Let It Fall Where It May

Yesterday I was able to enjoy an afternoon moment of simple joy. After a couple of difficult days, struggling with home school and work schedule overlaps and uncertainty about both my job and the new normal, I was able to catch a bit of a break.

The weather was amazing, absolutely perfect. Warmer than had been predicted but not hot, clear blue skies, light breeze, perfect.

Two of my three kids were playing in the backyard while I watched. My son slipped on some dry grass that is always the last part of the lawn to turn green, and then grows like crazy all year long. The dry patch had been shedding tiny brown stalks all spring and this gave us all an idea.

Nothing like a bit of natural confetti and moments of down time to experiment with a camera.

It had been a few days since I had really taken any pictures, and longer since I had taken anything that I felt really excited about. Despite the simplicity (or because of it) I found myself enjoying the process, my kids, and the moment all at once. Something I really needed.

Nothing more to be said except that I hope all of you can find a slice of bliss amidst the stress of our shared uncertainty. Shout-out also to Yuri for inspiring in part the idea for throwing things into the air and taking pictures of them with his No Gravity project, though my interpretation wasn’t nearly so daring.

Seeking Compassion in Stoicism

When I finally started reading some of the key Stoic writers in my journey to better understand the philsophy, I was quickly struck by a recurring pronouncement of empathy and compassion for one’s fellow man.

I had come to the philosophy with a partial and flawed understanding that the philosophy was primarily focused on distancing oneself from emotions and the influence of other people. The impression that many people have is that to be stoic is to be untouched by the good and the bad that happens to you, and to those around you.

My early encounters with the text, however, brought up many quotes that I found surprising given this preconception that I had come in with. Stoicism as espoused by Marcus Auralius is not only a way of living that encourages one to take the perspective of others regularly, but it also calls on Stoics to minister to their suffering brethren. A sentiment that rings more closely to what I am used to hearing as a trait of Christianity.

One of my favorite passages from Marcus, as with all his writings, was something he wrote to put a check on himself, to make sure that he was keeping his mind on service to his duties and humanity.

How have you behaved up to now towards gods, parents, brother, wife, children, teachers, tutors, friends, relations, servants? Has your principle up to now with all of these been to ‘say no evil, do no evil’? Remind yourself what you have been through and had the strength to endure; that the story of your life is fully told and your service completed; how often you have seen beauty, disregarded pleasure and pain, forgone glory, and been kind to the unkind?

Marcus Auralius, Meditations Book 5, 31

In the same breath as he talks about how he has treated those around him he also mentions being unmoved by pleasure or pain. These two concepts, of being both immune to the influence of emotion, and compassionate to our fellow man, are not mutually exclusive.

Below all aspects of Stoicism runs a current of thought in which we understand that our emotional reactions to things are based on our own judgement about those things. If we understand that we have the power to adjust our responses to the world, then all manner of things that happen to or around us lose their power to make us unhappy.

I am able to form the judgement that I should about this event. If able, why troubled? All that lies outside my own mind is nothing to it.

Marcus Auralius, Meditations, Book 7, 2

Marcus was an Roman emperor and writes a lot about dealing with difficult people, both friends and enemies. His version of compassion if often tilted quite strongly towards tolerance of individuals whom he might otherwise find difficult to deal with. Though some people might feel that this perspective is a bit weak, far from the sort of warmth we often associate with compassion, I would argue that true tolerance of any other person is an incredibly difficult and generous stance to strive towards.

Men are born for the sake of each other. So either teach or tolerate.

Marcus Auralius, Meditations Book 8, 59

One of the striking ways in which Marcus helps us gain perspective on the wrongs done by others, is to point out that everyone has only the choices to act in accordance with their own knowledge and circumstances. He also finds it prudent to point out that perhaps the wrong that we think they have done may not in fact be what we imagine. Who are we to presume that our perspective on the situation is correct in the first place?

Presented with the impression that someone has done wrong, how do I know that this was a wrong? And if it was indeed a wrong, how do I know that he was not already condemning himself, which is the equivalent of tearing his own face? Wanting the bad man not to do wrong is like wanting the fig tree not to produce figs, babies not to cry, horses not to neigh, or any other inevitable fact of nature. What else can he do with a state of mind like his? So if you are really keen, cure his state.

Marcus Auralius, Meditations, Book 12, 16

Being a Stoic isn’t about building a wall around yourself so that the actions of others will not be able to affect you. It isn’t social distancing and filtering in such a way as that the words of others come to us from arm’s length. It is actually the opposite. It is being so secure in our own judgement and virtue that we can open ourselves up fully to be present in the mind and position of the other person. It is an act of actually trying to step into their shoes and see where they are coming from. It is by getting ourselves away from our own prejudices that we are able to see more clearly, and when we can see from the other person’s perspective it seems simple that we will have some sympathy for them as a fellow human being struggling to do the right thing the best way that they know how.

I have come to greatly admire this aspect of Stoicism that is difficult to convey and seems often to be lost in the description. We can only ever truly affect change within ourselves, and the focus of our attention should be on living in accordance with our own inner nature in order to lead a virtuous life. As social creatures and part of a larger connection of living beings, our virtues need also be turned to how we deal with others. True tolerance isn’t a shutting people out, it is an attempt to understand them. Our ability to not take their actions personally has nothing to do with fortitude and strength, rather it has to do with wisdom and empathy.

Compassion, it seems to me, is not only an aspect of the Stoic tradition, but a cornerstone. If we truly do the work of understanding who we are, and the challenges that each person much endure in their own ways, then compassion is a natural outcome. Blame is not a factor in the equation. We are all in the same struggle together, and we can never truly harm one another, and to share our experiences and sympathies with one another will help ease the burden for all.

Fit yourself for the matters which have fallen to your lot, and love these people among whom destiny has cast you – but your love must be genuine.

Marcus Auralius, Meditations, Book 6, 39

The Joy of Practice

When I was in middle school I wanted to be a writer of science fiction or fantasy novels. Our school had a well published children’s book author come in to talk to us for a while and I was very excited because she had just written a book for children who wanted to become writers, and that was going to be a focus of her talk. Everything she talked about that day was drowned out by one quote that has either haunted me or helped give me perspective since. I can’t claim to quote directly, but the idea is something like this:

“Ask yourself: do I want to write a book, or do I want to have written a book?”

This points to the dream of the end reward as opposed to the reality of the hard work that one needs to put in before that goal can even begin to materialize. Strangely enough I wrote quite a bit, and continued to do so for a few years, until a growing sense of unease about the quality of my work started to have a negative feedback loop. The more critical of my own writing I became, the less I felt like trying to write in the first place.

Putting work into any craft is the only way to realize results. I would be surprised to meet anyone who hasn’t heard a version of the phrase: “practice makes perfect”. The disconnect, however, between the hard work required at the beginning and the eventual payoff is often extremely difficult to overcome. For me, framing it in the sound logical perspective of rationality wasn’t enough to get me going on a path I thought I wanted.

Visual art was the next interest that began drawing me in. I think one of the appeals, and ultimate distractions, of “art” class in American education is the variety of media. Boiling down the education of creative visual problem solving into a handful of survey classes is a huge disservice and also gross misrepresentation of what students could be learning from these classes. I fell into the same trap that most other do, namely mistaking a variety of projects, mostly different kinds of media, for building skills.

What was most difficult and damaging about creating visual art in this way, was that no one taught the student how to learn from failure. In fact, there is such an emphasis in the curriculum currently on relativism, that it is difficult to even talk about a work as being “unsuccessful”, because who are we to judge the creative work of another person? After learning the vital skill of critique later on it came clear to me that quality could be assessed. Achieving better results, however, wasn’t quite so clear. Assignments were given and students were pushed to create more, forcing them to practice, but never was it framed in those terms. Each project was an end in itself, and we were supposed to come away with a successful project. The emphasis was still that each piece created could be good.

Again I took a break, and again I came crawling back to art on my own accord, feeling a connection that I couldn’t shake. Following the advice of practicing artists I decided I needed to just start creating things, as much as and often as I could. It was still a retrospective process, however, related what I had learned about writing a book. I was interested in the final product. Working quickly I could get there in one sitting and have something to show for it, but much more often than not I would be disappointed by the results.

I wanted to paint an image, but wasn’t exactly interested in the process of painting itself.

As I started to transition into more illustrative works, my technique shifted towards more detailed, and therefore more time-consuming work. I began reading about capital “P” practice that professional illustrators embrace: building up shoulder muscle strength through the repetition of drawing freehand straight lines. Building muscle memory and perceptual awareness by learning how to freehand three-dimensional boxes rotating in space as seen from any angle, and copying proportions of anatomy over and over again.

Drawing and painting, like any skill, can be taught step by step. The carpenter learns essentials about how to form, treat and fit wood together in an organized fashion so that they can go on to flex their creativity.

Breakthrough came upon picking up the camera seriously. For the first time I experienced joy in the practice. Rather than getting myself to sit and do what needed to be done to build my skills, I find myself eager to go out and shoot. I enjoy the results, but I enjoy the process just as much. This, I think, is a kind of balance that we are all seeking.

For this reason, the sage acts but does not possess, completes his work but does not dwell on it.

Tao Te Ching chapter 77, Victor H Mair translation

Water doesn’t need practice in order to flow downhill, it is the nature of water to do that. I think that finding the pieces of ourselves that come naturally and bring with them joy and inspiration are the ways in which we connect most closely to our own nature.