Becoming a Saint
If you’re familiar with the work of Kurt Vonnegut, you’ll know he had a wonderful knack for crafting beauty out of very simple words.
He did this not just in his books, but also when giving talks (this one is my favorite) and recounting conversations.
Another source of this beauty — and an example I think is relevant to anyone interested in practicing Stoicism — comes from a letter Vonnegut wrote to Robert Maslansky in 1992:
I am off to the city tomorrow, Thursday, and then to the outskirts of Chicago, to Harper College, where I will tell my audience about the pregnant woman who asked me in a letter if it was wrong to bring an innocent baby into a world as awful as this one. I told her that what made being alive almost worthwhile for me was all the saints I met almost anywhere, people who were behaving decently in an indecent society. I will tell the audience that I hope some among them will become saints for her child to meet.
The relevance of this thought to us is that it speaks directly to the prosocial nature of Stoic philosophy.
In a society that can so often seem, as Vonnegut put it, indecent, there will always be “saints” who bring decency. There will always be those who, as the cliche goes, restore one’s faith in humanity.
Better still, we ourselves have the power to deliver that decency to others as a result of the choices we make.
Through our own will, our intentions, and most importantly, our actions, we can be the ones who make the world a good place for each person we meet. We don’t have to wait until we encounter decency, we can start the trend.
“We exist for the sake of one another,” wrote Marcus Aurelius. The Stoic emperor was saying that we have a responsibility toward the virtue of Justice, toward treating fellow humans fairly, toward assistance and tolerance.
The Stoics strongly believed that we should be respectful to everyone, no matter who they are or what they’ve done.
It’s a freeing attitude. Not only can we refuse to let the malevolent actions of others harm our free will, but we also always maintain the power to love, respect, and help those same people.
Our Duty to Others
Marcus Aurelius had plenty of other things to say on this and constantly reminded himself of his duty to others, even those who had made mistakes or acted badly toward him:
It’s typically human to feel affection even for people who make mistakes. The feeling is a response to the thoughts that they’re your kin, that they’re led astray against their will by their ignorance, that shortly both of you will be dead, and especially that he did you no harm, because he didn’t make your command center worse than it was before.Meditations 7.22
It may seem simplistic to say that, as Marcus Aurelius believed, we can just choose to be unharmed by the actions of others. And it may feel difficult to remain respectful to those who have spoken ill of you.
Drawing inspiration from Epictetus, however, these short pieces of advice will help you maintain a respectful attitude. And, perhaps most importantly, they will give you greater peace of mind:
- Whenever anyone criticizes or wrongs you, remember that they are only doing or saying what they think is right.
- They cannot be guided by your views, only their own. So if their views are wrong, they are the ones who suffer insofar as they are misguided.
- If someone declares a true proposition to be false, the proposition is unaffected. It is they who come off worse for having their ignorance exposed.
- With these things in mind, you will treat your critic with more compassion. Say to yourself each time, ‘He did what he believed was right.’
Hanlon’s razor is a saying that states: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” In other words, people often do things out of ignorance or insufficient consideration as opposed to having bad intentions.
Applying this explanation to the actions of others often makes it easier to continue being respectful to them. People have their own motivations for the decisions they make. They usually do what they think is right based on the information available to them.
Also, remember that those who try to use their “status” as leverage to demean you can’t harm you or what you know about yourself. As Epictetus said, status symbols do not define you, your character defines you:
The following are non-sequiturs: ‘I am richer, therefore superior to you’; or ‘I am a better speaker, therefore a better person than you.’ These statements, on the other hand, are cogent: ‘I am richer than you, therefore my wealth is superior to yours’; and ‘I am a better speaker, therefore my dictation is better than yours.’ But you are neither wealth nor diction.
Teach or Tolerate
So, if someone is doing something wrong today, try to be patient and show them a better way. If you can’t do that then at least bear with them as you’re in the same boat.
Like Marcus Aurelius, embrace the responsibility of helping people rather than punishing them for their faults. Don’t let the misguided actions of one person negatively influence how you treat every person.
The world can be an awful place sometimes. It can tempt us to turn our backs on those we share it with. But it’s within our reach to become the saints that mothers will feel reassured are making it a worthwhile place for their children to grow up in.
“All of us were stuck to the surface of a ball,” wrote Vonnegut in his novel Breakfast of Champions. “The planet was ball-shaped. Nobody knew why we didn’t fall off, even though everybody pretended to kind of understand it.”
This funny and absurd description is pretty true. And it puts things in perspective. It’s a short experience we share, stuck here on the surface of a ball together.
We might as well make it a good one for each other.