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Stoicism

Colloquial stoicism – the stony stoic temperament – is a vice, inevitably compounded with sullenness, passive aggression, brooding, and envy. Stoicism as a school of thought – Zeno to Aurelius – has nothing in common with it. The big-S Stoics knew how to be happy and how to weep. But though I am perhaps a Stoic myself I think the real thing has its own vices.

Necessity is called the mother of invention. Therefore inventors must be necessitous: the inventor is the obverse of the whiner. Stoicism forbids us to dwell on what we cannot change; but if the inability is only temporary, premature acceptance risks making it permanent.

Asking for help is hard to do. We ask for help only when we must; the sting is the prod. We are each pricked with our own miseries, but suffering reaches its maximum when everyone keeps their troubles to themselves. Nature has usefully given us signals of suffering that compel attention: acutely, to cry, cry out, go off; chronically, depression, distraction, misjudgment. Telling your sad story with tears can get you help when telling it plainly would only get commiseration – or worse, some reciprocal confession. Tell another’s sad story with tears and it sounds like bad news; tell it plainly and it sounds like a joke. We hear, the squeaky wheel gets the grease; we should also hear that the silent wheel gives no warning before it breaks.

Suffering is a kind of work. A certain amount of the bad demands a certain amount of sorrow. And, like work, it can be divided. If someone else joins in, it feels like half the work is done. Maybe your arguments will, step by step, chip away at the bulk of sorrow, someone else’s or your own; but by sharing that sorrow, or sharing in it, you cleave it instantly.

Stoicism is strong medicine. Like any strong medicine, it has side effects. Sometimes invention, consolation, and the power of sympathy are helpless; but Stoicism should not be prescribed for lesser evils.