Five Books interview with James Warren:
But that does sound like Stoicism to me, you know, the idea that you achieve this equilibrium by not being bothered by things that you can’t control.
That’s true, but they differ in an important way. The Stoics aimed to do that by persuading you that various things that people think about are merely indifferent and that the only thing that’s of true value is virtue. Virtue is something that’s not going to be marred by illness or inconvenience or anything like that. Epicurus in contrast thinks there’s an important role for virtue, but virtue isn’t the good for Epicurus: pleasure is the good. So his form of equanimity is one where you remove pain. Pain is bad for Epicureans, whereas the Stoics just deny that it’s a bad thing.
[On that note, here’s this week’s Thursday Throwback, originally published Feb. 15, 2012.]
Sitting in the doctor’s office this afternoon, leafing through a copy of Arthritis Today because I forgot to bring a book along. Wait, say what?
To see the 22-year-old spin, leap and flip across the stage, you’d never guess she has juvenile arthritis, or JA – or that she spent the first half of her life in chronic pain. But Elizabeth, crowned Miss Michigan in June, believes the disease was a gift.
“At the time [of my diagnosis], it felt like the worst possible situation. But, looking back, it’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” she says. “Without my chronic illness, I wouldn’t have found my passion for life.”
…“Having [JA] made me appreciate all the little things in life,” Elizabeth says. “I want kids in similar situations to know that having a disease is what makes us unique, and it truly is a gift. You just have to have faith in the silver lining.”
Okay. Having a positive outlook and fighting spirit is a fine thing, of course. Making lemons out of lemonade is a sensible way to cope with the travails of existence. But really, a gift? The best thing that ever happened to you? This sounds like the Stoicism of Seneca, saying that a happy man is content with his lot in life, no matter what it is, or that of Cicero, saying that perfect virtue is enough to keep one happy even under torture. It’s an overly-abstract ideal of happiness independent of actual experience, trying mightily to rationalize unpleasantries away. Sometimes, this forced optimism tips over into the sort of territory Barbara Ehrenreich explored in Bright-sided. Sometimes, a trickster deity voids his bladder into your pitcher, and, well, it might be yellow, and it might be tangy, but all your manic determination still isn’t going to make it lemonade.
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: if you want to harness the power of negativity and hardship, you have to let situations be negative and difficult. Redefining every painful experience after the fact to make it fit your conception of positive is just disingenuous. I’ve had rheumatoid arthritis since my late twenties; you want to hear my profound wisdom that resulted from it? Here you go: having arthritis bites. Hope you don’t get it. There are much better ways to learn how to appreciate the little things than to go through years of chronic, debilitating, senseless pain.
Suffering doesn’t need to be redeemed in the end. It’s okay to hate it and want to avoid it, even as you realize on a more abstract level that you can’t, and that we need to have pain and strife and conflict to help define our lives and give them meaning. It’s not all for naught if you end up on your deathbed, looking back with a few regrets. Fighting well is more important.