Hanging by a Thread? Try a Little Stoicism

We live in an age of vulnerability. Individual contributors feel vulnerable to automation or outsourcing. Folks in the middle of organizations feel vulnerable to process reengineering that flattens organizations and squeezes managers out of existence. Executives and other high-performance professionals feel vulnerable about missing the obvious and losing out to competitors. They fear not having the right stuff if they're not constantly on call, up to date, and immediately and totally engaged and responsive 24/7. Many of us fear economic insecurity; we feel financially vulnerable in the face of an uncertain economic future.

We worry about our children, our communities, our spiritual beliefs, our bulging waistlines, and the smell of our breath. We worry about the future of our country and the world we live in. Those close to retirement worry about whether they have enough for food and shelter and medical care and a little fun now and then, while those with decades yet to work wonder whether there will be anything left for them by the time they are ready for the golden years.

The poet W.H. Auden won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948 for a book-length poem titled The Age of Anxiety. Not many of us can claim familiarity with the poem, but the title has entered into common usage as a description of our time. The sounds and indelible images of chaos and upheaval that saturate the media we consume serve to reinforce our sense that all of us are vulnerable to random acts and forces beyond our control in an uncertain world.

The casual observer might think that colleges and universities, where we are free to seek the truth, would provide refuge from all these uncertainties and help us feel less vulnerable within an academic cocoon of dispassionate inquiry and rational debate. Good luck with that! Pick up any recent edition of The Chronicle or Inside Higher Education and you'll read about cultural conflict, disruption and transformation, scandal, budget woes, and political intrigue.1 In short, higher education is nothing less than a microcosm of society. We feel vulnerable, just like everyone else.

If you're still not convinced, take a look at a couple of TED Talks by professor Brené Brown, a researcher/storyteller with a home base at the University of Houston. Dr. Brown has spent much of her career studying vulnerability — what prompts the feeling and how vulnerability manifests itself in our behaviors. She makes a compelling argument that cultivating vulnerability yields creativity, innovation, and invention.2

Channeling vulnerability for positive outcomes is a terrific idea, and I commend her work to you. But what about this minute, this hour, this day? Is there anything I can do to counter my own feelings of vulnerability, and to help those around me cope with their own anxieties and insecurities in a world where the environment changes by the minute?

I read something recently that brought me up short, and reminded me that feeling vulnerable in a chaotic world is not a new issue. From the time we descended from trees or left the Garden of Eden (whatever religious or philosophical beliefs shape your view of the evolution of our human world), we've felt vulnerable.

The Greco-Roman philosophy of Stoicism emerged about 2,400 years ago as an antidote to just this sense of anxiety and vulnerability — an antidote to the feeling that life is spiraling out of control. Stoicism gets a bad rap. We equate it with people like Bill Belichick, the gifted and wildly successful coach of the New England Patriots professional football team. The last time Bill Belichick cracked a smile or shed a tear was sometime in the late 20th century. Win, lose, or draw, his demeanor rarely changes. We think of him as a Stoic, suppressing all expressions of joy or sorrow in pursuit of the perfectly played game of football.

But stifling expressions of emotion is not what Stoicism is all about. The ancient philosophers knew a few things about human nature. If the Stoics walked among us today, here are a few things they'd have to say:

  • Learn to separate what is and isn't in your power.
  • Contemplate the broader picture.
  • Think in advance about challenges you may face during the day.
  • Be mindful of the here and now.
  • Before going to bed, write in a personal philosophical diary.

These suggestions for navigating a world brimming with anxiety and vulnerability are proffered in a well-written, short Wall Street Journal essay by Massimo Pigliucci.3 Read it and you'll be richer for the time spent.

I'll close with a recommendation from Seneca, a Stoic philosopher who served the Roman court in the time of Nero. Seneca concluded each day by engaging in vigorous self-examination. At the close of this exercise he would say (to himself), "I forgive you now."4

Seneca seems to be giving us permission to live our lives without the additional anxiety-producing elements of guilt and shame. Forgive yourself. We live, lead, and serve in a time when anxiety and vulnerability seem to be our constant companions. In the face of these pressures, the Stoics would counsel us to understand our limits, think broadly, anticipate challenges, stay present in the moment, and reflect at the end of each day. Seneca might hasten to add — vow to do better tomorrow but forgive yourself for failing to be perfect today! In an age characterized by anxiety and vulnerability, that may be the most important advice of all.

Notes

  1. You'll also read about aspiration, accomplishment, and joy — but those are topics for another time!
  2. See her TED Talks "The Power of Vulnerability" and "Listening to Shame."
  3. Massimo Pigliucci, "Rules for Modern Living from the Ancient Stoics," Wall Street Journal, May 25, 2017.
  4. Christopher Star, Seneca, e-book (London: I.B.Tauris, 2017).

Bill Hogue is senior clinical professor of information science and executive consultant for enterprise initiatives at the University of South Carolina.

© 2017 William F. Hogue. The text of this blog is licensed under Creative Commons BY 4.0.