Put Your Mask on Before Assisting Others: Modern Stoicism and Radical Righteousness

There is a cool, almost inhuman calculation to emergency manuals. As the flight crew walks you through the various safety features of an aircraft before a flight, they remind you to tell them if you physically can’t open the over­wing door. There is no room in an emergency for your best effort. You either can or you can’t.

Similarly, they make it very clear that in the case of cabin depressurization, you are to put on your mask FIRST, before assisting others. Effectively, they are reminding us that we are of absolutely no use to anyone who may depend on us when we are dead. In the most calculating way possible, the airlines know something innate about human nature. If you don’t take care of yourself first, bravery, compassion even love mean nothing.

Long before the miracle of human flight was possible, Zeno of Citium, established a philosophic school on his porch (a gazebo really, but that’s neither here nor there), or stoa, as the Greeks called it. And it’s important to keep in mind that philosophers in ancient Greece were not like modern academic philosophers. There were dozens of schools of philosophic thought back then, and most of them had, as their goal, the pursuit of helping people live virtuous, or good lives. This was an eminently practical goal.

To the vast majority of people here in the 21st Century, stoicism conjures up images of emotionless, hard men, gritting their teeth against the injustices and violence of the world. To BE stoic is to repress or reject their feelings and is indifferent to pleasure and pain.

That would really be quite the sight. I am unconvinced that such a person can exist outside the world of theoretical philosophy. In fact, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, in its entry on stoicism, notes that, “the sense of the English adjective ‘stoical’ is utterly misleading with regard to its philosophical origins.” In the context of modern Stoicism, this is often called little ‘s’ stoicism. An adjective that describes a personality type, not a philosophy.

No, Stoicism is at once a practical philosophy, replete with exercises to help build the stoic’s resolve and skill in application, and an expansive description of the nature of the human condition. In fact, the core of stoicism shows up all over the place. You may be familiar with the Serenity Prayer from 12­step programs: “Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” And in Buddhism, we have the fourth noble truths.

  1. Suffering exists
  2. Craving causes suffering
  3. We have the power to stop craving
  4. The eight­fold path is the answer

That, right there, is a very stoic outlook. The modern Stoic seeks to break the hold that craving has on us, to free us from the suffering of this world. It’s only difference with the Buddhist’s Truths is step #4, the answer to stopping the cravings that cause suffering.

Modern Stoicism, which I have mostly learned from William Irvine, professor of Philosophy at Wright State University, in his book “A Guide to the Good Life,” takes the teachings of the ancient Stoic masters, Epictetus, a freed slave, Seneca, Roman statesman and playwright, and Marcus Aurelius, a prominent emperor of Rome, and cast their lessons in a new light. What follows here is a VERY quick overview of the big parts of Stoicism. If you’re interested, I encourage to you look up Irvine’s book.

Epictetus, in his only surviving writing on Stoicism wrote, famously, “there is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”

To that end, he presented a dichotomy of control: things over which we have complete control, and things over which we have no control. Irvine, modernising Epictetus’ thoughts, adds a third idea: things over which we have some but not complete control.

We have no control over the sun rising tomorrow. We have complete control over the goals we set for ourselves on a daily basis. But Irvine’s addition is interesting. If we are a competitive tennis player, we can control the quality of our training and intensity of our drive to be a good tennis player, but that cannot ensure victory every time. But as a Stoic, is one expected to simply not compete because they might lose? No, but being a good Stoic tennis player should involve defining your goal in your own terms, not by who you beat, but how well you play, regardless of any given match’s outcome.

The same is true of being a father or husband. If you define being a good father by how much your children love you, or whether they succeed, at some point achieving your goal is in your child’s hands, not your own. How to be a Stoic husband or wife? Be the most loving, supportive spouse you can. Much like the rest of Stoicism, do what is in your control to do, and let loose the things you cannot control.

Why do we need Stoicism?

Because our mental health and our usefulness to others is at stake. The world, teaming with energy and living things, cares not one iota for us, really. When we talk about kindness or hatred, we are talking only about our fellow humans, and how we interact with them.

Last week, we heard about an idea of radical grace as applied to Unitarian Universalism. In the absence of a god, can you have radical grace? Rev. Stephens was emphatic that yes, you can. You are accepted, and you are acceptable to the universe. The incalculable number of chance events that gave rise to carbon­based life on the 3rd rock from the sun is as close as we’ll get to proof that we are, at the very least, imbued with a sort of “cosmic” grace. Our mere existence is special.

We often speak of UU as being non­dogmatic. We don’t require a specific set of beliefs. The official position on our seven principles are that they are a “guide” for how to participate in our communities. I believe that acceptance of the principals, and by extension actively participating in a UU community imbues a person with a sort of radical righteousness, or virtue. Which is fantastic, because on of the issues with Stoicism brought into the 21st century is defining what the Greeks knew to be the “good” or “virtuous” life.

Answering the question posed by Irvine in my first reading: What is the most valuable thing I can pursue in my life? I would answer with our seven principles: The inherent worth and dignity of every person; Justice, equity and compassion in human relations; Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations; A free and responsible search for truth and meaning; The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large; The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all; Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. These are the most valuable thing I can pursue in life.

But doing this on a day in and day out basis is hard, when so many things conspire to make us discouraged, angry, fearful, anxious or hateful. What we need is a tool that can help us live the righteous life that our seven UU principles grant us.

Epictetus rooted ancient Stoic philosophy in virtue, and I believe that one of the best ways to live a virtuous, or righteous life, to LIVE the seven principles, is through Stoicism. F. Scott Fitzgerald admitted to his 11­year­old daughter that the ONLY THING he believed in in this life was “the rewards for virtue according to your talents, and punishments for not fulfilling your duties, which are doubly costly.” If you’re not living up to your virtues, your punishment is that you are unable to give the best version of yourself to others.

In the biological sense, that means you need oxygen before you can help other people. In a psychological and spiritual sense, that means KNOWING, having wisdom to discern that which gets you closer to your righteousness, our seven principles and getting you closer to what you want most out of this life. If we spend our days being mentally and psychologically tossed about in the sea of negative emotions that an uncaring and brutal world conjures up every day, we need the tools of discernment that Stoicism provides. We have a choice in this world to be comfortable and mindless, or joyful and intentional. As UUs we must embrace our radical righteousness and choose joy.

Closing words: From Mediations by Marcus Aurelius

When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive ­ to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.

Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.

Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.