“What awareness brings is a new sense of responsibility and agency, not an actual new responsibility or agency.”
One of the double-edged swords of self-isolation is a lot of time to be introspective. This isn’t because I’m less busy or anything like that. It’s that certain kinds of distractions (like dinners with friends, or travel to see family) are gone and the other distractions (like binge-watching Netflix) just have their limits. So, that has meant that I feel like I’ve been worrying or meditating more than I might have before. What the hell is happening to us, to America? How can we be better? How can we do better? I believe that our common human nature can pull us to be better and do better, but worry that that same nature, perverted, is destroying us.
This week, two ten year old boys in a fairly peaceful rural township near where I grew up in Canada attacked another young boy because of the color of his skin, ran him over with a motorized scooter and stomped on his arm breaking it in two places. It was “newsworthy” — hateful, inhumane things like that happen all the time, after all — because the boys were ten. I’ve got to believe that such specific cruelty is generated out of circumstances, the contexts of our lives, not out of our true human nature.
Can we respond?
When we are socialized and conditioned in certain ways, can we break free? I believe that our common human nature tends to the better. While coaching or teaching, I often find (this goes for myself too) that Stoic ideas are very attractive to people, make sense, drive positive growth, because the Stoics assume the best is possible. But there is almost always a point when a person says, “Whoa! What?” as the consequence of a certain Stoic idea plays out fully. Embracing our human nature is like that.
Could a full response to our common human nature make greater demands on us than our social conditioning and personal boundaries have prepared us for or dispose us to accept? Almost certainly, but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible or even desirable, just hard. If we see a better path that is harder to walk, will we take it? Seneca once asked a friend, “Can you reach a peak by walking on flat ground?” If you want to be better and do better, it turns out you need to do that work yourself.
The Four-Personae Theory, preserved in Cicero from one of his teachers, Panaetius, offers a way to understand the complexity of who, what, and where we are without giving even an inch on our moral responsibility to do better in every moment. For the Stoic Panaetius, human beings are social animals, automatically placed within family and social contexts, and we live our lives influenced by external circumstances of all kinds. But these circumstances (family, geography, environment, class, etc.), while they are inevitable and shape our behaviors and perspectives, do not eliminate our agency. And because they do not eliminate our agency, we must meet the moral and spiritual challenge of responding fully to our human nature.
For the Stoics, that human nature was to live according to reason (intellectual and emotional), to evaluate our perceptions, emotions, and beliefs in order to do the appropriate thing in every circumstance. What do you believe our common human nature demands from us? The four Personae (four roles, or identities) present a system that can account for our circumstances and current behaviors while giving us the agency to change. The first identity is the individual as a human being. A human being is rational, self-directing, self-aware, with an inborn sense of virtue.
The second identity is the individual as an agent. We all can make choices, even if they are interior, mental ones, about how to act. In fact, many, many things we do every day — while they feel automatic or habitual — began at some point as a choice. Which shoe did you put on first today, left or right? Of course, most of these things are automatized because we would find it very hard to function given the number of “decisions” we have to make — the brain is amazing — but that doesn’t mean we can’t make a choice. And yes, which shoe I put on first hardly carries huge moral weight. Other automatized decisions do. Becoming aware that we can make a choice, that we are agents in our own lives, is a huge step toward positive change.
The third identity involves our past and current circumstances. Where and to whom were we born? What have we experienced, felt, endured, embraced? All of these things have shaped us as individuals. Some have come to us by our own choices; many have just happened to us. But all of them have significance for who we are in this moment and how we will make choices.
The fourth identity is in essence the kind of person we want to be, a choice of life. What do you want for yourself? How does what you want for yourself impact how you deal with the world or treat other people? And here is the crux of the problem. How can I become aware of different possibilities if my circumstances limit them? What happens when we choose to follow ways of life that are hateful, bigoted, self-centred … Aren’t we back at the beginning again?!
“Up to you.”
As usual, Stoicism leads us to a set of conclusions about life or humanity, and then says, “up to you”. Anyone who has spent time with Stoicism as a holistic philosophical system understands why that must be the case. But it’s pretty damn annoying for everyone else. Here’s the thing though — while you are who you are because of a range of things — genetics, society, religion, etc. — you are STILL making your choices about many, many more things than you think you are. The system with which we navigate the world (our brain and body) makes it easy to assume many things that we do are not choices, like what shoe we put on first or how we perceive a group of young people having fun together.
The moral stringency of the Stoics demands that we take a good, long look at those automatic behaviors and those perceptions. And this is not just a moral imperative. The decisions we make and actions we take today are the circumstances and contexts of our choices tomorrow. It really, really matters, for every action you will take in the future, to consider your actions and decisions today. What people see and experience determines in a lot of cases what they think is possible. Chew on this for a minute: are you limiting or expanding possibilities for people around you with your behaviors?
This feels like a LOT of pressure. The truth is, this has been true your whole life. What awareness brings is a new sense of responsibility and agency, not an actual new responsibility or agency. So, in between binge-watching, zoom social hours, walking in the woods … whatever, we can all find time for some of the important questions. What are the key or essential beliefs that affect our decision-making processes? Where did they come from? To what extent and in what ways is “choice” implicated in our decision-making? Do I understand the full range of choices open to me at any given time? What is the inter-relationship between “What I am”, “What I can do”, “What effect my circumstances have” and “What my purpose is in acting”? What are your four personae? Am I going to worry today or meditate?