I’m not sure when the exact moment hit me, to be honest with you. The great epiphanies in life, while radical and perspective changing, can often sneak up on you over a period of time before you suddenly have it all up in your face with complete and utter clarity. But this happened to me… when I realized Taylor Swift is a Stoic.
Oh sure, even as I sit in front of my computer and type these words out in a blog post that is only at its outset, I can sense your total skepticism in the future and across the Interwebz. But that’s my magical superpower…umm, pre-guessing skepticism. Yeah, I got it… it’s not adamantium claws or super strength or anything wicked cool like that, but we seldom get to choose such things, OK? I make the best use of the gifts bestowed upon me.
See, I’ve been rather enamored with the lessons set forth by Marcus Aurelius in his timeless Meditations (my favorite translations thus far being this one) and recently began reading “The Obstacle is the Way” by Ryan Holiday, a more modern take on applying the wisdom of the Stoics to the modern day notion of using your trials, failures and obstacles as the means to personal success. Nothing quite like using ideas developed more than 2,000 years ago to tackle things in our hyper-connected world of today, right?
If you were to boil down Stoicism to its most basic elements, it’s the view that while you have no control over the events of the world or the actions of others towards you, you always have a choice on how you react to those events/actions and the decisions you make in living your life. No one can take your free will from you for anything – your freedom is always your own and you hold responsibility for that at all times. In doing so, reason and knowledge make up your inner fortress where you move beyond being shackled to the whims of pain and pleasure. It’s all on you… which is a profoundly liberating way of thinking of things.
So, at some point in the combination of reading Holiday’s book and popping through one of my Spotify playlists that some T-Swizzle hit my earpieces and it struck me… Ms. Swift is actually a Stoic.
I feel like it should have been clear all along, really. The parallels are there if you are willing to open your eyes to them.
For example, Epictetus wrote:
Don’t let the force of an impression when it first hit you knock you off your feet; just say to it: Hold on a moment; let me see who you are and what you represent. Let me put you to the test.
Contrast this to Ms. Swift in “The New Romantics”:
We are too busy dancing
To get knocked off our feet
Baby, we’re the new romantics
The best people in life are free
She’s living her life, dancing away as she so chooses and because of that, has no time to be knocked off her feet. I’m sure Epictetus could turn quite a jig back in his day as well (OK, this is utterly wild conjecture) and would appreciate that (a) she’s not getting knocked off her feet; and (b) she recognizes that those who live freely are the best kind of people. And what is Stoicism if not these two things?
Oh you need more? Then I submit for your consideration the following:
Yup – T-Swift has no time for your tomfoolery and jibber-jabber and unto all of that she will drop the universal sign language for “Suck it” on you, endlessly in the magic loop of this GIF. (As an aside, if you pronounce as JIF like the peanut butter, you are an awful person who takes themselves with a level of seriousness that I cannot abide). For her, it matters not the slings and arrows of the world nor the endless hollow praise heaped upon her for she finds only respite within reason and clear thinking. And telling punks to suck it.
I can sense it… I can sense you beginning to see the parallels between Swifty and Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus and Seneca. Now it’s time to bring this all home rapidly… quickly…dare I say…swiftly. I present to you the capstone of my argument and the magnum opus of Ms. Swift’s artistic canon… “Shake It Off”:
I mean, where to even begin with such a rich trove of philosophical nuggets?
First off, regardless of the negativity brought her way from those who speak ill of her intelligence or dating life, she’s going to (a) keep cruising; (b) can’t stop and will not, in fact, stop moving; and (c) has this music within her affirming all of this.
Sure, the players may continue to play, the haters continue to hate, the heartbreakers continue to break and yes, the fakers continue to fake as they are wont to do…but Tay-Tay? Oh, my friends, she will only shake it off, shake it off. That’s the benefit of never missing a beat and being lightning on your feet, in the end. It’s an entire song devoted to taking the negatives that come your way in life, those things over which you have zero control and letting them slide right past because you are the only one who can choose how to observe those events and place them into their proper context. Seriously.
In the end, Stoicism can seem like the drab, humorless philosophy of a bunch of Romans from a few thousand years ago and confined to musty tomes or Intro to Philosophy courses in your first year of college. But in reality, it’s not at all – you can still have moments of sadness or elation, but you act not to be ruled by such things entirely, especially when they come at the whims and interests of others. Stoicism is a remarkable way of creating resiliency within yourself and while it’s not easy (mild understatement), it is effective.
And sometimes you just need to widen your perspective a bit and realize while probably was always in your heart all along, even as you fought against admitting it…that T-Swizzle is not just the philosopher you wanted, she’s also the one you need.
1) She was an Indiana fan while I was a Syracuse fan and our teams met in the 1987 NCAA Basketball Championship Game with that SOB Keith Smart his the game winner to down my Orangemen. (Thankfully, I’ve seen the light and I am all UConn now); and
2) She once told the other freshman health class that she thought I was someone who was extremely hard on myself, even if I kept a demeanor suggestion I was cool as a cucumber.
Why in the world she felt A-OK with describing this fact about me to 40-50 of my classmates is completely beyond me… but she was pretty accurate.
I’ve long been my toughest critic and, over time, I think I’ve only gotten harsher, in many ways.
I’ve even said if I saw someone else getting treated the way I treat myself, I would think whoever was doing that to them was a complete jerk, worthy of a smack in the mouth.
I had many years in my 30’s where I watched a few different people close to me go through the tremendous struggle of dealing with leukemia. It offered me a tremendous amount of perspective on what is truly difficult in this world versus that which is merely annoying. Funny how many people confuse those two things… well, until you see it firsthand and cannot fathom how you ever saw it differently before.
The positive of this is I complained less.
The challenge is that I probably overdid this and would never gripe or let out what was really bothering me on some issues because they paled in comparison to other struggles.
That’s why this photo (snagged from Elephant Journal) grabbed my attention to serve as a stark reminder that as much as accepting challenges with a detached sense of stoicism is good, balance is also a good thing.
It’s that funny dichotomy of that which makes you successful can also be a tremendous weakness.
To be as philosophically nerdy as possible (you know, the whole reason you come to this blog)… I need to balance out my Marcus Aurelius reading (stoicism with The Emperor’s Handbook) with a lot more Shunryu Suzuki (Zen buddhist with Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind).
Think of yourself on this point for a minute as well and I wouldn’t be surprised if you don’t find a plethora of nuggets from your day where you are a brutal self-critic.
I figure 42 is as good of a time as any to learn to be a little nice to myself anyway.
Great goal… but damn, that is a seriously lame mid-life crisis. Thankfully that’s a myth anyway.
I recently attended a great strength and conditioning seminar down in New Jersey hosted by one of my favorite coaches, Jason Ferruggia. I’ve always enjoyed these kinds of events because of how much I learn and also because of the interactions you have with the other participants.
In one of the Facebook threads following the seminar, a comment was made about me that I could possibly be the “nicest guy you will ever meet.” I must admit that this is not the first time someone has made this remark to me and every time I have ever heard it, I’ve always had the same reaction: humbled, but with a little bit of a shoulder shrug because I just do not know any other way. It’s how I was raised.
Believe me – I don’t say any of this as a means to brag, boast or pat myself on the back. Far from it. I lack the ego to sit around and do that kind of thing anyway.
But it does make me think quite a bit about what it means to be a nice person and the Leo Durocher saying of “Nice guys finish last.” Heck, as I glanced through the Wikipedia entry for “nice guy” (seriously… there is one) and let me tell you… whoever wrote that, they didn’t look too fondly upon the archetypal nice guy.
I basically chuckle at the entire notion of how someone described as a nice guy is viewed in popular culture. The guy who never really gets the girl in the end. The doormat in the office that everyone dumps everything on. The guy so easily taken advantage of by less-than-true friends.
There are certainly people who fall into all of that, but it’s never fit how I like to see myself.
For me, it’s a fairly simple sort of approach: a combination of (1) the Golden Rule of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you and (2) a smattering of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.
If you are suddenly finding yourself thinking, “Umm… and that would mean?”, hopefully I can explain.
Everyone knows the Golden Rule. It’s the simple notion that you treat people as you would be treated. Clean, simple, concise. So point #1, check.
The Marcus Aurelius piece is a bit of using the philosophy of the classic Stoics that the actions of others, in the end, are meaningless in terms of how I think, feel, respond and conduct myself. In other words, I am going to always do my best to act according to my principles and if you are a jerk in return… that’s on you, not me. I think this approach takes more strength as opposed to less because there must always be a vigilance in not allowing others to change who you are or sway you into acting in conflict with your beliefs.
Does this mean I sit back and take whatever garbage people may look to lay on my lap? Of course not, although I do notice that some people seem to think that since I seek to treat people well, that perhaps I CAN be taken advantage of. It’s a bit sad to see and when I catch it, that person will always diminish in my eyes. But how I handle it is simple: I give people the benefit of the doubt and when I see they simply have not earned it, my interactions with them will taper off over time. Oh and I will continue to be polite when our paths cross… but I am obviously not going to go out of my way for them. Nice guy should never equal utterly bat guano crazy.
So feel free to be a little nice today while sticking to your guns. It’s surprising how liberating it can be to be to see the good mojo you get in return. And if you get a healthy dose of jerkiness in return? Their lost opportunity… not yours.