While attending a week-long training at the library in Medford, Oregon and during a break I was standing in the window, observing the scene across the street.
Across the street is a small Italian pizzeria and outside on the sidewalk were two people with a table set up and were offering some paraphernalia. I could barely discern the word “stressed” on their display, accompanied by a picture of a suited person sitting at a table with mer head in zer hands and the body posture of someone who was overwhelmed by the world.
What intrigued me was that the local parking enforcer was taking a picture of the car, parked near the table and outside of the designated area. The car, it turned out, belonged to one of the two persons at the table. I was now quite interested to see how this person, offering some answer to stress, would handle receiving a parking ticket for a shoddy job of car placement.
Though I could not hear the dialogue through the plate glass window and across the distance between us, I watched as the attendant appeared unmoved, nor unconcerned with the somewhat anxious and stressed body language of the car owner/stress reliever. Zer face was pensive, zer hands and feet close together, and ze leaned slightly forward at the waist. This interaction is not what I was waiting to see. Only the enlightened among us can maintain our saintliness while we watch and are handed a parking ticket. I may do this once in a while, but much of the time I am annoyed.
Instead, I was waiting to see what happens next. I was quite curious as to how this person would handle things after zer interaction, what ze might do, zer behaviors. Would ze use the answers and tools to stress that ze was providing to passers-by? Fairly or unfairly, I was now ready to judge table of information based on zer actions in the next few moments.
Ze got into zer car, moved it forward 6 feet into the correct space, and got out of zer car. Zer companion appeared to take a conciliatory role, which morphed into co-accuser. For ten minutes I watched as these two people points to different cars along the street, moved their arms in gestures that seemed to go along with an angry diatribe, and generally appeared as though they were still stressed.
I continued to sip my coffee and watch for another ten minutes. Three people came up to their table and it appeared to me that the story of the unfair “parking ticket” was told to them. Now this negativity, which earlier lived only in the minds of the two people, were now spread to the minds of the three passers-by. The interaction between these two groups were formed from the starting point of the negativity fostered by the woman. After fifteen minutes I did not see any indication of zer using any skills to alleviate stress.
5 Men are not disturbed by things, but by the views which they take of things. Thus, death is nothing terrible…the terror consists in our notion of death, that it is terrible.
“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” William Shakespeare, Hamlet, II, ii, 259
I read, in some philosophy book somewhere (and I am looking to find the source), that if one is to study philosophy, once is to practice philosophy. Think about this for a moment, philosophy is from the Greek word philosophia, meaning love of wisdom. Can a person study, contemplate, and gain wisdom without seeking to apply it? To do so is to not act with wisdom. It is said, instead of explaining to me your philosophy, show me how you live your life.
This then brings up a difference between a value and a virtue., at least as I am beginning to understand it. There are different definitions of both terms, used interchangeably, along with belief, conviction and other words. I am still researching these terms. However, I do note that there are values that we may ascribe as importance, but have yet internalized into our character. Without structures, we may stray from them. Without police watching we may tend to speed on the highway. We may have reminders to act according our values, but when life becomes difficult, we lose our restraint and our deeper values and beliefs come out in our behavior. Our true character, or our tendency to behave in certain ways, is shown.
But who among us are perfect beings? Nobody that I know, though there are some who seem to act in a manner of virtue more often than not. I feel that the person they are is of a sort, that when they act with less than virtue it is an exception, not the rule. How did they become this way? We’re they born this way? Many philosophers would argue no. The soul, or psyche, or character of a person requires constant, daily practice. I sometimes speak of developing virtue as similar to developing into a musical maestro on an instrument. I find this helpful, not only in teaching, but for my own internal dialogue as well. It aids me in remembering that virtue isn’t an all or nothing quality, where one either has it or ze doesn’t. Someone with this dichotomous view, when made aware of their failing in acting with virtue in a situation (think of any time you did not act as your best self) may have the thought see, I am a lousy person. What follows then may be shame, guilt, embarrassment, anger and withdrawal, lashing out, avoidance, rationalizing, and other behaviors.
One practice of the Stoics, and others as well, was to carry a handbook. This handbook was filled with short sayings, easily placed into one’s train of thought, held in the mind as one moved through the day. The stoic would often flip through the book, refreshing the well of the mind with such maxims as know thyself, nothing in excess, to thine own self be true, good is evil that virtue lacks, among others. These become like automatic thoughts, when repeated often, and more and more begin to shape the flavor of our thoughts.
One of the goals of CBT – Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – is to become aware of the pattern of thoughts and to decide which ones are helpful or harmful and to begin to make changes in them. We all have patterns in our thoughts, the question is what are they?
By attending to our thoughts with the knowledge that this is the only thing we can learn to gain control over, by daily, moment to moment practice, we develop our skills and, over the course of our life, become maestros of virtue.