Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Mortem Praeveniam - A Winter Solstice Stoic Observation

As practicing Stoics for many decades, Pamela and I have evolved a series of observations and celebrations tied to the cycles of life and nature. We've given them grand sounding names, more as a mnemonic than any desire for ostentation or ceremony. The thinking behind these practices supports our desire for our Stoic practices to evolved into Stoic habits, with reminders in place to do occasional 'course corrections' and get us back on track.

Winter Solstice, which is coming up next week for those of us in the northern hemisphere, is one of the arbitrary external events we have chosen to connect our Stoic practice to. In so doing, we have conciously chosen to adopt or adapt existing cultural practices, though viewing them in a Stoic light.

The Solstice has long been associated with the themes of birth and death. Christmas, the celebration of the New Year in western society, the ancient and present practices of the death and birth of the sun, and many, many more, have lent layer upon layer of practices and traditions to this time of year.

In keeping with this focus, Pamela and I have created/adapted the Stoic daily practice of Memento Mori (remember death) to a formal observation we have called the Mortem Praeveniam, (prepare for death.) [For clarity - this is an observation we have made up, and you won't find it in the literature.]

I have a blog post somewhere that goes into detail on the thinking behind it, but the gist of it is this:

Behave and prepare as if you knew that there was a good chance that you would die on December 21st. 

A few people in our lives have had the fact of their mortality brought into stark relief, usually due to some incurable illness or near-death experience. We see in them a sudden change in behaviour, as all the things they had been putting off now take on an urgency. That is the point of the Mortem Praeveniam.

The Memento Mori is meant to be a reminder that all the little things in our life don't really have the huge impat they seem to in the moment. It is used as a way to gain higher perspective, almost a distancing effect.

The Mortem Praeveniam, takes a similar approach, but magnifies it, paradoxically creating a feeling of engagement, of closeness. It does so by reminding us that though we will die, our lives have impacted others, and thus so will our deaths. We should recognize and celebrate the former, and prepare for the latter.

To practice the Morten Praeveniam, the period leading up to the Solstice (or thereabouts) can include getting your last Will and Testament in order, paying off debts and fulfilling obligations, making arrangements for longer term obligations, completing or updating funeral arrangements etc. The idea is to be ready to slip away at any moment with as many of the responsibilities you have already taken care of.

On the more 'pleasant' side, it can also act as a reminder to get in touch with the most important people in our lives. It is a chance for us to express our love and admiration for them, recognize their impact in our lives through thoughtful words and gifts, or just meet together to share a meal, a drink and a laugh.

As an annual celebration, the Mortem Praeveniam is both a celebration and a solemn occasion, reconnecting us both to each other and to the universe into which our energies will eventually disperse.

It is a practice that I know a few people in our circle of friends have adopted, and they report being more serene for it.

Let us know if this is something that appeals to you, or if you plan on trying to practice it this year.

Do you follow any Stoic-based observations during this time of year? Feel free to share and comment.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Grief is a Beast

Grief is a beast with claws of blackest ink that catch and scratch and scrape down your back when you are not expecting it. They spring out and pierce the skin leaving scars small and large, opening old wounds again and again to bleed you dry of tears. They snick out like knife blades whose very threat makes you shy away from the anticipated pain.

Grief is a beast with teeth of steel in a mouth of nightmares. It opens wide to swallow all the light and the joy in the world, and look like bars in a jail cell made from the love and tenderness of truth. The teeth rend apart memory, tearing away at thought and day to day walking and eating and swallowing a sleep like death.

Grief is a beast with eyes of fire that seek you out in all of your hidden places. That seek and search and find and hold with their unblinking unforgiving gaze, accusing you of what you did and what you failed to do. The eyes see all of the possibilities lost forever to time and chance and throw them back in your path to trip you and make you stumble and fall and break down once again with regret over what could have been.

Grief is a beast with a thousand arms that flail and fling and grasp, wrapping you in cords on unforgetfulness and forgetfulness so that you remember the smallest details of long past hurts and forget why you are crying again. The arms that squeeze the breath from you chest and the hope from your lungs. The arms reach out from behind photos that you forgot you had, and songs that you forgot that had once shared together, from the random sounds of a mall or the random shadow on the ground.

Grief is a beast with a voice that screams and cries and wails and whimpers and begs for understanding where there is none. A voice cracked with age and the sounds of children sobbing in the darkness wanting mommy to fix it all when mommy has been gone all these many years. It is the voice of the siren that calls us back to remember the good times then shouts in our ears that THEY WILL NEVER HAPPEN AGAIN!

Grief is a beast with legs that run and run and run and never get anywhere. That follow us into the night and to work and sit next to us in the empty seat and lie next to us in an empty bed. That shuffle slowly, catching on each cracked smile and jagged remembrance of thing never to come again. They are there beside us, behind us, in front of us, tripping us out of the way we would go,.

Grief is a beast with soft warm fur of black and night and sweet scented forgetfulness. Whose teeth shine clean, eating our guilt. Whose claws pick away at the scars and scabs and reveal the new flesh beneath. Whose arms and legs find us and wrap us in the embrace that teaches us that thus is the way of all things. Whose eye and voice are full of forgiveness and soft sad laughter over the stupidest silliest things.

Grief is a beast that visits our hearts for a season, but does not live there.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

A Place, A Time: A Grief Expressed

It's a strange thing about life. People are more grieved by its loss than they are amazed by its presence. Oh, sure, we are all touched and flushed with joy when a baby is born. But the joy of life quickly loses its shine, so to speak. We begin to take for grated the very fact that we wake up each morning, breathing, moving, able to choose what we are going to do for the rest of the day.

Most of the universe, as far as we know, doesn't do that. It doesn't choose to go to work or stay home, have cereal or toast (or both) for breakfast, to bring our lunch or to stop a McDonald's. The rest of the universe just is. It is pushed around by cause and effect, falling or rising as required by its properties and the forces that play upon it.

Now there are some people that say that life is just like that. They claim that there is nothing special about it, that ideas of choice are illusory because we are exactly like the rest of the universe. We are merely parts in a grand machine slowly grinding its way through time and space, generating then discarding components as it pushes its way blindly along.

It has been said more than once that we are like the eddies in a stream of matter and energy which momentarily coalesce into a human being, then are dispersed again.

How can life have any meaning in this kind of universe? How can it matter whether we live or die, whether we are kind or cruel, virtuous or vicious? If there is no choice, there is no action, there is no guilt, there is no sense in anger or love or fear or joy.

But, and maybe this is simply mass psychosis, but we feel that this simply isn't so. Life matters, but not life at any cost. Death is to be avoided, but not under every circumstance. Virtue, vice, love, anger, joy, grief, they all matter and have their place. An appointed place. Something, somehow, somewhere, outside of all of these things, stands before them all and gives them all importance and a relative place to stand.

Life is good, if lived in the correct way, but it may be sacrificed for a greater cause. Death is the end of life, and should be shunned, unless it is embraced to create greater opportunities for life. Love, in moderation and focussed on worthy objects and people; anger, righteous indignation expressed in action and resistance to tyranny; joy in peace and laughter and in the presence of the rightness of things; and grief, subdued, releasing the pain of unexpressed confusion, of irredeemable loss, to capture and hold in one's hands the chaos that boils around us in the rest of the universe while we try to keep order in the rest of our lives.

So grief, like all the rest, has its place and its day. And that day is today.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

The Philosopher's Beard: On Being a Man, A Stoic and A Modern

These things come in cycles. Perhaps it's a pendulum, swinging from one extreme to the other, or maybe a spiral, revisiting the same sector as we pass through. It could be that the inherent (or is it apparent) duality of it all forces the switch of emphasis, back and forth eternally.

I am speaking of the gender question. Man, Woman. Male, Female. Him, Her. Stoic... Stoic?

I'm in my 50's now. I am Father, Brother, Son, Husband, Uncle. These titles alone imply my gender. I am also Teacher, Friend, Employee, Author, and Stoic. These say nothing about my gender, and I don't think they should.

It's a bit of a contentious issue, especially in 2017 (or has it never been any different?). The Stoics, ancient and modern, have been debating this point without any clear resolution. Cut to the chase, but I figure that gender has little (or nothing) to do with being a Stoic. How we express that Stoicism will of course be coloured by our gender, as it will by our age or geo-political-economic situation. But these things are incidental.

Socrates' Beard
(along with the rest of his face)
Musonius Rufus, often lauded for being the most 'feminist' of the ancient Stoics, if not ancient philosophers, is part of where the trouble starts. His lectures "That women too should study philosophy" and "Should daughters receive the same training as sons?", and especially "What is the chief end of marriage?" (parts of which I read at my daughter's wedding) are actually quite an interesting read, given their ancient Roman context. But they aren't all that interesting given our present context (western, democratic, twenty-first century). We read that and think, "Of course! Why is this even a question?"

The very same Rufus though, also said in "On cutting the hair" that men who cut their hair and shave their cheeks "have become slaves of luxurious living and are completely enervated, men who can endure being seen as womanish creatures, hermaphrodites, something which real men would avoid at all costs." (Even in his time, the question of a beard was contentious in the discussion of Greek and Roman manliness and philosophy.)

He is echoed by that most admired of ancient Stoics, Epictetus, who when (hypothetically) threatened with a beheading for refusing to shave his beard, preferred to keep the facial hair, perhaps in spite of his face. [NOTE: I understand that it was perceived as a Badge of the philosopher, but as modern Stoics, is anything but our Behaviour a badge?]

Why all this talk of beards? Because we are men, Men, MEN I TELL YOU! But wait. We are male incidentally (in most cases). With a respectful nod to those who struggle with their gender identity in the face of modern attitudes (how is this still a thing?), their isn't much we have done to be male that we can justifiably take credit for.

Now I hear some say that "Live in accordance with Nature" is THE Stoic guide to life and, they argue, what is more natural than our gender. This is, however, a simplistic interpretation of the Stoic dictum, and a simplistic understanding of human gender. (Think Again - Globe and Mail)

Groups, support and otherwise, are popping up to support being a man, being manly, being a Stoic man. These are great, in their place, and may provide a side entrance to the main point. It isn't that being a man, or even a manly man with unique 21st century manly man problems, is a problem, but it simply isn't the point. It isn't the point of life, let alone Stoicism.

Stoicism is simply this: become the most excellent you. That may, or may not, involve getting into gender issues, but it is definitely about being courageous, just, wise, and temperate. Being Stoic is about exploring and expressing our connection and interconnections with each other and with the world around us. We need to be careful, cautious, and considerate when it comes to questions of gender. We need to be focused on virtue when it comes to the question of how live the best life. We need to be Stoic.