As I prepare mentally to attend my first “Stoicon,” taking place tomorrow in New York City (including Stoic acceptance of the reality that I need to take a 7 a.m. train into the city on a Saturday), I pause to reflect on what led me to Stoicism in the first place. It’s a complicated stew of circumstances.
I have already mentioned elsewhere my fascination with Michel de Montaigne; he cites Seneca an enormous amount, so that may have been what first led me to the Stoics in 2014 or early 2015. (Last summer, I attended my 20-year college reunion; I reconnected with a very good friend, who was on a Henry David Thoreau kick, and I recall I told her I was reading a lot of Seneca.) I think this essay in Aeon was also influential, but by far the biggest nudge to actually practice Stoicism was from William Irvine’s Guide to the Good Life.
This Stoic excursion also happened to coincide with, not a midlife crisis–that would be a cliché, right??–but as I was amused to see on a blog once, a “midlife transformation.” I was experiencing a host of interesting and difficult emotions and reflections on what on earth was I doing with myself, what was the purpose, what was my inspiration?
I turned, naturally, to C.G. Jung–the midlife specialist. I got so confused; it turned out I was supposed to pursue individuation, or roughly, finding myself–determining who I am, both independent of everyone else as well as in relation to the world at large. I took the requisite incursions into my unconscious and it scared the crap out of me. According to Jung, the reason Nietzsche went mad was that he delved into his unconscious for Thus Spake Zarathustra and never came back. Jung himself nearly had a mental breakdown while researching his own unconscious and compiling his famous “Red Book” (see this article in the New York Times; Jung: “In order to grasp the fantasies which were stirring in me ‘underground,’ . . . I knew that I had to let myself plummet down into them.”
So, how to individuate? It’s pretty hard when you have a husband, a son, a job, and not much free time for a hobby, much less for a mental breakdown. Was I supposed to quit my job, start farming, join a commune? I hadn’t had an eight-hour night of sleep in three years. I was engrossed in raising a child, managing a coffee addiction, and trying not to fall asleep at work. I didn’t have the time or energy for this Jungian stuff, as it turned out.
My college reunion, meanwhile, brought back a lot of great memories–it might not sound so wonderful, but I had a lot of sublime experiences while tucked away in the library stacks writing papers. It struck me how solitary my academic time was when I realized that all the engineer friends I was hanging out with at the reunion had a very different college experience, one of collaboration and late-night tinkering with tools and machines. They actually worked on a team that built a hybrid electric car. I went in the opposite direction, studying history, in solitude.
The reunion spurred me to settle once and for all on a project, a creative pursuit, something to help me live up to the potential for myself that I (naïvely?) felt in college. I’d been dithering for years: I’ll do something with music…yeah…no, I’ll write poems…I don’t like poetry…I’ll draw, yeah… The natural beauty of my alma mater’s surroundings–the quiet, the vistas, the waterfalls–sparked my ambition. As Epictetus said, “If you wish to be a writer, write.” I did enjoy all that academic writing in college, after all. I decided to say to hell with shyness and start a blog. I picked a topic, Stoicism, and ran with it. I have really been enjoying digging into ancient texts and crafting essays. It has actually helped me individuate, if you will, without even focusing too much on myself (bonus).
I haven’t even touched on the other reasons I’m drawn to Stoicism, but suffice it to say that I felt I needed to toughen up mentally against events both outside and inside my mind, both real and imagined. Instead of new-agey self-help, which seems directed at immature people who are unable to grow up, Stoicism is self-help for someone who sees herself as a strong person but who wishes to be even stronger, as well as freer, a better citizen, a better wife, parent, daughter, friend. In an ephemeral world, Stoicism is pillars of marble that have stood for thousands of years; it’s a sturdy framework of thought for people who know there is something larger than themselves, but haven’t quite found it yet.