddhism) complement each other in many ways (and I’m hardly the only one to notice this), with Stoicism being somewhat like Zen without the zazen, but you could argue the zazen is everything. As the 13th century Zen master Dogen said, “Each moment of zazen is equally the wholeness of practice, equally the wholeness of realization.” Stoic practice is more about rationalizing your way to psychological peace and joy, while Zen moves past the rationalizations and the rationalizer towards mindfulness developed through meditation leading (possibly, eventually) to enlightenment. Both have been helpful, but I’ve gradually focused more on Zen study and meditation as a way developing mindfulness and inching towards whatever enlightenment I’ll ever be able to achieve. Stoicism was a good gateway drug into Zen, because the existing written corpus is so small–and the issues familiar if you’ve read Aristotle–and it requires no physical discipline, but the physical discipline helps train the mind. On a somewhat related note, while Zen is usually considered a religion, I’m more like many Western students of Buddhism and treat it as a philosophy, specifically a form of virtue ethics.

The Dichotomy of Control

Within both there’s a technique that Stoics call the “dichotomy of control,” where you try to learn how to focus your mental effort and well being only on things you can control and let go of the rest. Epictetus begins his Handbook (or Enchiridion) with a well known passage about what you can control and what you can’t: “Some things are up to us and some are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions—in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor are our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices, or, that is, whatever is not our own doing. The things that are up to us are by nature free, unhindered, and unimpeded; the things that are not up to us are weak, enslaved, hindered, not our own.”

When you understand what’s within your control or not, then you work on reducing your often negative reactions to things outside your control. “From the start, then, work on saying to each harsh appearance, ‘You are an appearance, and not at all the thing that has the appearance.’ Then examine it and assess it by these yardsticks that you have, and first and foremost by whether it concerns the things that are up to us or the things that are not up to us. And if it is about one of the things that is not up to us, be ready to say, ‘You are nothing in relation to me.’” Over time, it’s possible to get better at identifying and dismissing such “appearances.” Some believe that Stoicism is a fatalistic philosophy, but it’s only after you work to control what you can that you understand what is truly out of your control, and to rage about that is just foolish.

I can say from experience that responding to each “harsh appearance” works, but it took me years to get there. One measure is how I react to traffic, which has always triggered anger in me. One time I screamed myself hoarse shouting at someone who stopped in the entrance lane to I-95. Now I can’t remember the last time I got angry in traffic. If someone cuts me off in traffic, or someone else doesn’t go as fast in the passing lane as I want them to, getting angry or upset about it is ridiculous and irrational. As long as I don’t engage in road rage revenge, my anger harms nobody but me. And with 7 billion people on earth, what’s so special about me that everything should go exactly as I desire at every moment of the day? And why react with anger rather than compassion? Maybe the person who cut me off was unaware of her action, or the person driving slowly in the passing lane was so caught up in his psychological problems that he couldn’t focus. Our anger often attributes evil intent to actions that we’ve done ourselves before without such intent. As Marcus Aurelius wrote, “When faced with people’s bad behavior, turn around and ask when you have acted like that” (X.30). Or maybe, and this seems very likely, almost everyone around us in traffic is mostly mindless of what’s happening around them because their thoughts are trapped elsewhere. Should the proper response be anger, or pity?

Fortunately, it’s not just in traffic that I’m able to achieve some equanimity. My wife noticed during one of my many days in the hospital that when in some pain I might snap at her, and then very quickly catch myself, become mindful of my emotional state, and apologize. I would try, and sometimes succeed, to bring myself back to the moment just as I would bring my attention back to the breath when meditating. What I realized–as in made real for myself–is that my anger makes nothing better, and it affects me and those around me negatively. It just took lots of reminding myself to focus again on my emotional state and rationalizing every time I’d get angry or peevish to realize that, and the meditation practice made it easier to return to the moment. The same technique works whether I’m angry, or in pain, or have blood gushing out of places in my body from which blood should not be gushing. Instead of cultivating the negative emotions that normally accompany such activity, I’ve learned how to distance myself from them and cultivate positive emotions instead, or at least neutral emotions.

Buddhism has a related approach to what’s in our control and “up to us.” Here’s a passage from the Alagaddupama Sutta (the Snake Sutta) that reminds me of Epictetus: “Therefore, monks, abandon what is not yours—your abandoning it will bring you good and happiness for a long time. And what is it that is not yours? Physical form is not yours. Abandon it—your abandoning it will bring you good and happiness for a long time. Feeling is not yours … Conceiving is not yours … Volitional forces are not yours … Consciousness is not yours. Abandon it—your abandoning it will bring you good and happiness for a long time.” The Buddha goes further than Epictetus, who would still consider “volitional forces” and consciousness within our control, but both Stoicism and Buddhism act on the assumption that one can learn to control or abandon “desires and aversions,” our greed, hatred, and delusion.

The Discipline of Judgment

Related to the Dichotomy of Control is the Discipline of Judgment. In the Stoic scheme, the Discipline of Judgment allows one to tell the difference between what is within one’s control or not, or what is just an “appearance” and not the (usually harmful) thing that appearance pretends to be. How we feel about the things not within our control is up to us. From Epictetus’s Handbook again: “What upsets people is not things themselves but their judgments about the things. For example, death is nothing dreadful (or else it would have appeared dreadful to Socrates), but instead the judgment about death that it is dreadful—that is what is dreadful.” Other people don’t “make” us angry, unless they’re capable of some sort of mind control. The anger is all in our mind. “So when we are thwarted or upset or distressed, let us never blame someone else but rather ourselves, that is, our own judgments. An uneducated person accuses others when he is doing badly; a partly educated person accuses himself, an educated person accuses neither someone else nor himself.” (Enchiridion ❡5)

For the Stoics, the combination of the Dichotomy of Control and the Discipline of Judgment allow one to attain equanimity, to gradually eliminate the effect of pathological emotions like anger and envy and cultivate healthy emotions like joy, empathy, and gratitude. Buddhists use the terms “unskillful” and “skillful” to describe such emotions. How we see the world depends on what we expect to see, and much of our anger and disappointment with the world is based on our unwarranted expectations that the world should be exactly the way we want it to be at all times, or at the very least fair some of the time. If the world doesn’t satisfy our ego’s constant need to get what we want and avoid what we don’t want, we get frustrated, angry, or disappointed, but the problem is our foolish expectations, not the world. The hard part is training our mind and aligning our foolish expectations with reality. As Ronald Pies wrote in his book on Judaism, Buddhism, and Stoicism, “if you ask more of the universe than it can give, you will most certainly be unhappy. If you stop doing that, there is at least a good chance your unhappiness will decrease dramatically.”

Similar passages occur in the Dhammapada, for example in the opening chapter on “Dichotomies”: “All experience is preceded by mind, Led by mind, Made by mind. Speak or act with a corrupted mind, And suffering follows As the wagon wheel follows the hoof of the ox…. Speak or act with a peaceful mind, And happiness follows Like a never-departing shadow.” Buddhists also believe that what upsets us is our  judgment about things, which is made by mind, not the things themselves. Epictetus believes the uneducated (or, perhaps better, untrained) person accuses others when doing badly. The Dhammapada contains a similar sentiment: “‘He abused me, attacked me, Defeated me, robbed me!’ For those carrying on like this, Hatred does not end. ‘She abused me, attacked me, Defeated me, robbed me!’ For those not carrying on like this, Hatred ends.” It’s not that things don’t happen to us, but that whether we judge them as good, bad, or indifferent is up to us, or at least up to those with trained minds. With the proper training, so both philosophies agree, we can react more skillfully and less egoistically to all situations, whether we would normally consider them “good” or “bad.”

Awareness

For both Stoicism and Zen a goal is awareness or mindfulness of our feelings and perceptions at all times, although the routes to such awareness differ. Stoic prosochē and Buddhist sati aren’t quite the same thing, but close. For both, we’re trapped in delusions our mind creates. To be aware of the moment and notice how we’re reacting to it without judging that reaction is mindfulness, but then we can mentally stand back and judge that reaction. Is it appropriate? Is it a skillful reaction? Is it good for us? Is it good for other people? And if not, we can alter that judgment. The important thing is the ability to distance our consciousness from our initial nonconscious reactions to events and learn to control them. Awareness is what allows us to use the Discipline of Judgment to exercise the Dichotomy of Control.

A modern Zen master, Kosho Uchiyama Roshi, puts it this way in Opening the Hand of Thought: “What is this way of awareness? Let us first consider what it means to be unaware, or oblivious to what is going on around us. All human beings are deluded by our brains and become absent-minded because of our discriminating minds…. We also get caught up in desire, anger, and group stupidity. These are more difficult to deal with, because they are fabrications conjured up in our heads. We create various illusions in our minds and then jump in, becoming immersed in them.” For Zen practitioners, the path to awareness is sitting meditation. Uchiyama continues: “How can we awaken from these illusions? The only way is to open the hand of thought, because our thoughts themselves are the source of illusion. When we let go of our thoughts and become vividly aware, all the illusions that create desire, anger, and group stupidity vanish immediately. This is the way of awareness. We must neither fall asleep nor get carried away by our thoughts. The essential point in zazen is to be vividly aware, opening the hand of thought.”

Stoics also have forms of meditation, but the practice is about rationalizing with less physical and different mental discipline than zazen. One recommendation is to meditate on your activities during the day and ask whether you responded to people or events in a good or beneficial way. Another practice is premeditatio malorum, or premeditation of evils, where you imagine the bad things that could happen in a situation so you’re prepared for them in advance. If you’re going to drive somewhere, you’re going to experience traffic, bad drivers, etc. Be prepared for it and react calmly, because any other reaction is foolish. I’ve been practicing what I call postmeditatio malorum; when dealing with some new health problem I think, “at least it’s not as bad as that time [something disgusting I won’t detail] happened!” There are suggested physical disciplines, such as exposing yourself to discomfort involuntarily to build up resistance (e.g., going lightly jacketed on a cold day), fasting occasionally, sleeping on the ground instead of a bed sometimes, but they take up a smaller space within Stoicism than zazen does in Zen, where the practice is daily.

Gratitude and Impermanence

In addition to equanimity and joy, cultivating gratitude has been immensely helpful. In the midst of illness, especially a prolonged and sometimes painful one, it’s easy to focus on the pain or the unfairness of it all. I seem to have a high tolerance for pain, but still there have been moments when the pain in my gut drove all other thoughts from my mind. However, by learning to mentally distance myself somewhat from the pain, it becomes much easier to bear. From a cosmic perspective, my pain and indeed my very existence are irrelevant, but even from my perspective properly cultivated, it’s difficult to get depressed about pain and illness when I have a loving family, great friends, a good job, a pleasant if modest house, adequate health insurance, etc. A cynic might say, of course you’re fine with all that good stuff going on! But plenty of people with far more material benefits than I are anxious or depressed. No matter how much luck you have–and I eventually understood how very lucky I’ve been in my life–without understanding that luck and being grateful for it you can still be miserable.

A incentive towards gratitude is realizing the impermanence of, well, everything, a lesson of both Stoicism and Buddhism. The egoistic desire that the world be just as we want it at all times is accompanied by the belief that good things at least are or should be permanent. But everything dies. As the Buddha would put it, that which is capable of arising is capable of passing away. Some people might find this a harsh lesson to learn, much like the lesson of their cosmic insignificance, rather than a simple fact of existence. Instead, we can use the knowledge of impermanence to increase our gratitude. Epictetus counsels us, when we’re leaving our house for example, to kiss our children goodbye and to remember that this might be the last time you ever see them. How many people grieve the loss of a loved one by thinking, “if only I’d told them how much I loved them” or “shown how much I appreciated them” or some such. They didn’t learn the lesson of impermanence, which is that the time to tell them you love them or show your appreciation for them is always now.

When my daughter was young, I formed a mindful habit. I spend a lot of time with a computer at home, reading, writing, grading, etc., and if it’s not a computer it’s a book. However, whenever my daughter would come into the room to see me, I would put away the computer (or smartphone or book) and attend to her. I might not win a “world’s greatest dad” competition, but now that she’s grown and off to college, I can rest content with the knowledge that I didn’t abandon possible time with her to “just finish this one thing” that ultimately wouldn’t matter anyway. Some people might actually prefer to spend time staring at an electronic device than spend time with their children, but I’m not one of them. If you truly understand the truth of impermanence, you can at least make that choice mindfully, and be grateful for the time you have, either with your smartphone or your child (or friends, or parents, or whatever).

A Path of Some Kind

Mindfulness is popular now, especially the variety some call McMindfulness, where the goal isn’t really to develop mindfulness, but to use mindfulness to accomplish some other goal, often one that someone else sets for you. In Untangling Self: a Buddhist investigation of Who We Really Are, Andrew Olendzki considers the misuses of such popularity:

There is considerable enthusiasm for mindfulness these days, as long as it does not threaten to make us wise. Corporate tycoons would like to bring mindfulness into their world to help give them a competitive edge, as long as they do not have to spend too much of their valuable time meditating, and only if they can be reassured they will not lose their killer instincts and get all mushy and compassionate. And they are interested in training their workers in mindfulness, as long as it makes them more diligent and accepting of their duty, and does not raise troublesome ethical questions or throw them into a midlife crisis that leads them to drop out to do something more meaningful with their lives.

If mindfulness is about making you a better worker, or more efficient, or some such, it’s popular in workplaces. “Do yoga, work harder,” as an article on the co-optation of relaxation put it. ACRL has published a book on mindfulness for librarians that lists many practical professional benefits as librarians become more mindful of themselves and the people around them. It’s worth reading. I’ve also seen practical benefits, and a lot of this post is about how my Stoic Zen approach to mindfulness has enabled me to come through an unpleasant ordeal in good spirits. I’m not knocking the practical benefits. And, fortunately, I already thought my work was meaningful, so I don’t need to drop out and do something else.

However, the more I study and practice, the more convinced I am that mindfulness, and the meditation that helps develop mindfulness, are relatively empty without some sort of path, whether that path is adhering to the traditional Stoic virtues–prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude–or to the Buddhist Eightfold Path–Right Understanding, Intention, Speech, Action, Livelihood, Effort, Concentration, and Meditation–or to both, or to some other ethical path. Attempting mindfulness just to make us more professionally effective or personally happy misses the point, which is to make us wise. There’s a paradox, where not pursuing practical benefits somehow brings more practical benefits, because the desire for practical benefits is just another ultimately unfulfillable craving from which we should detach ourselves. The craving for practical benefits is a trap. Thus, I’ve been trying to get past the egoistic obstacle that sees only immediate benefits in order to tread some kind of path to eudaimonia.

If I no longer get angry and scream at drivers who cut me off in traffic, or I don’t get depressed or despondent while dealing with months of debilitating health, the result isn’t just that I’m happier–in both the eudaimonic and hedonic senses–but that I’m less foolish because I’m more free from delusions and irrational expectations about what the world owes me. Expecting pleasant traffic or great health and being disappointed when I don’t enjoy them says nothing about traffic or health, but a lot about my illusions.  In both Stoicism and Zen, a significant goal is to see the world without illusion, to free ourselves from the conditioning of ego or culture that blinds us to reality. Stoics call this living according to nature, Zen Buddhists call it enlightenment. Until we reach Stoic sagehood or Zen enlightenment, we’re all suffering from a form of mental illness according to these perspectives. Even if the perfection of sagehood or enlightenment is never reached, we can still try, and those on the path are progressors or bodhisattvas depending on the wisdom tradition.

I wouldn’t call myself a progressor or a bodhisattva just as I wouldn’t call myself a Stoic or a Zen Buddhist, since I’ve come to think of labels for whatever path I’m traveling to be like the finger pointing at the moon. Despite a growing interest in Zen, I’m not yet interested in committing to a sangha or publicly taking the precepts. I consider myself someone seeking wisdom wherever he can find it, and who wants to live more peacefully and joyfully in the world, and this is just the most practical wisdom I’ve found so far, alongside the yes-saying, life-affirming, self-overcoming Nietzschean existentialism I cultivated in my youth. I’ve been trying to tread a path and incidentally am happier for it, even as I feel the burn. And if it somehow makes me a better librarian, that’s just a lagniappe.

Recommended Books on Stoicism, Zen, Buddhism, and Meditation

Aitken, Taking the Path of Zen

Becker, A New Stoicism

Epictetus, Discourses and Handbook

Goldstein, Mindfulness: a Practical Guide to Awakening

Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life: the Ancient Art of Stoic Joy

Maezumi and Glassman, On Zen Practice: Body, Breath, and Mind

Nhat Hahn, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching

Nhat Hahn, The Miracle of Mindfulness

Radcliff and Radcliff, Understanding Zen

Sellars, The Art of Living: the Stoics on the Nature and Function of Philosophy

Seneca, Letters on Ethics (aka, Moral Letters)

Uchiyama, Opening the Hand of Thought: Foundations of Zen Buddhist Practice

Yates, The Mind Illuminated: a Complete Meditation Guide Integrating Buddhist Wisdom and Brain Science for Greater Mindfulness

Professional Contingency and the Cosmic Perspective

This blog is approaching its tenth anniversary, and I realized that its tenth year has been one of silence. Partly I’ve been working (slowly) on another book, partly I’ve been chairing a really busy ACRL committee that produces lengthy documents, and partly I’ve less incentive to blog since one provocative librarian has ceased publishing laughable false dichotomies about libraries and another has ceased all public activity due, supposedly, to “threats and politics.” I feel at my best as a critic. But mostly I’ve turned my mental free energy to other things and have generally found a negative correlation between eudaimonia and social media engagement (the subject of another, perhaps ironic, blog post I haven’t finished).

Of all things I was awakened from my dogmatic slumbers by a Medium article encouraging library managers to embed creativity in their libraries. I say “of all things” because I’m all for creativity in the workplace, I’m not a library manager, and I have no particular objection to any advice in the article, with the small quibble that I’m not sure how one can have scheduled time together to “be creative” that has no agenda and can be used for “learning, play, investigation, fun,” but that also needs an “eventual outcome.” That sounds like a hidden agenda, but considering some of the librarian meetings I’ve attended over the years, a hidden agenda is probably better than no agenda at all.

That library manager reports that she’s spoken to “creatives newly employed in the library industry” who find a “dogged unwillingness to change” entrenched, and who “also speak about the meanness of our profession as long term staff members, often now middle managers, allow their own feelings of not being nurtured as a professional to affect their management practice of their team members.” That’s a pretty serious charge coming from these creatives, to which my response is, 1) I’m completely unsurprised, since even non-creatives like me have found professional lethargy an occasional hindrance; 2) I’m not a manager, middle or otherwise, so I’m not hindering anyone as far as I know; and 3) hey, wait, are you talking about people like me who have never been “nurtured as a professional”? You are, aren’t you. You’re talking how mean I am and psychologizing about my feelings. That’s not very nice.

Probably not many librarians would call me mean. I doubt any would call me nurturing, either, although I do strive to be collegial. I certainly don’t want to defend any mean librarians, because I’ve known a small number who have been downright malignant and it wouldn’t bother me at all if they died slowly and painfully as long as I didn’t have to listen to them complain about it. (A couple of those librarians might indeed call me “mean,” but that didn’t sound mean, did it? I’ve gone unnurtured so long it’s hard for me to tell.) I have even tried in the last several years to encourage some newer librarians (not nurture, but still) in ways I was never encouraged, even if it is entirely in my self-interest to do what little I can to keep smart, engaged people working here. And I believe library managers should be encouraging and nurturing and all that, but I know they often aren’t.

But there’s another, unnurtured, feral part of me, shrugging, humming, and slowly tilting my head from side to side saying, “hmmm, well, maybe there’s another perspective.” It could be that “long term staff members” are being mean; it definitely happens. They could also be bitter or envious as they see enthusiastic newer colleagues and reflect on how little they’ve accomplished in their life and career. However, there is a possible non-malignant explanation for the behavior of long term librarians that doesn’t entail them being mean because they were never nurtured as professionals. They might not be mean, just indifferent, and that indifference might have an understandable existential rationale, which might itself offer some small consolation.

A former colleague of mine once related some advice he received early in his library career. Someone told him that the library had been there long before he was hired, and would be there long after he was gone. The same is likely true for you and your library, and in a case of a library like mine, it was here long before I was born and will likely persist long after I’m dead. And, unless you accomplish something exceptional, your work in that library will leave little to no lasting, significant change. That isn’t meant as an insult. I believe the same thing about my work, and I have a high opinion of myself both personally and professionally.

Our professional lives are as contingent as our personal lives. We were all born through a series of arbitrary events, thrown into a world not of our making, and will die without, in all likelihood, having affected the lives of more than a relatively small group of people, all of whom will also eventually die. Our work is much the same, only shorter. Where we work and what we do is mostly a matter of chance and luck, good or bad, and once we’re gone we’ll be replaced, if we even are replaced, and the workplace will continue to function.

Despite this professional existential contingency, we sometimes think of ourselves as necessary. Sometimes that’s because we’ve identified ourselves with one of the roles we play, like the waiter in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. Instead of performing the tasks of a librarian, people play at being librarians, and conflate their selves with their current arbitrary professional roles. You may have encountered librarians who believed that the library wouldn’t run without them, that not just their position, but their person, was necessary for everything else to continue functioning. They need to believe that their contingency is really a necessity, but I believe they’re living in bad faith.

Consider this when thinking about the seeming indifference or resistance of your colleagues, especially the “long term staff members.” One of the things “long term staff members” learn is the contingency of other employees, if not perhaps of themselves. When you’ve been at a library long enough, especially one that employs lots of people, you learn that individual people come and go and yet the library keeps functioning. Sometimes if they leave the library everyone is worse off for a while, maybe a long while, but everyone adjusts. People are resilient, and there’s a lot of ruin in an organization. Thus, it might not be that the librarians who have been around for a while are trying deliberately to frustrate you, it could just be that they know how contingent your professional existence is.

In the wrong frame of mind, this might make you feel bad. Some people apparently feel anxiety at the thought of their own contingency. Why doesn’t everyone recognize my brilliance and defer to me, you might ask yourself. That question is probably even more puzzling if you actually are brilliant and full of great ideas that would make the library a better place for everyone and not just you. Some of the best and brightest librarians I’ve known and respected have been the most frustrated at the “dogged unwillingness” of entrenched librarians to change. I’m not dismissing that. I’ve felt that frustration myself.

If you feel like your colleagues aren’t listening to you and aren’t changing fast enough to suit your tastes or aren’t nurturing you enough, you might find some consolation in reflecting on the contingency of your own life and how it might be viewed sub specie aeternitatis, from the standpoint of eternity. From a cosmic viewpoint–the “view from above” that Stoics recommend to put yourself into perspective–your life, your work, and your contributions ultimately don’t matter very much, but the same is true of your problems. Something that seems frustrating at work almost certainly isn’t important when viewed from the cosmic perspective. That’s also the perspective that almost everyone else has about you, because while it’s difficult to approach a cosmic perspective about our own importance, it’s relatively easy to gain one about other people, especially people who aren’t your close friends or loved ones.

Now it could be that you’re just a more compassionate person than I am. I’ll grant that’s entirely likely. I won’t fight for the moral high ground here. It could be that you REALLY care about ALL the people you work with, that you consider their well being as much as you do your own, that you’re incapable of viewing other people as anything but visceral extensions of your own emotional state and that you feel their pain as you feel your own. Other people look around the library and can find people they dislike and whose departure would be a cause for celebration. Maybe it’s their asshole boss, or that toxic colleague, or whomever. But not you.

If you’re like that, then you might be incapable of understanding the cosmic viewpoint and putting your problems into a larger perspective. Also, you might be incapable of functioning as a human being. But if you’re capable of feeling emotionally indifferent to the problems of even one of the people you work with, or to any of the 7.3 billion people estimated to be alive right now, then you might be capable of something resembling the cosmic viewpoint, and it might lessen the frustration you have with workplace problems that are relatively trivial.

Being frustrated by the slow pace of change or the indifference of long time staff members to your designs seems to me to be relatively trivial even from many non-cosmic perspectives. Institutional oppression and workplace bullying seem far worse than indifference or resistance. More serious issues emerge as you expand outwards to whatever you’re unhappy with about the state of the nation, human rights violations around the world, global trafficking in humans and weapons, the dangers we humans likely face from climate change, and the current scientific consensus that in about 4 billion years the earth will be too hot to sustain any life and in 7 billion or so it will be engulfed by the expanding sun–and that’s before we even leave the perspective of the earth.

Some might consider this point of view bleak, but I don’t share that interpretation. Worry, anxiety, obsession with others, the fear of embarrassment or failure–these can all thwart our attempts to change our circumstances for the better, and all of them are unimportant from any but our narrow personal perspective. If knowing that the earth will eventually be swallowed by the sun doesn’t hinder your will to act, why should knowing that some of your colleagues aren’t enthusiastic about your views or are indifferent to your contingency hinder that will? If you act to foment change, to improve your professional life or your library, what’s the worst that will happen? People who don’t care about you anyway will get irritated? You’ll fail? The worst that can happen, from the cosmic perspective, isn’t really that bad, so why not go ahead and try?

The people who do most to improve the world don’t worry about the indifference of others. They act to create the world they want to see. Embracing your own contingency and trying to adopt the cosmic perspective can be enervating or invigorating as you choose, and it can prepare you to do whatever you can to change things, and to feel less personal frustration over the things you can’t control.

The Stoic Librarian

In the words of Jim Anchower, I know it’s been a long time since I rapped at ya. For the past three years I’ve been trying to put my best library-related stuff into my Library Journal column, and the pressure of trying to come up with interesting stuff every month wore me out some. Since February I’ve been out of the rotation for the Peer to Peer Review column, and for the last three months have used the time I might have spent thinking about and writing that column reading philosophy and the occasional mystery novel. The publication of a blog post about avoiding library burnout from Letters to a Young Librarian gave me the incentive to write a bit about what I’ve been reading.

The past few years I’ve been reading a lot about Stoicism, both the existing writings of the Stoics themselves–Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius–as well as a number of secondary books on Stoicism (I’ve included a selection at the end for anyone interested in further reading). Last summer I intensified that reading, and for the past few months have been trying to practice some form of modern Stoicism. Currently, I’m participating in a Stoic Mindfulness course online and am enjoying it. I also joined a Facebook Stoicism group. I don’t know about avoiding librarian burnout, but I do think that some Stoic practices help dealing with stress at work and what Sartre called the hell of other people.

First, a bit about what Stoicism is and isn’t about. I looked up the Merriam Webster definition of a stoic, which is supposedly “a person who accepts what happens without complaining or showing emotion.” Well, sort of. But just as the philosophy of Epicurus has nothing inherently related to enjoying fine food and drink, the contemporary definition of “stoic” has only a partial relation to either classical or modern Stoicism.

Put simply, Stoics seek a flourishing life devoted to human excellence, living according to our nature as rational and social animals, practicing the virtues of courage, justice, moderation, and practical wisdom. There are several Stoic beliefs and practices that form a system. Bits of the system can certainly be used effectively without accepting the whole, and I’m going to give a brief summary of the some of the major parts as I understand them.

1) There are things that are within our control and things that are not, and we should concern ourselves only with the things within our control.

In our control are our own beliefs, emotions, and actions. Not in our control are events that happen to us, the actions of other people, and what Stoics sometimes sum up as our health, wealth, and reputation. Now, it might seem like some of that is within our control. For example, our health. People try to eat healthy and exercise, and this gives them some control over their health. That’s fine for a Stoic to do. But if I have a terminal disease, there’s really not a lot I can do about it other than suffer through it or commit suicide if the pain gets too bad. And, ultimately, I will die, which is perfectly natural and nothing I can control. Since I can’t control it, I won’t worry about it.

I can’t control events that happen to me, only the way I respond. So, yes, a Stoic “accepts what happens,” but only in the sense that Stoics accept that things happen they can’t control and work to not get upset or angry over those things because to do so is pointless. People can try to control events and can even have some success, but eventually they will reach a barrier they can’t cross. If there’s something I’d like a colleague to do for me, I can ask nicely, I can plead, I can angrily demand, but I can’t force the person to do anything. Likewise with my reputation. I can try to do my best at things, but I can’t control what other people think of me, so I try not to worry about it. I want to worry only about my own choices and actions, since those are the only things I control. I have no control over the past, so I shouldn’t worry about it. I can only control how I act going forward.

2) It’s not things that bother us, but our judgment about things.

This famous line from Epictetus strikes me as a truism, but is apparently one of the hardest things for people to accept. If someone does something and I become angry, that anger is all in my head. It doesn’t somehow inhere in the action of the other person. People can’t “make me angry,” I can only choose to become angry over their actions, which is completely different. If you believe people “make” you angry, you believe they can control your mind. I don’t believe that. This is easily demonstrable if I’m the only one angry. (I use anger as an example because that has always been my most deadly sin.) Adam Smith observed that if we see other people angry we rarely get as angry on their behalf, and indeed might find their anger unseemly. Stoics believe that we should look at events almost as if we were other people, to take the “view from above.” If the same event wouldn’t anger or sadden others, then the anger and sadness are all ours. Anger in particular harms the angry person more than anyone else. Nobody cares about your anger, except perhaps to know when you’re angry so as to avoid you. As La Rochefoucauld noted, we all have the strength to bear other people’s problems.

3) Take a mental step back from events and examine them as they are before applying a value judgment.

As Pierre Hadot reads Epictetus and Marcus, this is part of the “discipline of assent.” An event happens, say, someone makes a remark about me. Maybe a fellow librarian calls me “fatty, fatty four eyes” in an attempt to anger me. The event itself is that someone said something about me. Whether I believe the person thereby harmed me or not is a value judgment that I apply, usually almost instantaneously. I “assent” (apply a value judgment) to the “impression” of the remark (in Stoic jargon). But with practice it’s possible to mentally step back and consider the situation. Has that person really harmed me? Stoics believe that rude or insulting people are in fact harming themselves by making themselves more vicious. Vice-ridden people who can’t control their actions are like children who haven’t learned to behave properly. Mentally, I might say to myself, “do the actions of rude children warrant my anger or my pity?” Someone else might try to insult me doing what they can control, but I’m only insulted if I choose to find the remark insulting. With a lot of practice, that’s within my control.

4) Act justly for the common good.

This is part of the “discipline of action.” Instead of always considering myself above and before other people, I should try to think more universally. Despite the irrational misanthropy of some people, human beings are social animals and are born into the world dependent on other people. The Stoic philosopher Heirocles conceived of a circle of concern, and Stoics practice to extend that circle of concern steadily outwards from themselves, to their friends and family, fellow citizens, and eventually to everyone in the world. Stoics were the first cosmopolitans, citizens of the world. Check out this panoramic view of the Andromeda galaxy, a 61,000-light-year stretch of the galaxy nearest ours of the 100 billion galaxies in universe. Think about how insignificant our lives and concerns are from a universal perspective. Think also that most people, just like you, act in a way they believe is good and believe things they they believe are right. Think of all that humans have in common, including their ultimate death and insignificance from a cosmic standpoint. And then ask yourself why your selfish concerns are somehow more important than everyone else’s in the world.

5) Learn to desire that things you can’t control happen as they do.

This one’s really hard, the “discipline of desire.” Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus are explicit that our lives will be happiest if we not just grudgingly accept things that happen beyond our control, but learn to desire that they happen as they do. Nietzsche wrote about the “eternal return,” and asked how we would feel if we knew we would live the same life over and over again and things would always happen as they do now. His life-affirming answer was amor fati, the “love of fate.” Stoics also try not to be averse to things happening they can’t control. Many, perhaps most, people fear death. But for the Stoic, death is nothing to be afraid of or avoid. We all die. It’s natural. We can’t avoid death. We can only control the way in which we deal with it. Stoics practice doing this by imagining things happen that ordinarily one might consider bad, such as the death of a loved one, and trying to emotionally deal with the impermanence of the world. Confer a line from the movie Gladiator, where Maximus is (supposedly) quoting Marcus: “Death smiles on us all. All a person can do is smile back.” Or an actual quote from Marcus: “The universe is change. Life is opinion.”

6) Cultivate apatheia.

The Stoics, like all ancient philosophers, had a goal of eudaimonia, sometimes translated as happiness but perhaps best translated as a “good life,” or a “flourishing life.” This isn’t to be confused with “the good life” in the sense of having wealth or possessions or infinite leisure, as some people use the phrase, because Stoics are indifferent to wealth. You can achieve eudaimonia whether you’re rich or poor. The chief difference of the Stoics was their desire for apatheia, which shouldn’t be confused with apathy. Whereas the Epicureans sought ataraxia (tranquility), the Stoics sought apatheia (“without suffering”; equanimity). It’s not all emotions that Stoics shun, but only the pathological ones, the ones that make us suffer, such as anger, extreme grief, depression, and anxiety. Good emotions, on the contrary, should be cultivated along with apatheia: love, joy, etc.

7) Be here and now.

There’s a lot of popular writing in the west extolling Buddhist mindfulness, which I’m all for (and heartily recommend this book, which is a sort of translation and commentary on the Buddha’s Satipatthana Sutta). But there’s also a western tradition of mindfulness. Roman Stoics had the phrase hic et nunc, “here and now.” Be always mindful of what you’re doing and of what’s happening to you. Monitor your responses to outside events, and to make sure you’re responding appropriately, not with knee-jerk emotions. Stay aware that you’re doing what you should be doing, and not lost in worries or ruminations about things you can’t control. It’s the hardest easy practice anyone will likely ever try.

8) Meditate on your actions.

Another parallel with Buddhism is Stoic meditation, but instead of meditating silently trying to empty the mind, to have a “mind like dead ashes,” Stoics meditate upon their forthcoming activities (in the morning) and their actions of the day (in the evening). Marcus wrote that he awoke and reminded himself that he has the work of a human being to do, and he wasn’t made so that he could lie in bed under warm covers all day. A warm bed on a cold morning is one of my favorite things, and during the winter I often reminded myself of Marcus’ pep talk. Wake up. Review what you have to do. Some of it might be difficult. You’ll encounter heavy traffic or unpleasant people. Think about it all beforehand and imagine dealing with it all with equanimity. Practice in your imagination the way you’ll want to respond when things happen.

In the evening, review your actions. Were you rude to someone? Did you get angry when someone cut you off in traffic? (I should note that my workplace and home life are fairly peaceful, and I find myself struggling with apatheia the most when I’m commuting.) Is there anything left undone that you should have done? Did you do everything as well as you could, and if not, could you do better tomorrow?

9. Virtue (arete) is the only good, vice is the only evil, and both are the result of our choices.

Like most ancient Greek ethics, Stoicism is a version of “virtue ethics.” Virtue is the usual translation of arete, which means something like excellence. So the virtues would be various human excellences. Etymologically, ethics is about character (ethos in Greek), so virtue ethics is about forming an excellent character through the proper use of reason and the practice of other virtues, especially courage, justice, moderation, and practical wisdom. For the Stoics, the only good or bad things are choices we make. Everything else is an “indifferent,” which can be used virtuously or viciously. Thus, nothing inherently “bad” happens to you, because only things you choose to do viciously are bad. Neither do inherently “good” things happen to you, because goodness is part of our our choices, whereas things that happen to us are subject to our judgments about them. Thus, at every moment, our choices define the sort of character we have.

Then try some Buddhist meditation, too, because it’s good for you.

Okay, that’s a basic explanation of Stoicism as I understand it, leaving out some of the more technical language. When I first started reading Epictetus’s Handbook (my first classical Stoic text), a lot of it seemed commonplace to me, but I hadn’t realized how much Stoicism I’d imbibed through Nietzsche, existentialism, Thoreau and even the New Testament. Also, there are some remarkable parallels with Taoism. Though not so clearly articulated, #s 1-3 above were mostly ingrained in me already. I struggle a lot with #s 4-6, and find that continually recalling #7 and practicing #8 helps. Complete mastery of Stoic beliefs and practices would make one a sage, but the Stoics weren’t sure that any actual person had attained sagehood. Everyone giving it a try are progressors, just trying to get by in the world as best they can. All non-sages are fools, but there are fools who know they’re fools trying to do something about it, and fools unaware of their folly.

———————

Further reading:

Primary Works (there are many translations of these. I’m including ones I own.)

Epictetus, Discourses, Fragments, Handbook

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Seneca, Letters from a Stoic

If you want public domain versions of all these, taken mostly from the Loeb Classical Library translations, try the 99-cent ebook Stoic Six Pack. It has all of Seneca’s letters instead of just a selection, but I think starting with a selection is probably better.

Epictetus’ Handbook is short, compact, and full of wisdom. I’d recommend starting with it, then perhaps Marcus’ Meditations, selected letters of Seneca, then back to Epictetus’ Discourses, just a bit of each every day instead of all at once. Seneca has some useful essays as well, particularly On Anger. If you really want to branch out, there are works recommended in the books below.

Secondary Works

Beginners might want something less scholarly and more therapeutic. I’d recommend these:

William Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life: the Ancient Art of Stoic Joy

Irvine’s book is the first one of these I read, and the one that got me started reading the Stoics proper, but ultimately I think he gets it wrong. His modern Stoicism is, I believe, really a modern Epicureanism drawn from the Stoic sources that sound most Epicurean, where the goal is tranquility rather than equanimity. In many of Seneca’s letters, he quotes Epicurus and draws Stoic lessons from him, under the belief that all true sayings belong to everyone. That’s my impression of what Irvine’s doing here. It’s a good read, though, and a modern Epicureanism would be a good thing. I’d also recommend his books on desire and insults, both of which have a lot of Stoic influence.

If you want something a little more focused on the historical philosophy of Stoicism, this is a good introduction:

John Sellars, The Art of Living: the Stoics on the Nature and Function of Philosophy

I particularly enjoyed the chapter in Sellars on the “philosopher’s beard.” I didn’t know that in the Hellenistic period, Greek philosophers in the Roman Empire (e.g., Epictetus) tended to wear beards while most Romans shaved. It was part of living the philosophical life. I’ve had a beard for most of my adult life because my face breaks out in a rash when I shave, but maybe my face was just being philosophical the entire time.

Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, and The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

These are both solid works of classical scholarship that provide an influential interpretation of late Stoicism, especially the “three disciplines” of Epictetus and Marcus. If you like thick scholarly books in philosophy, you’ll likely enjoy these.

Stories We Tell Ourselves

During my travels to and from ALA I read a fun new book, Will Storr’s The Heretics: Adventures with the Enemies of Science. This is the latest example I know of in the genre of books about pseudoscience, although it differs significantly from the ones I read over Christmas break and blogged about here. Storr’s book is more informal, with his personal views and demons inserted alongside the reporting about various groups, from parapsychologists to alleged Morgellons sufferers (that was a new one to me).  This turns out to be a good thing, as his troubled mind and basic decency come through to allow the subjects of investigation to be seen with as much respect as possible. People who claim to suffer from Morgellons, for example, may indeed actually suffer from delusional parasitosis, but they get a fair shake from Storr.

Also, while he is clearly on the side of science and the skeptics, he’s not afraid to expose  dogmatic skepticism when it rears its supposedly rational head. A number of skeptics loudly declaring homeopathy to be bunk (which Storr and I both agree it is) don’t like to be asked whether they’ve read actual scientific studies on homeopathy, and if so which ones.  The harshest treatment anyone gets in the book (and that isn’t very harsh) is when Storr catches James Randi up in a number of potential lies about his past. Apparently the hero of the skeptics isn’t always a paragon of honesty. None of us are, though, which is one of the points the book makes. A tour of concentration camps with the Holocaust denier David Irving is less disturbing than it might have been because of Storr’s focus on the illogical rather than the horrific. At one point Irving declares that a gas chamber couldn’t have been used for executions because there are handles on the inside doors, although he fails to notice that the locks to the room are all on the outside. Another luminescent moment is Irving’s declaration the he doesn’t want to be anti-Semitic, but “the Jews don’t make it easy for” him. We see what we believe.

The Irving chapter is an outlier of sorts in a book devoted to science and pseudoscience, but that’s because unlike some such studies, Storr is very much concerned with how the mind works and the tricks it plays on us. Even the skeptics can become quite dogmatic without being able to point to evidence for their beliefs. Storr tries to take the perspective of the agnostic, saying in effect, “I believe I’m right, but I could be wrong, and if possible I withhold judgment until I have real evidence.” It’s not very easy to do, if it’s possible at all, but Storr does a better job than I’ve seen in books like this. (His book Will Storr Versus the Supernatural, which I started reading after enjoying this, is much the same.)

The conclusions he reaches through readings and interviews regarding cognitive psychology I found the most interesting, and reminiscent of several articles I have read about such studies. Instead of explaining, I pulled out a few representative quotes summing up some of what he found out about cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias, confabulation, the Hero-Maker, and the stories we tell ourselves that make us out to be better and more moral than we really are. I pulled selectively in the order they appear in the book:

Humans are subject to a menagerie of biases, a troubling proportion of which hiss seductive half-truths in the ear of our consciousness. They tell us that we are better looking, wiser, more capable, more moral and have a a more glittering future in store than is true. (110)

 

We typically have a bias that tells us we are less susceptible to bias than everyone else. Our default position tends to be that our opinions are the result of learning, experience and personal reflection. The things we believe are obviously true–and everyone would agree if only they could look at the issue with clear, objective, unimpeded sight. But they don’t because they’re biased. Their judgements are confused by ill-informed hunches and personal grudges. They might think they’re beautiful and clever and right but their view of reality is skewed….

Most of us think we are the exception. This most disturbing of truths has even widely demonstrated in study after study. When individuals are educated about these ego-defending biases and then have their biases re-examined, they usually fail to change their opinions of themselves. Even through they accept, rationally, that they are not immune, they still think as if they are. It is a cognitive trap that we just can’t seem to climb out of. (112)

 

Just as the knifefish assumes his realm of electricity is the only possible reality, just as the hominin believes his tricolor palette allows him to see all the colours, just as John Mackay is convinced that lesbian nuns are going to hell, we look out into the world mostly to reaffirm our prior beliefs about it. We imagine that the invisible forces that silently guide our beliefs and behavior, coaxing us like flocks of deviant angels, do not exist. We are comforted by the feeling that we have ultimate control over our thoughts, our actions, our lives….

There are seven billion individual worlds living on the surface of this one. We are–all of us–lost inside our own personal realities, our own brain-generated models of how things really are. And if, after reading all of that, you still believe you are the exception, that you really are wise and objective and above the powers of bias, then you might as well not fight it. You are, after all, only human. (113)

 

But all this is not enough. Cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias, the brain’s desire to have the outer, real world match its inner models of it–it takes us part of the way there. It tells us that a properly functioning brain cannot be trusted to think rationally and, because our minds play these tricks without telling us, that owners of brains cannot be trusted to judge their own rationality. (224)

 

We are natural-born storytellers, who have a propensity to believe our own tales…. A series of remarkable scientific discoveries, going back to the nineteenth century, have bolstered this view. They have assigned it a word, which describes what we do when we unknowingly invent explanations for behaviors and beliefs whose causes we are actually ignorant of: confabulation. (234)

 

The stories that we tell ourselves are another essential component to all this. The model of the world that we build for ourselves to live within is made of observations of cause and effect that are soaked in emotion. These micro-stories, whose purpose is to explain and predict the world, can grow into staggering tales of magnificent drama and complexity. In _The Political Brain_, Professor Westen writes ‘research suggests that our minds naturally search for stories with a particular kind of structure, readily recognizable to elementary school children and similar across cultures.’ In this structure, a crisis strikes a settled world, heroic efforts are begun to solve it, terrible obstacles are surmounted and dreadful enemies are battled, until a new and blissful state is achieved. According to Professor Westen, the political left and the right each has a ‘master narrative’ that relects this structure–a grand, over-arching plot that comes loaded with a set of core assumptions, that defines the identity of heroes and villains and promises a paradisiacal denouement. (254)

 

The Hero-Maker tells us why intelligence is no forcefield and facts are no bullets…. Facts do not exist in isolation. They are like single pixels in a person’s generated reality. Each fact is connected to other facts and those facts to networks of other facts still. When they are all knitted together, they take the form of an emotional and dramatic plot at the center of which lives the individual. When a climate scientist argues with a denier, it is not a matter of data versus data, it is here narrative versus hero narrative. David versus David, tjukurpa* versus tjukurpa. It is a clash of worlds.

The Hero-Maker exposes this strange urge that so many humans have, to force their views aggressively on others. We must make them see things as we do. They must agree, we will make them agree. We are neural imperialists, seeking to colonise the worlds of others, installing our own private culture of beliefs into their minds. (384)

 

*Tjukurpa: Every Aboriginal newborn is assigned a ‘tjurkurpa’–a story from the time of the world’s creation which, in its details, will tell them everything they need to know about where to find food, medicine and water for hundreds of miles around. It will teach them about magic and spirits and detail an elaborate moral code. (372)

We all tell stories about ourselves where we’re the heroes, other people are the villains, and our heroic acts save the day somehow. Well, we don’t all tell such stories. Apparently, really depressed people tend to have a more realistic understanding of their own lives than the majority of us who can believe our own hero narratives. There are a couple of ways to look at this. Modern psychology seems to be in the business of tricking our brains back into believing we’re living meaningful lives and not thinking about what relatively insignificant specks of matter we are in the universal scheme of things. The other way out is to try to back away from conventional views and interpretations of the world and just accept it as it is, understanding as Nietzsche put it that “it’s only as an aesthetic phenomenon that the world and existence are continually justified.”

What we shouldn’t do is believe that modern psychology is coming across something so startlingly new about our self-narrative skills that the knowledge is completely unprecedented. It seems to me like we’re finally starting to understand the details of things that even some ancients understood in very broad terms. At least two ancient philosophical traditions–the Daoist and the Stoical– seem to have been aware of just how tricky and biased the mind can be when interpreting reality, only instead of being suspicious of reality as the Platonic tradition was and positing some more real reality beneath the appearances, they recommended not allowing conventional knowledge and prejudice to judge that reality.

For example, here’s a passage from the Stoic Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations (the OUP Farquharson translation), Book 8, section 49:

8.49. Do not say more to yourself than the first impressions report. You have been told that some one speaks evil of you. This is what you have been told; you have not been told that you are injured. I see that the little child is ill; this is what I see, but that he is in danger I do not see. In this way then abide always by the first impressions and add nothing of your own from within, and that’s an end of it….

Marcus’s point seems to me to be a similar understanding of the ways we bring our prejudices and biases automatically to help us interpret the world. Say something bad about me? I’ll hate you for harming me! The relevant Greek here is: μένε ἀεὶ ἐπὶ τῶν πρώτων φαντασιῶν, literally “always stay with first impressions,” or perhaps “appearances.” (I double checked that one with our Classics librarian. Thanks, Dave!) If the scientists Storr consulted are right, that might not be possible to do, since even our awareness of our biased brain isn’t enough to make us think we’re not biased. It also seems true that intelligence as such is no corrective. Even philosophical training, which helped shake loose a good number of my childhood prejudices, doesn’t keep up from telling biased and heroic stories about ourselves. (For some evidence, follow the self defensive moves in the Colin McGinn scandal within philosophy. You might conclude, as I did, that sometimes a handjob is really a handjob.)

The same general idea shows up in the Handbook of Epictetus (translation from the Everyman edition)

45. Does someone take his bath quickly? Do not say that he does it badly, but that he does it quickly. Does any one drink a great quantity of wine? Do not say that he drinks badly, but that is drinks a great quantity. For, unless you understand the judgment from which he acts, how should you know that he is acting badly? And thus it will not come to pass that you receive convincing impressions of some things, but give your assent to different ones.

The Daoist tradition makes what to me looks like a similar demand to the Stoics. Here’s a passage from stanza 3 of the Dao De Jing (the Ames and Hall translation.)

They weaken their aspirations and strengthen their bones,

Ever teaching the common people to be unprincipled in their knowing (wuzhi)

And objectless in their desires (wuyu),

They keep the hawkers of knowledge at bay.

It is simply in doing things noncoercively (wuwei)

The key term here is wuzhi, which Ames and Hall translate as “unprincipled knowing,” although based on their explanation I prefer the phrase “unprejudiced understanding,” as in trying to understand something without the biases and judgements we bring to everything. In the introduction, they analyze the “wu forms”:

Wuzhi , often translated as “no-knowledge,” actually means the absence of a certain kind of knowledge–the kind of knowledge that is dependent upon ontological presence: that is, the assumption that there is some unchanging reality behind appearance. Knowledge grounded in a denial of ontological presence involves “acosmotic” thinking: the type of thinking that does not presuppose a single-ordered (“One behind the many”) world, and its intellectual accoutrements. It is, therefore, unprincipled knowing. Such knowing does not appeal to rules or principles determining the existence, the meaning, or the activity of a phenomenon. Wuzhi provides one with a sense of the de of a thing–its particular uniqueness and focus–rather than yielding an understanding of that thing in relation to some concept or natural kind or universal. Ultimately, wuzhi is a grasp of the daode relationship of each encountered item that permits an understanding of this particular focus (de) and the field that it construes. (40-41)

At least as I’m understanding it, practicing wuzhi would be akin to relying upon Marcus’s proton phantasion, or first impressions. This might be ultimately impossible, and after his investigations Storr seems to think so. Even if we’re aware that we have biases, prejudices, or “principles,” we can’t necessarily be aware of what they are, and it could be we’re no better off than we were before.

This is the point at which I’m torn. Perhaps we are the center of the stories we tell about ourselves and we tend to dismiss those unlike us and secure ourselves in a cocoon of self-congratulatory good feeling, but couldn’t an awareness of that as constant as possible be helpful in our dealings with others as well as our understanding of ourselves in relation to the world? We might not be able to escape the mind’s trap, but if we know we’re in a trap we’re maybe a little better off, or at least a little less arrogant and cocksure. An awareness of the problem all round can only help communication.

I was going to apply some of this to various library disagreements I’ve encountered recently, but I’ve gone on long enough and will save that for another post or column. It does have application to problems in the profession and the workplace, but right now I’m still pondering. It’s a lot to think about.