The Painted Porch

Stoicism is valuable.

Stoicism has a bad reputation. I’ve criticized it in the past. But my misunderstandings were based on the colloquial sense of stoic in contrast to Stoicism as a philosophy.

And Stoicism’s IMG_0307core idea is a good one: you can’t control anything except yourself, so don’t sweat the rest.

The problem with suppressed passions is that they come back to bite us in the ass. Besides, emotional detachment isn’t self-control. It’s cheating, like painting the exterior of your house without renovating the interior. It looks good until you peek inside.

But Stoicism isn’t about emotional detachment. It’s about how to deal with intense emotions. Don’t lose your cool. Think clearly. Keep a level head.

Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote, “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”

Perhaps the closest modern equivalent is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) – solution based psychotherapy focused on becoming more aware of how our thinking influences emotions and behavior. After all, emotions happen. We can’t stop that. But we can control our reactions. Marcus’s claim that, “very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking,” is CBT in a nutshell.

Or as Zeno of Citium put it, “Man conquers the world by conquering himself.” Zeno taught from a painted porch (stoa in ancient Greek) in the third century B.C. The serenity prayer from Alcoholics Anonymous is taken directly from Stoicism – change the things you can, accept the things you can’t change, and be smart enough to know the difference.


You can do what you want as long as you don’t fuck with other people and you own your shit.


Stoicism is about:

        • Doing what you want as long as you don’t fuck with other people and you own your shit.
  • Being honest with yourself about how you feel even when it’s uncomfortable. But don’t suck others into your psychodramas. Instead, you should advocate for your needs in a calm, matter of fact way that takes personal responsibility rather than blaming others.
  • Cooperation being your first move. Don’t retaliate if someone fails to reciprocate, but instead keep that person at a distance or simply walk away. Even self-defense should be limited to whatever is minimally necessary to contain the situation.
    • Not playing into someone’s self-pity or enabling others by trying to save them from their self-destructive behaviors. Instead, put the ball in their court by asking them what outcome they want and how they plan to achieve that.
  • Non-aggressively confronting someone who crosses your boundaries and holding them accountable. This means not telling other people what to do. And if someone tries to impose themselves on you, making it clear that it’s your choice to make, and you don’t accept their demand.
  • Non-aggressive communication means approaching with empathy and keeping defensiveness in check. Speaking in the first person and taking responsibility (“My understanding is…” or “What I want to see happen is…”). It means not making it personal. Refraining from accusations, judgements, or psychoanalyzing others, and instead asking someone to further explain their viewpoint.

 

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Male Stoicism, Traditionalism & Progressivism

Stoicism’s core idea is straightforward: you can’t control anything except yourself, so don’t sweat the rest of it. Stoicism appealed to Roman soldiers who had little control over their lives but faced great danger. And some took Stoicism to the extreme of subjecting themselves to great pain without flinching. That’s Stoicism’s dark side.

Problem is, emotions happen. Repressing our emotions only causes them to rear their heads elsewhere, and in unexpected ways. It’s better to accept our lack of control over experiencing emotions and instead focus on controlling our reactions to these emotions.

But the world over, men are honored for their ability to endure physical and emotional pain without flinching. Men who show their vulnerability or who cannot endure pain are mocked and despised by women and men alike.

One perspective is that society teaches male pain endurance while disallowing expression of vulnerability as a way of training boys to become men capable of fighting in a war. A boy’s training may consist of enduring sports injuries; being bullied; learning never to cry; and hazing in the military, fraternities, and the workplace.

Male Stoicism has been challenged in recent years, however. Feminism rejected the narrow traditional female role and fought to make it more expansive and less rigid. And this changed the traditional male role by proxy: women need men to accommodate and support a less rigid gender role for women. Feminism also connected male insensitivity toward pain to men’s violence toward women. Further, second and third wave feminism have mostly been anti-war, thus opposing the push to socialize men as warriors.

Flexibility for the male role in ways that are not needed to accommodate an expanded female role, however, hasn’t been pursued to the same degree. But this creates a double bind. A man must know (without being told) when to adhere to the traditional male role, and when to step outside of the traditional male role to accommodate women.

This ethos has been integrated into progressive politics and ideology. For example, men must support women with greater emotional openness. But emotional openness that doesn’t reflect positively on women (such as a man talking about a woman’s controlling or abusive behavior) is taboo. This also applies to discussion of issues that don’t directly affect women, such as dads being treated like they’re disposable, boys falling behind in school, or male suicide being three to four times more common than female suicide.

As such, both traditionalism and progressivism promote male Stoicism to varying degrees. Feminists and progressives quickly put the kibosh on men who are emotionally open in the wrong way, sarcastically asking, “what about the menz?”, declaring that they “bathe in male tears,” or smuggly lamenting “masculinity so fragile.”

Traditionalists will tell a man to stop acting like a girl. Progressives don’t say that because it’s misogynist, but the intent of saying “don’t act like a girl” and “I bathe in male tears” is the same: they silence men’s emotional expression.

At least traditionalists are straightforward about it. But progressives are often passive-aggressive. They deny they’re promoting male Stoicism or being insensitive to men’s feelings. They claim that bathing in male tears is ironic. And it is ironic because it represents feminism and patriarchy being on the same page, though they fail to see that irony.

Considering this insensitivity toward men, how can we expect men to be more sensitive toward women? More to the point, if we only value men insofar as their actions affect women then how can we expect men to value themselves for who they are?

Yet, the advice that men simply need to open up is simplistic. To change society so that men feel more comfortable opening up we must:

  • First must recognize early 21st century expectations for male Stoicism, how both traditionalism and progressivism contribute to it, and how progressivism has worked to partially dismantle it.
  • Articulate the problem in order to challenge it.
  • Increase societal support for open male communication, even when it means looking male vulnerability in the eye and not putting women on a pedestal.

At the individual level, I’m trying to set the unhelpful aspects of Stoicism aside by:

  • Being honest about what I’m feeling even if I wish I didn’t feel that way, and even if someone else doesn’t want to hear it.
  • Articulating the emotion in a calm, matter of fact way. Though it’s a cliche, stating things in the first person (“I feel…”) is important for personal responsibility. Saying, “You made me feel…,” blames the other person.
  • Following up with a statement of my needs or wants in a way that respects other people’s boundaries, and without the expectation that others will respect my needs (because at some point my needs will be mocked).
  • Refusing to be treated like a doormat. Others might not respect my needs, but I can still set boundaries.
  • Recognizing the value of Stoicism’s message of chilling out when I lack of control over external things, even if the aspect of detaching from my emotional experiences or silently enduring pain as a path to self-discipline is not valuable.