Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Remember When . . . Stoicism Ruled the Day?

The original first line of A Stray Drop of Blood--the one I typed when I was a freshman in college--was "Abigail stoically warded off the tears." Though I didn't understand the difference at the time, I was using "stoically" in a modern sense--that she was trying to be strong, push aside her feelings. Seemed appropriate . . . until the next year, when I read a Roman philosopher named Epictetus.

Ever hear of him? I hadn't until he appeared on my reading list. Epictetus wrote a treatise called Discourses, in which he outlined the philosophy called Stoicism. This single work became the foundation of Roman thought, of Roman interaction, or Roman personality. Most of us today only have minimal understanding of what it means to be a Stoic--much like I intended in my first line, we think of it as "strong and unfeeling." An opinion based in the truth, but which falls sooooo short.

I really enjoyed reading Epictetus, and, as in many ancient philosophies, I found a kernel of truth that fit with my Christian outlook before it deviated into the unknown. The gist of the idea is this: we all have spheres. We have a sphere of choice, which are all the things we can let affect us. We have a sphere of influence, which are all the things we can affect. Epictetus argues that letting our emotions be swayed by things outside those spheres is not only ridiculous, it's unnecessary--that we'd all be content if we knew the boundaries of our spheres and stuck to 'em. And that when you know your sphere, you'll simply be unmoved by everything outside it. (If anyone has read this more recently than me, feel free to correct me on any details I got wrong!)

Abigail reads Epictetus in the second half of Stray Drop, and she points out the flaw I found in Epictetus--he doesn't acknowledge that emotions simply exist. He thinks you can allow them, but that otherwise they're just not there. She argues that they in fact are there, and that we can use them to gain allies in people with larger spheres, so that in fact we can influence things outside our own. Especially when one factors in God, with His universal sphere, and how He responds to the pleas of His children.

In my latest revisions, I took "stoically" out of the opening line, since it's unlikely Abigail, raised to hate all things Roman, would have admitted any allegiance to the philosophy at that point. But I enjoyed weaving Stoic thought throughout the book in the Roman characters, and even at key points in the Hebrew characters.

Because when all else fails, most of us shut down emotionally--we close off our spheres. In that way, there's a little bit of Stoicism in everyone.

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