It’s been surprising for me to see how much mental energy changing jobs has taken up–and I haven’t even started the new job yet, but am taking some time off in between. I look forward to settling into a new routine so that some mental space can be cleared again for writing.

Stoicism helped me wrap up matters at the old job. It is methodical, requiring constant tension of the spirit (tonos) and mindfulness (prosoche) to ensure we pursue the right path throughout the day. There are so many opportunities to veer off and take an easier route that serves our immediate needs but serves no one else and even might slight those around us. I borrowed the tonos and prosoche approach as I went through the motions of handing off work, writing up notes and sharing all knowledge I might have accumulated. And even though I find such gestures tiring, I tried to say farewell to a number of people in person (fellow introverts will understand the tiring part).

I noticed an odd feeling of calm when in the evenings I would reflect on the day. Despite nervousness over the change–I’d been at my job for almost ten years–I felt relief that I at least tried to comport myself as I should. Anxiety might be normal but to have no regrets certainly reduces the jitters. After I gave notice I slept better than I had in weeks. For various reasons, personal, professional, and even political, I was ready for a change. I mention all of this merely to show that Stoicism has had an effect on my daily life. I am sure that I would not have had a methodical, ethical, or especially a calming approach to a job change before I starting studying the Stoics.

*****

I have recently been reading Epictetus’ Discourse 2.16. Unless the Oxford World’s Classics edition is way off, it strikes me that Epictetus was quite amusing. Maybe that wasn’t his intention, but it translates that way to a sarcastic modern reader (me). There is something about the way Epictetus expressed himself that even though he reiterated the same themes throughout the Discourses, one particular turn of phrase can help you understand the point as if hearing it for the first time. For instance, to stress the need for self-reliance,

Can it be that you have no hands, fool? Perhaps God didn’t make any for you? Then sit down and pray that your nose doesn’t run! Or rather, wipe your nose and stop making accusations.

I don’t know why I am so amused by picturing someone sitting and hoping his nose doesn’t run. I even picture the worried look on the man’s face.

Right before this, Epictetus comments on the inevitability of man becoming anxious when he regards external events as bad, or wishes for them, or makes them the main object of his concern. We forget our internal resources, to the point where they effectively cease to exist from being ignored for so long. Some great motivational language:

What, has God given you nothing to help you in this predicament? Hasn’t he given you endurance? Hasn’t he given you greatness of soul? Hasn’t he given you courage? And yet, being equipped with the hands that you have, do you still look for someone else to wipe your nose?

Arguably, having hands is not the same as having courage, or endurance; most people have two hands, but do most people have greatness of soul? It appears Epictetus would say yes. If nothing else, it would help to proceed as if we do instead of sitting around waiting for other people to help us. Other people are certainly externals; chances are, they are also waiting around for someone to help them. Epictetus, while optimistic about humans’ potential for greatness, is at the same time cynical about their misguided focus on things they can’t control:

Come now, show me a single person who cares how he does what he does, and is concerned not about the result that he can achieve, but about the action itself. . . . Show me just a single man, so that I may see that man whom I’ve been seeking for so long, one who is truly noble-minded and gifted; whether he be young or old, show him to me.

As I head into a new job, it will be useful to remember to focus on just doing what I do, and not worrying about results, others’ perceptions, or other things external to me.

5 thoughts on “Nose-Wiping and Other Stoic Actions

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