For people who know me it may seem strange that I am studying Stoicism (with a capital S), because my personality is far from stoic (with a small s). I have way too many opinions about too many things. I may not be the most gregarious person in the room but I am far from grim and somber, and I am not that mentally tough…I actually can feel pain. You ought to see me after a very hot, Hot Yoga class…not stoic.
But Stoicism is not about how much pain a person can endure or how little emotion one can exhibit during tough times. Capital S Stoicism is a philosophy…a practical philosophy which has as its goals freedom, happiness and tranquility. And that is how I became fascinated with it. As a practicing clinical dentist, those traits appealed to me. Dentistry can be emotionally taxing, and Stoicism helped me to get through some tough times. In truth, being stoic can be harmful to a dentist’s emotional health because that implies suppressing feelings.
The first person I ever heard speak about “philosophy” in dentistry was L.D. Pankey. He used language I hardly understood. It was foreign to me. I studied his philosophy and the philosophy of Aristotle but it just wasn’t practical. In other words, after the “dental philosophy” it was much more difficult to apply. Mounted models in centric relation is one thing…but “virtues?” What was Pankey trying to get across? It was years later that I learned about the Stoics who were not theoreticians or academics, but rather real down-to-earth working people who considered Stoicism a new school of Greek philosophy that was practical. They lived it rather than studied it – and they were mostly happy emotionally resilient people who were not stoic.
Stoic virtues have more to do with the social dimensions of philosophy. The virtues include justice, fairness and kindness to others. Applying the virtues takes work. It takes self-awareness in order to avoid making value judgments and creating narratives about situations and people that only lead to high stress. The Stoics challenged all value judgements. They knew what Shakespeare meant when he said, “there is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so,” five hundred years before he said it.
Being stoic has some advantages. There are times we need to keep a stiff upper lip and carry on, but as a general philosophy of life it may be detrimental to one’s well-being. On the other hand, studying Stoicism just may be the ticket to a happier and healthier life.
Hearing L.D. Pankey speak of “virtues” sounded old fashioned to me. I knew there was more to him than mounting models. The essence of his message was how to achieve happiness, tranquility and virtue…something I was sorely missing when I first went to Key Biscayne. The key to happiness as the Stoics tell us is the virtuous life leads to inner coherence and outer harmony. In other words it relieves a lot of confusion about life and practice.
These days I practice Stoicism, and it takes a lot of work. It’s worth it. I will also try to practice stoicism, especially after Hot Yoga…I’m sure my Yoga teachers don’t like the complaining, criticizing or condemning the heat.