Imagine a reality show in which a lazy, spoiled, selfish young man is made to believe that the world is coming to an end. After experiencing a special-effects-laden meteor shower, he awakens to find himself in an abandoned hospital in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. Civilization has collapsed. He goes on to meet people who demand of him the qualities of courage, compassion, and leadership that lied buried beneath his malaise and sense of entitlement.
Such a reality show exists. I just watched it and you can find it here. It was the brainchild and production of Derren Brown, British illusionist, mentalist, trickster, hypnotist, painter, and writer. Brown is evidently so famous in Britain that he has hordes of devotees and even stalkers, which is why his presence at this year’s Stoicon 2015 Event in London could not be publicized. This particular reality show was Brown’s idea of an extreme Stoic experiment. He discovered the ancient Stoics while reading Montaigne (his taste in philosophers is what makes him sexy, surely) and he took a shining to them. Here’s what he says in an article he published at Radio Times:
The Stoic philosophers advise us to regularly rehearse the loss of everything we love. Only that way can we learn to value what we have in life, rather than fixate upon things we don’t. It seems our psychological landscape hasn’t changed much since Seneca was penning advice to his protégés of ancient Rome. Those who study desire keep coming across the same answer: that to master desire, we must learn to want what we already have. We are bombarded daily by overt and covert messages from advertisers, media and peers, conditioning us to hanker after the latest, shiniest, most retinally-screened trinket, or to claim for ourselves our bigger house or faster car or sexier partner. And we may find ourselves anxious and distracted if we don’t find a way of acquiring these things, but more interestingly we only enjoy them for a very short while before reverting back to our former dissatisfied state. This hedonic treadmill keeps us moving forward at whatever level of happiness to which we are pre-disposed, and despite the spikes of momentary glee as some new status symbol comes our way, we don’t really grow any happier. The joy of the car and the house and the phone doesn’t stick around. The way to feel satisfied, and to know that your desires are being truly met, is to hunger after what you have already in your life.
Jules Evans interviewed Brown at the Stoicon Event on Saturday. I’m not British and I had no idea who Brown was before this event, but he struck me as thoughtful, creative, imaginative, modest, and that he cares deeply about philosophical issues. He also has “it.” Whatever “it” is, the man’s got it in spades. I include a picture of him here even though I look terrible in it–London is so bad to my hair. Brown is on the right. He doesn’t look like much, does he? Well. William Irvine (to the left, very funny and personable author of A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy) and I both agree that Brown is sexy.
I liked what Derren Brown said in the interview about the practice of Stoicism not being about achieving “happiness” necessarily, but about living large. Creating a bigger, more meaningful life. That is what I have gained from Stoicism, and what I continue to seek from it. As I said at the beginning of Stoic Week, I renamed it Joie de Vivre Week for myself. My intention for the week was to stop focusing on the negatives in my life, especially those things which I do not control, and thus increase my joie de vivre. It’s worked. I do feel more joy after my study and meditation during Stoic Week and my attendance at the Stoic Week Event.
This year and last I had the opportunity to socialize a bit with the Stoic Event presenters, mostly academics in Philosophy. So, philosophers. Sounds like a really swinging crowd, doesn’t it? Or people you would do anything to avoid, more like it. I found them charming. At least, from the little I know them. They seem friendly, open, warm, funny, self-effacing, and easy to talk with. They have joie de vivre!
Here with Massimo Pigliucci, professor of Philosophy at CUNY-City College (London was messing with my hair again). Massimo is organizing and hosting next year’s Stoicon in New York. I also got to talk with Donald Robertson who besides writing the excellent Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, has written the Stoic Week Handbook and has a Stoicism Facebook group of nearly 10,000 members. The man has a Scottish accent to die for. I overheard Donald and Jules discussing a book of Stoic memes they plan to co-write to be entitled “Philosophical Tapas: Daily Stoic Affirmations.” I think Don should narrate the audio version.
Speaking of voices, I went to my voice lesson today not having practiced at all and with a slight cold. Neither my teacher nor I expected much of me in the lesson, and yet I proceeded to effortlessly execute a range exercise I struggled with last week. My teacher gasped and looked at me in shock. “What did you do different?” she asked. I shrugged and said I didn’t know. She asked me to do the same exercise again and I was able to do it twice more perfectly. She said she can tell I return from London with a different energy. I can feel it, too. She said that not only was I able to do the exercise better, but my voice sounded better. We think it might be due to a combination of bringing back a new energy from London, not overthinking, and having low expectations.
Stoicism helps a lot with limiting the overthinking and managing expectations. The philosophy lends itself to focusing on this moment and bringing your best to it. This weekend I was struck with what a simple and complete philosophy it is. I just finished reading Daring Greatly by Oprah darling Brené Brown, a shame researcher who writes these obscenely popular books about vulnerability, courage, and authenticity. While the book was motivational and interesting, I couldn’t help but compare this self-help book to the more elegant and simple Stoic writings. Do you want to stop feeling shame? Then stop caring what people think of you. People’s opinions of you are outside the realm of what you control. Make the center of who you are within yourself, grounded in your own principles and values. When you practice Stoicism, you naturally become more appealingly vulnerable, courageous, and authentic.
More Stoic thoughts to come. (And I was just kidding about Don and Jules’ Philosophical Tapas. Unfortunately, no such book is in the works. ;))