joie de vivre week

12204658_10208166150575640_725060995_nOn Halloween night two days ago I carefully painted my face to look like a decorated Mexican sugar skull. I put flowers in my hair and pulled on a sexy black dress and heels in preparation for a Halloween swing dance party. I felt good about how I looked, as did my friend, adorably got-up as Wednesday from The Addams Family. We left her flat in high spirits, anticipating a fun party, and stepped out into the cool October night (not cold–this is southern Spain) in search of a taxi. I was surprised to see a large percentage of my friend’s neighborhood turned out in Halloween mode with costumes, make-up, and trick-or-treat bags. Wow, how flattering that the Spaniards embrace our Halloween, I thought to myself.

And that’s when it hit me. Literally. An egg to the back, soiling the back of my dress and even my hair and face somewhat. My friend and I turned around to find a little posse of kids, just standing there. I was incredulous. I had never been hit by an egg in all of my 30+ years of Halloween in the States. But what really made my jaw drop was that the kids were not running away. They were just standing there. And then they threw more eggs. There were quite a few adults around observing, and they did nothing. Just stood there idiotically. I was enraged.

I took off running after the kids. They started running and then stopped and turned, throwing more eggs. They missed, and I kept running, screaming at them. “Gilipollas! Niños de mierda! Os voy a matar!” (Jerks! Stinking brats! I’m going to kill you!) In spite of the fact that I was wearing heels, I am proud to say I was close behind them. I chased them around the entire block and stopped. They stopped when I did and tried to look cool and pretend they hadn’t been running. When you think about it, it’s pretty lame for a pack of 10-14 year old boys to be running from a little lady in heels. “Ahora nos vamos a ver y os vais a enterar !”  (I will see you again and you are going to regret it!) was my parting shot. I walked back to the entrance of my friend’s building, where she was waiting. We went back up to her flat and cleaned off the egg as best as we could.

“What would you have done if you caught the kid?” my friend asked. I told her I would have grabbed him and scolded him. She said even though it made her really mad, she couldn’t imagine doing such a thing because then the kid’s parents could get angry and come tell me off. I replied that I would like nothing better than to have the opportunity to meet the little shit’s parents and tell them what I thought of their parenting, their genetics, and anything else that occurred to me in the moment.

Part of what made me so angry was the complete indifference on the part of the many other adults who observed a 12-year-old boy throwing eggs at an adult woman. Can I just tell you what the response would have been if in my town in Maine, adults had witnessed such a thing? The kid would have been immediately grabbed by the collar (or ear) by whichever adult was closest. He would have been marched to his parents’ door, getting an earful of scolding the entire way. His parents would have grounded him to his room at least for the rest of the evening and there would surely be other consequences, like not being allowed to go out with his friends for a month and having to apologize in person to the lady he threw the egg at. Also, he would probably have to do yard work in the lady’s yard or something as atonement.

As I remember this I still get angry. It really pisses me off. I did go on to have a fabulous time at that party. But we couldn’t get all of the egg out of my dress, so it felt a bit sticky to me the entire night and it galled me. Every time I noticed it I thought of those disrespectful boys and it made me mad.

This week I am participating in International Stoic Week. I have a specific intention for this week, and it is to develop the ability to ignore things I don’t like. I have been too quick to anger lately, too likely to hold on to negative feelings, and too focused, in general, on negativity. This reactivity to things I do not control and readiness to engage with negative situations and people is killing my joie de vivre. I want greater indifference to things that bug me. I want my joie de vivre back!

I have a few maxims I will be repeating to myself throughout the week, besides doing the Stoic readings and meditations. I chose the following maxims from the Handbook of Epictetus, ancient Stoic philosopher, to help me develop the habit of ignoring what I don’t like (and don’t control):

You are nothing to me. (Said to the person, situation, etc. that I don’t like.)

If you want any good, get it from within yourself.

What is beyond my control is indifferent to me.

So, for myself I am renaming Stoic Week. I’m calling it Joie de Vivre week. I’ll let you know how it goes.

healing

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We are like plants, full of tropisms that draw us toward certain experiences and repel us from others. -Parker J. Palmer

In the last post I talked about Religious Trauma Syndrome and my struggle with it. This post is about how I’m getting better. This is what has worked for me.

  1. I listen to my body. Our bodies contain a lot of wisdom. It was my body that first let me know that my religion was no longer working for me. It felt like I had developed an allergy to going to church. I started getting terrible headaches every Sunday and when I came home I would collapse on my bed in exhaustion and sleep for hours. I was told that the reason I felt this way was because I was sinning, and that’s why I didn’t feel right at church. At the time I was so conditioned by guilt, I actually wondered if this might be true! It wasn’t. My body was trying to alert me to the fact that I wasn’t living in alignment with my true self.
  2. I listen to my life. This is the title of a very helpful book I just read by Parker J. Palmer. Having PTSD symptoms is no fun, but discovering who I really am is turning out to be fascinating and exciting. As Palmer says, “I must listen for the truths and values at the heart of my own identity, not the standards by which I must live–but the standards by which I cannot help but live if I am living my own life.” There are certain qualities and values that have been part of who I am since the day I was born. I am passionate, sensual, and sensitive. And every day I crave creative expression, beauty, laughter, and meaningful connection with people. What I also needed all these years, a value that was being stepped on, was to listen to and trust my own inner wisdom.
  3. I embrace my dark side. I’m getting cozy with my flaws and weaknesses. No more perfection for me. Perfect is so boring! The other day I was having some professional pictures done and the photographer told me he might try to sell some of them as stock photos. He said that no one wants to see the conventional-looking models anymore, but rather people with odd faces like mine. And I took that as a compliment! I prefer to look at funny-faced people, too. And did you notice that I just bragged there? I did, and I’m fine with it. I like people who occasionally brag. I like people who say strange things. And I really like people who eat with gusto.
  4. I laugh. “He who laughs at himself never runs out of things to laugh at,” said Epictetus. So true! And so healing. Taking myself too seriously bores me almost as much as perfection does.
  5. I dance. The first year after I divorced and left the church I danced almost every day in my kitchen. I needed it. I honestly don’t know what I would have done without dance. Dancing helps me be fully in the moment and connected to my body. I didn’t know this at the time, but dance is a highly-recommended activity for people experiencing PTSD because it helps unstick your body from its immobilization stress response. Long walks in nature help too, as do yoga and other physical activities.
  6. I connect with people socially. I have learned a lot through trial and error with this one. Many of the people I have tried friendships with in the past couple years are no longer in my life. They were bridge people who came into my life to teach me something and then it was time for them to go. I am just now finally learning how to let those people go for my own benefit, and to limit my most intimate circle to only the tried and tested friends I can count on.
  7. I keep trying new things. It’s like going shopping and bringing a big armful of clothing into the changing room. Maybe out of ten items I’ll like one or two, or perhaps none. But how was I to know unless I tried? I try on new books, people, career paths, values, sports, activities. Some of those require quite a bit more of an investment of time, money, or emotions than the 10 seconds it takes me to pull on some jeans in the changing room. So yeah, it can suck when something doesn’t end up being a fit. But that doesn’t mean I stop trying because if I did, what would I have? It’s trial and error with everything. Life is a classroom. Or a laboratory. Or a dance party in my kitchen! Oooooh yeah!

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putting on your spiritual condom

Other people’s views and troubles can be contagious. Don’t sabotage yourself by unwittingly adopting negative, unproductive attitudes through your associations with others.” -Epictetus

People seem to like the term “spiritual condom,” which I used in this post in the context of being physically intimate. I said that a condom may protect you from STDs, but what about the person’s emotional diseases, so easily transferred in such close contact? Where is the spiritual condom to protect you from those? I’ve been thinking that I need a spiritual condom for everyday wear. And certainly not because I’m having sex with emotionally-troubled people! I need one to just get through a day of casual contact with people without picking up an emotional virus.

In the past two and a half years that I’ve been out in the world, I’ve met and interacted with all kinds of people. It’s been good for me to have to go out and make new friends. It’s been good to meet guys, flirt, and go on dates. Sometimes it’s been fun and sometimes I’ve made a complete fool of myself, but it’s always been good for me. You can only grow by trying new things that take you out of your comfort bubble. I needed to learn an entirely new set of social skills as a single and I’ve made some progress, thank merciful heavens.

One major difficulty I’ve had, however, is keeping other people’s false beliefs, born of fear, insecurity, and hungry egos, from finding their way into my own belief system and making me spiritually sick. I was vulnerable to this because I already felt lost and depressed, so my defenses were down.

There is a whole lot of spiritual disease out there. And I’m not talking about the obvious cases of fully corrupted souls, but rather the insidious little character-weakening spiritual defects that we all have to some degree. I know that I have enough of my own defects to deal with without picking up other peoples’, and of course these emotional viruses can be caught through casual day-to-day interaction that is far less intimate than sex.

Here are just a few examples of the kinds of people who make me want to put on a spiritual condom:

I’ve met several guys who are resentful of beautiful women. They have been rejected too many times I suppose. They enact a passive aggressive revenge by acting superior and dismissive toward women they find attractive, and if they can, getting in the occasional personal comment that makes the attractive woman feel stupid or superficial or ugly.

There is this woman I know who shellacs the makeup on and in general looks like she spends hours per day in front of a mirror to perfect her look. She also compulsively self-affirms in conversation, is a know-it-all, has really affected mannerisms, posts pictures of herself on FB wearing next to nothing, and just screams in every way for some kind of acceptance or validation.

There are people who counsel me to make choices based on fear or insecurity. This may be a silly example, but it’s something I hear a lot and it illustrates my point. I tend to date men who are younger than I am, sometimes quite a bit younger. I don’t have anything against men of my age or older, but they don’t tend to ask me out for whatever reason. Or maybe I don’t find as much in common with them, I don’t know. Because yes, now that I think of it, men my age and older have asked me out, but it’s not specifically because of their age that I turn them down. Anyway, you would not believe how many people have told me that I should not let a relationship with a younger man get serious because eventually I will look old and he will leave me for a younger woman.

So, how could my reactions to these people cause emotional illness to take root in me? I could respond to resentful men who try to make me feel bad about myself by either allowing them to make me feel bad about myself, or putting them in their place to make them feel worse than they already do. The insecure, self-validating woman annoys the hell out of me and sometimes I am tempted to make fun of her to her face or gossip about her behind her back. (Ok, I admit to having gossiped about her.) The people who tell me not to get a young boyfriend appeal to my contrary streak and make me want to go out and get a 25-year-old boyfriend just for the satisfaction of parading him around in their faces.

I don’t want to be the kind of person who does any of those things. I don’t want to enter into energy-sucking negative dynamics. I want to take a broad view of people and accept and love them, regardless of where they are in their journey. Or if not love them, at least respect them in spite of their weaknesses. I mean respect in the sense of not losing sense of their humanity. I don’t want to give in to my contrary streak and waste my one wild, precious life proving people wrong. I prefer to be free to pursue my own agenda, my own passions and interests.

So how can we fashion ourselves a spiritual condom to wear around town?

I’ve found that Stoicism provides some effective methods. Here are three.

  1. Marcus Aurelius says, “Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.” You can personalize this as needed. I might tell myself, “Today I will come across men and women who will try to feed their egos at my expense, people who are well-meaning but governed by fear, and those who give off a negative vibe–all of them due to those people just being people.” (I substitute this last part because I’m not sure I agree with Marcus Aurelius that mere ignorance causes character flaws.) Reminding yourself every morning that people are like this is helpful because it removes the element of surprise and you are therefore less likely to react stupidly when someone pushes your buttons.
  2. Marcus Aurelius also says, “Whenever you are about to find fault with someone, ask yourself the following question: What fault of mine most nearly resembles the one I am about to criticize?” This is great because it distracts you from engaging in negative interaction, and at the same time provides you with an opportunity to examine your own character. Also, it inevitably makes you more humble. So when a resentful man lets me know I’m not all that, I can wonder, “Am I ever resentful toward men?” When I’m around the annoying woman, I can ask myself, “Do I ever engage in similar public displays of self-affirmation?”
  3. Each morning, briefly meditate on the kind of person you want to be. Remember your values. Bring to mind the positive example of someone you want to emulate. I often think of my father, who had a reputation for accepting people as they were and enjoying them. It’s a rare quality that he had in abundance and that allowed him to influence those around him in a profound way.

why philosophy?

Averroes in a detail from Raphael’s “School of Athens”

I’ve had quite a few compliments on the new blog title. I love the name Philosofina! I’m glad I’m not the only one. But several people have asked why this title and why, for that matter, am I so in to philosophy?

I believe that living life well is an art that must be studied and practiced like any art. I don’t want to be carried along with the popular current, nor do I wish to follow my natural tendency and go against the popular current just for the sake of being contrary. I don’t want to be manipulated by the popular media, nor do I want to live my life as some sort of statement against the popular media. I want to do and be what is beautiful and good, though I’m not always sure which of those two should come first.

I was raised in the Mormon church and I was a strict adherent to the Mormon lifestyle and faith until about three years ago, when I stopped practicing. When you are an active Mormon, your life is living your faith. Everything I did, I did it Mormon style. Many of my waking hours were taken up in either personal scripture study, meditation, and prayer, or somehow serving in the Church. I saw life through a Mormon lens. Obviously, when I stopped practicing, it left a void. My beliefs, values, and lifestyle choices were all thrown into chaos. I had to try new experiences and ways of living, ways of thinking and relating to the world. I looked at other faith traditions, wisdom literature, and practices. I’ve slowly begun to develop my own philosophy of life.

However, I don’t think that developing your own philosophy of life is incompatible with being Mormon or a believer in any other strict, orthodox faith tradition.In fact, the practices that Stoics and Epicureans developed over many centuries to live their values work just as well for Mormons striving to live the strict dictates of their faith.

Right now I’m reading this excellent biography of Montaigne, for whom living à propos was “the great and glorious masterpiece” of a life well-lived. Montaigne, with his exceptional classical education, looked to the ancients for help on how to live appropriately: how to respond when life throws you a curve ball, for example. Stoic philosopher Epicetus defines life’s challenges as questions to which we must know how to answer immediately. I love how author Sarah Bakewell describes the Stoic and Epicurean approaches to living appropriately: “Like tennis players practicing volleys and smashes for hours, they used rehearsal to carve grooves of habit, down which their minds would run as naturally as water down a river bed. It is a form of self-hypnotism.” Exactly. Forming new habits of thought patterns is how I was able to stop both being self critical and caring too much what others thought of me. Performing these mental exercises trained me to respond differently to challenges than I had in the past. That is what Marcus Aurelius was doing in his Meditations, a book he never meant to be published. He was just sorting himself out and giving himself pep talks, encouragement to live à propos, a life of courage, dignity, and moral rectitude.

As I think more about religion vs. philosophy, I suppose I see religion as being more divisive and also more personal than philosophy. We all have our different versions of God and ideas about what happens to us after we die. Unfortunately many of us like to fight and kill others over these ideas, and killing people we don’t agree with doesn’t tend to bring us together in love as far as I can see. But Jews, Muslims, Christians, and atheists can all love Aristotle. We can all drink at the watering hole of humanism. After all, how did western European Christians even regain access to Greek philosophy after the Dark Ages? Through the efforts of Averroes, a Muslim philosopher from twelfth-century Spain. So it was nice of Raphael to include him in his fresco. 

And as far as religion being more personal than philosophy, I mean that what you think you know about God doesn’t effect me, but how you live your life does. Not only do I care about cultivating virtue in myself, but I would like for others to do the same. It is immaterial to me what prophets you embrace, or where you think you or I will be going after this life, but I want you to be happy and virtuous, damn it! And that is largely for the selfish reason that I want to live in a happy, peaceful society.