I’ve been wrestling with a problem of late. I was reading The Discourses by Epictetus.
Epictetus regularly says something like this. Instead of whining, do something about it. He even says that it’s okay to not be a perfect sage, that whining a little is okay, just don’t complain with your entire being. At least as I understand him. Good advice.
But this causes a problem for me, which I hope to illustrate in a bit. But first, let’s use this example a little bit more. We are counseled to wipe our noses if we need to. Yet what of a situation that calls for not wiping a nose? Anyone that’s ever been to boot camp in the military and inside a gas chamber and had their insides run down their face from exposure to CS gas, knows that you don’t want to rub your face. You are better off letting your face flush itself with tears and mucus instead of wiping. I’ve heard also that some of our natural responses to sickness, while immediately inconvenient, are instead to be allowed to happen. People hate a stuffy nose, a runny nose, and will take medication to rid the symptoms without treating the sickness. Better to let the nose be as it is and wipe it when it is excessive. The nose knows. The point here is that we ought to seek to see beneath the apparent causes of things. We learn more of the Logos and will act with more wisdom. We will know when to wipe our nose or let it be.
For nine years I worked as a co-facilitator in a group for a domestic violence batterers group for veterans. These men had gone to war and found that upon their return they were at the mercy of circumstances. Their emotions, generally anger, were easily provoked by externals. Everyone in the world, it seemed, was stupid or selfish or evil and was the cause of the veteran losing his shit and sometimes getting violent. And in the weekly group we would discuss the common occurrences of the male holding back his anger due to the actions of some person in the world. This paradigm of thought cripples the male into simply holding onto his anger in impotent rage. Because much of the time the expression of anger would be out of proportion to the situation. So many of the men would simply suppress the energy. Like holding onto an internal explosion. I remember telling my therapist that I often felt like a million pieces that wanted to fly apart, held together with old Scotch tape. This dichotomy of holding it in, or exploding out, creates a curious energy as the act of not doing anything adds to the fuel of anger in his thoughts. For the thoughts associated with the anger are often righteous in their tone. And it does not take much to be convinced that holding back isn’t worth it. In a battle of wills, righteousness will often win out over fear. In this heated internal world of thought I’ve injected Stoic thought into the mix. As the male begins to see the world of externals as Epictetus did, he is less likely to become so angry that he is in danger of breaking the law. At the individual level, seeing that the person that cut him off in traffic might have been driving home from the hospital with devastating news, might slow our roll in anger.
Still, this is a pendulum of extreme. The angry veteran had lost site of the shores of temperance and was always in the midst of storm. The counsel was always to let it pass, to cultivate a different view within the self. The beginning levels were one of restraint. When in doubt, leave the situation. But the goal was to cultivate calm where restraint was not needed. But this level of development exceeded what was possible within that group. And I question whether that is truly a worthy aim. As I’ve said at times, sometimes a person just needs to be thumped. It is easy to build an argument where the individual is in an alleyway, faced with an assailant, and is violence necessary. But while this scenario is easy to answer (or is it?), it does no good in navigating day to day life. Combat veterans have already addressed the hypothetical scenarios used by many non-warriors of if your life is in danger. It is clearly outlined in the ROE (rules of engagement). This person is unable to navigate the world back home where the ROE is an implied if your life is in danger. The veteran that finds life difficult is one where the world is one a choice of deadly force or not. It is the not where the problems arise. For this person doesn’t know how to handle this world of patient listening, assertive communication, deescalation techniques, critical questions, different perspectives, and so on. This world is decidedly feminine. It seeks connection. It seeks bridges. It seeks symmetry.
Going back to my example above, you are cut off in traffic and you tell yourself that perhaps the other person was on their way home from a bad day at the hospital. This might help make you calmer in the moment, not feeling anger of being cut off, but is it correct? Is this a hack to simply inject us with calm? If all you have is anger in every situation, then yes, this is a needed hack. Because it is harder to calm down when you are angry, than to rouse emotion when you are calm. If one is not prone to anger at every incident in traffic, then one might be more accurate in their emotions. The person that cut you off might be a person who truly doesn’t care about the safety of others, zipping in and out of traffic, trying to live like his favorite movie The Fast and the Furious in his little Honda with its loud fartpipe. Does this person deserve to be the target of anger? Without a lengthy qualifier, I’ll just answer yes. But feeling an emotion is not the same as expressing that emotion. We might use that emotion to fuel a variety of actions. We might follow them for thirty miles and harass them. We might pass them and then cut them off. We might ignore them as one more idiot in the world to not bother with. We might keep tabs on them for the next couple of miles and if they are a hazard, call them into the police. We might take a video of them (passenger being the filter) and post it on social media “look at this idiot”. We might look up their information via their license plate, go knock on their door, and ask them if they’ve heard the good news of Sponge Bog Squarepants. The reasons why we do any are many. We are not only seeking to cultivate our own lives and grow (ignore the idiot), or we are cultivating a sense of justice in our communities (call the police). Aristotle had a lot to say about justice and our need to support the law. What is a community if we are not seeking to support its laws? What is a community if it doesn’t seek to encourage individuals to becoming virtuous?
Disclaimer, once more, especially in this current world of easily triggered people and SJWs. The feminine and masculine are polarities within each of us. One is not a whole human being if one cuts off one of these.
Odin was accused by Loki of practicing Seidr, a feminine art. This is subject for many different interpretations. I will not address them here, but only one aspect and I’ll need to back up for a minute to illustrate.
There is a term that has been used called toxic masculinity. I’ve even used this term in the past. I no longer do so. For I believe the term is wrong and misunderstanding the essence of masculinity. The masculine model is one of action and power. You take no shit. You take a hit and you hit back. You are not subtle. You smash. You are powerful. You get shit done. You revel in the joy of the fight. You are the essence of the brawl. Walk among some Marines sometime. They are rich in testosterone. They challenge each other and everything. They fight with abandon and ferocity. If there is no doorway, they’ll create one, blasting a hole through the wall. This is Thor, god of thunder. Thor is not subtle. He isn’t a thinker. It is appropriate that his weapon is a hammer. The hammer just smashes. It doesn’t cleave something into two (swords are associated with the symbol of air, air being that of intellect). Something is smashed by the hammer and is now crumpled. It is also fitting that the hammer, once thrown, will return back to Thor. The anger that veterans cast out onto the world will return back to them as well.
Soldiers on a patrol get ambushed. Thor is necessary here. You need that feeling of anger, that drive to smash the fuck out whatever just provoked you. Shit is going down all around you. Attack it. Whether by rifle, e-tool, or your bare hands, get to the enemy and smash his brain in. There is nothing subtle here. Thor is tactics. Thor is the here and now. Flash of emotion. The crack of lightning.
Further back it is different. As a platoon sergeant I am not near the initial contact. The lead squad leader has fallen into that ecstasy of the fight and is rushing into the fray. I know that feeling. It is narrow focused. It is also easily manipulated. The Army says that leaders lead from the front and in a lot of ways this is correct. I vaguely remember reading an account of a Roman Legion that was losing a fight, and their commander rode into the front of the fray, instilling his men with a will to fight, and turned the tide of the battle. Yet sometimes one must not be in the fight, but removed from it, in order to see the bigger picture. This is my current phase of learning. Thor tells me to hit it now! To be moving! To smash it! But sometimes one has to let the battlefield develop. This is patience. This is assessing risk. It is a common saying that battle is chaos. I disagree. What is chaos if not randomness? Battle isn’t random. There are well worn lines of aggression, fear, anger, death in battle. None of the particularities in battle are new. What is meant by the chaos of battle is that one never really knows the full picture of what is happening. A better phrase is fog of war, meaning one cannot see all the connections at play. The greater the ability to see this picture in real time, the greater general one will be on the battlefield. This is reliant on a couple of things, such as available intelligence and ability to remain calm when needed. It feels good to rush into the fight. It feels uncomfortable to sit and wait. Sitting and waiting feels passive. It feels week. It feels like the other has the initiative. To allow the enemy the initiative can lead to disaster.
Refer back to the top. To see the deeper, underlying causes, is to see the Logos as it is. Living in accord with the Logos is the Stoic purpose.
We have been doing several training lanes of the platoon level. I’ve recognized right off the bat that my instincts to attack can be overwhelming. My job isn’t to lead the assault (unless it is) but to keep a broader eye and set up casualty collection points, call for fire if needed, reorganize disparate elements, link up with available assets, plan egress routes, and more. I sought to keep my excitement to enter the fight in check. Thor is always there, always ready to fight. But what I sought now was Odin. I wanted a deeper view. During a recent training lane we were in platoon column and the lead squad took fire from OPFOR. They, true to form, reacted with great energy and aggression. Instead of running forward, I took a knee. The squads around me looked to me on what to do next. The PL had joined the lead element and was taking the fight to the OPFOR. Communication could have been better. Seeing how the fight was arrayed, I took charge of the two squads in the rear, placing them in an U formation. It was unconventional, but so was the terrain. We had just crossed an LDA and was entering a space of patchy woods. There were lines of sight for other OPFOR. As the lead element took off, I followed in a roving U, guarding the two flanks and the rear. It felt a bit foolish, for I wanted to do what we always do, support by fire and flank. But training the same cookie cutter response is a recipe for disaster. We’ve lost the ability to think in the moment. We were then fired upon on from our 8 o’clock but because of the formation I had arrayed the rear, we were able to take care of it. The OPFOR told me later that they didn’t expect us to do anything but the usual wedge follow wedge and when we changed things up, it threw their plans out of whack. They had to start a fight that didn’t favor them or let us pass.
It isn’t a question of either Odin or Thor, but to be able to connect with the energy of both. Lt Col Chamberlain was great at this. He consistently looked at the bigger picture, the connections, and practiced restraint. Yet he also lead the bayonet charge at Gettysburg which arguably saved the war for the North. And he was constantly told that he had to be a bit further toward the rear of his unit, a safer distance from enemy fire. He walked this line between Odin and Thor in each battle, stepping into one or the other as needed. This is what made him great.
Toxic Masculinity is, I’ve come to think, an attack on the very nature of masculinity. Not everyone is guilty of this, but it is there at the heart of many attacks. Instead of Toxic Masculinity, I view a weakened, or anemic femininity within those would are labeled toxic. This is a slow, connective level. The men that I’ve worked with over the years who’ve had problems with anger, myself very much in that group, were stuck in a position where the feminine was lost. Vulnerability was evil. Feeling was impossible. Even such things as feeling aches and pains in the body was at times lost. Emotional reactions were all but null, save for those that worked with the business of masculine energy… get shit done. That is, anger. I’ve often been one of the voices speaking about the socialization of this a masculine roles gone wrong, that our boys are taught only to be angry. Yet this is, I’ve come to believe, not true. Stopping for a moment to look at the world around me I see many examples of creative men, engaging the world with joy, serenity, sadness, love, and more. They are literally everywhere. Men everywhere are living full lives of emotional depth with their friends, their families, their jobs. Buying into the simple idea that it is unmanly to express any emotion but anger sets a narrow filter. That paradigm is picking up more and more steam, however, as the virtues of masculinity are attacked more and more. In other words, it is a feedback loop of reactionary views feeding off the other.
Back to Stoics. I read various posts on Facebook and other sites where someone will ask as question about Stoicism. There is a belief out there that Stoicism is passive and without emotion. The Stoic is never angry. The Stoic never perpetuates violence. I’m a little fuzzy on this memory, but I recall somewhere that it was one of Simone de Beauvoir’s criticisms of Stoicism as passively allowing oppression to occur. That it was one thing to not get angry at a storm that destroyed your house, but it was another thing to not get angry at a tyrant that arrested you unjustly. Reading Epictetus there are several portions where he seemingly chastises a would-be oppressor that seeks to intimidate him with physical torment. As one tale is told, when he was a slave and a cruel master was applying pressure to his leg, Epictetus calmly told him that he would break it, which it did. I no more believe this occurred as told than I believe the Earth is flat. But it is often told to illustrate a point that it was not worth complaining about something not in one’s control. Why should the slave calmly accept the broken leg here? Because there was not getting out of it? That if the slave resisted and fought, he’d still get a broken leg, only this time he’d be tired and beat up from the prior fight? And if they didn’t submit to it, he might die?
Yet elsewhere Epictetus calmly replies to the threat of having his head cut off by showing his neck. For what could would it do to resist so many guards? And why bother with this little thing called death? Go with dignity. Don’t complain. It is perhaps because of this that Stoicism was called the philosophy of the slave.
This doesn’t jive with me at all. They both look at the proximate cause, that one cannot resist in the here and now. So submit. Save yourself the useless fight against it. You are only showing your ignorance by trying to shovel the ocean tide with a spoon. Yet stopping to look at a deeper connection, perhaps the nerve of the slaver is not as strong as one thinks. Perhaps he can only bully those he feels confident over. Perhaps fighting back would make him question his actions. He is, after all, not a sage himself but a fallible man. And if every slave acted in the same way, resisting at every opportunity, perhaps the system would end. The Stoic is told to face death with dignity. Yet where is the dignity in accepting something without a fight? If one is to die today, one being on your knees, the other being with axe in hand, why do the Stoics assign greater dignity to the kneeling one? Whenever I see sentiments against violence in a Stoic discussion, I usually ask what guided Marcus Aurelius as he ventured north into Gaul?
Sometimes a person needs to be throat punched. Sometimes an idiot is just an idiot and deserves no special accommodation on your part. In the group that I was a part of for years, we never allowed this opportunity to arise. Why? Well, there were theoretical differences of opinion between myself and the lead facilitator, but it was trivial to the moment at hand. And that was, the men that came into our group had no ability to slow down. If you cannot slow down, you cannot think. If you cannot think, you cannot truly see correctly. That is, you cannot tell if the person deserves to be throat punched or not because you are extremely biased.
News flash. We are always biased.
For years I would not carry a pistol. My anger was too near the surface. I was too narrow in my perceptions. I didn’t trust myself. Was it possible that the person I came upon was a shithead? Yes. But could I be sure? No. Therefore I chose to not carry a pistol. Besides, when the berserker rage hits me, your gun will not save you from me. I will truly rip our your guts through your throat. Not the kind of guy you want to carry a weapon. But therapy, meditation, and a lot of introspection, have reawakened me to the lost feminine within me. The ability to connect with others. Feelings, Emotions. And, oddly, this has allowed greater masculine traits (logical thought). These strengths are greatest when they support the other. I can be more vulnerable when i feel safe in my ability to protect myself.
I see a caricature of men and vikings these days. Everywhere I turn, men are growing bears, drinking loads of beer, and throwing axes. These are all good. But these are taken as the parameters of some of what we are to be. When was the last time you saw a viking on instagram reading a book? Or writing poetry? Are these not manly? And yet Odin sacrificed himself to acquire the runes. And Odin also quested to obtain the mead of poetry. Is this the feminine part of Odin?
But the gods live within us. All of them. To value one only above all is to rob our souls of a richness. What would a man be like if he, not only honored the strength of Thor, but the wisdom of Odin, the duty of Tyr, the steadfastness of Heimdallr? Would that be a fuller, more rounded man?