I believe in stoicism – not the carefully enunciated kind you’d learn about in a philosophy department, but the everyday kind that comes up when you toss a crumpled receipt at a garbage can and miss. To me, stoicism means asking yourself each day, in situation after situation, “What is the right thing to do here?” Asking that question and doing the right thing as often as possible is like a training program for living a slightly better life each day.
Here’s an example from the last time I gassed up my car. The pump dispensed a receipt, which I didn’t want. I made a ball of the paper and tossed an arc shot toward the adjacent trashcan, but managed to miss. Now I started thinking: it’s such a tiny piece of trash. It’s just a dirty cement slab, not a public park. There are dozens of other pieces of garbage lying around the base of the can, and I don’t have time to pick them all up. I really don’t feel like bending over and scraping my fingertips through gas-station grime and spilled fuels . . .
But stoicism tells me I have to. I’ve made a mess; now I must clean up my mess, whatever the cost or inconvenience. Yes, groaning, I picked up the receipt – and for the twentieth time vowed to keep some hand sanitizer in the car.
Of course, there was still litter all over the gas station, and this is key: even though I can’t permanently eradicate dilemmas like littering and pollution, I believe I still have a duty to fix my small part of them. If I had stayed at that gas pump for twenty minutes, picking up every cigarette butt and candy wrapper, I would’ve been late for work (and possibly would’ve looked like a crazy man). Whenever I’ve tried to tackle huge problems – tried to become “Mr. Recycling” or rescue every stray cat in the neighborhood – I’ve quickly become overwhelmed and dispirited and given up. But not being able to fix the whole problem doesn’t excuse me from at least undoing the part of it I’ve caused. That’s stoicism in a nutshell: do your part.
I still come up short all the time for all kinds of reasons: I’m too tired, it’s too hard, I can’t afford it – I’ve got a million of them. But at least stoicism has made me keenly aware of my moral failings, so I think in the next year or so there’s a good chance I’ll stop swearing at my wife, cease eating lunch in the car with the engine running, and avoid voting for tax cuts I know are probably unwise. I don’t believe I can reverse global warming, halt injustice, or save the world, but I probably can live a life that adds slightly more to the solution than to the problem. This I believe.
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