Responsibility and Stoicism

A constant theme running through many of my recent posts has been around the overburdening of individuals with responsibility for their own plight. Shame resilience, for example, is partially about letting ourselves off the hook, and empathising with each other’s struggles, failings, and misfortunes – recognising unrealistic expectations for what they are. “Lean Out” feminism is in much the same vein, acknowledging structural barriers to women’s security and equality and relieving individual women of the responsibility to “lean in”.

Have I gone too far in that direction? Where does personal responsibility kick in?

In this post, I even went as far as questioning whether the dependence of material well-being on ability and effort was fundamentally unfair, since it doesn’t recognise the barriers some people face to developing skills and making effort. And I suppose any inequalities could be argued to be unfair in the sense that there is no such thing as “free will”: in that we (and our abilities and decisions) are all ultimately a product of our genes and environments. But of course we have a collective influence on some of that ‘environment’ part: we can punish criminals to deter criminal behaviour, and we can reward talent and training to encourage development of essential skills.

Most people would say that we need these external motivations and rewards – no-one expects someone to undertake the years of training to do a stressful, challenging job like surgery out of pure altruism or intrinsic motivations alone. But there are other barriers to productivity and accomplishment besides external motivation, that we seem to find harder to recognise.

We don’t make individuals responsible for self-motivation, but we do make individuals responsible to a large degree for their ultimate success – and this is completely unbalanced. Responsibility should be balanced to take into account the ease or difficulty of following through on it; and in the inter-connected web of causality, those with the most power in a situation have the most responsibility. I think that’s as close to an answer as I’m going to get.:)

As I’ve been reading up on Stoicism, I’ve been trying to figure out where it fits in with all of this. Because of its emphasis on accepting external circumstances while working solely on improving oneself, initially it seemed cold and unsympathetic, like something that might go hand in hand with “Lean In”. But eventually I realised that the division between what is and isn’t under a person’s control is potentially quite a radical and sympathetic concept.

Stoicism relieves us of inappropriate responsibility for things outside of our control, replacing it with the serenity and peace of acceptance. As discussed the other day, I don’t think that means doing nothing to fight injustice or improve your own circumstances; it just means being clear with yourself about what actions you can actually take, versus the outcomes that are not in your power to control.

Stoicism encourages you to look carefully at what you can do, and weigh up what would be the most rational, wise, beneficial thing to do. For a Stoic, after all, that is the ultimate good, and is what brings contentment – knowing that she has done her best. I think I would still need to watch that I didn’t turn this into an unrealistic expectation of perfection; but sometimes, being very upset or angry at external, uncontrollable things doesn’t help wisdom to come forth.

So, Stoicism might be a good companion to an awareness of injustice. Not that I would emphasise it as a way forward – I mean, I would sooner speak up in support of people who are rightfully angry, than start telling them how to be less angry – but it is definitely a philosophy I would like to explore for myself.

Posted in philosophy, politics, social justice, Stoicism | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Learning to relax

I have written before about being driven to be highly organised, and not feeling sure whether this is an entirely healthy thing. I’ve been thinking about this again in light of my recent forays into Brene Brown’s shame resilience work, and Stoicism.

I think the habit started in my mid-twenties. I have been sort of a late bloomer in terms of finding my way into a career, and did not progress through the expected milestones of adulthood through my twenties. It turns out I was at the head of an entire wave of young people that would experience such things; at the time, though, I think I internalised it as a large chunk of personal failure. I could see that I had it harder than the previous generation in terms of things like house prices, but I still felt I should have been “wise” to this and pre-empted the issue with better life planning.

It seems I embraced being organised, goal-driven and intentional about how I spend my time, to try to protect myself from further insecurity. Which is sensible up to a point; but I think my excessively teeth-gritting, self-policing, whipping-myself-into-shape approach to everything in life has been an overreaction to the “failure”, and reflects an overly negative view of my own fitness for adult life. There is something in me that tends to always see the worst, to be pessimistic; I crave safety and control, to be on top of everything, to close down every possibility of things going wrong. Put simply, I am a worrier.

There is also a shame aspect to it: I was running away from the unwanted identity that I ascribed to my younger self of a naive drifter, coasting through my education not thinking about the world of work and the bigger picture of life. I felt foolish and stupid and determined to change who I was.

Under this oppressive mindset, it is hard to ever feel completely happy about how I spend my time. The same fear of failure driving me to be proactive about important things also makes the important things daunting; there is a resistance in me to the vulnerability of trying new things. Attempting to live life by a to-do list and operating constantly in analytical mode does not always help, either: such a safety-seeking, closing-down orientation is the opposite of the vulnerable opening-up approach needed to be creative.

Rebalancing my expectations of myself is helping. I have just spent a pleasant week off work with lots of unstructured time, allowing myself the flexibility to go for walks when the sun is shining and rest when I am tired, not burdening myself with over-ambitious lists of things I must get done in this time. I am OK with not having got around to any DIY jobs. And I am learning to like being the dreamy, thinky person I am.

I think Stoicism has some pretty good answers to the fear part of the equation. The “premeditation of adversity” was the practice that first piqued my interest, having read about it in Oliver Burkemann’s book. Facing my worst fears head-on and bringing reason and rationality to them – particularly, the notion that it would, somehow, still be possible to feel OK about my life even if the very worst things happened – is helpful for dispelling habitual fear and getting back that sense of adventure.

And I’m starting to think that recognising the limits of my control, and developing Stoic acceptance of what lies beyond them, could also be very helpful. Although it may be uncomfortable to acknowledge those limits, it is also kind of a relief.


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Stoicism, acceptance and happiness

I have a negative bent, a tendency to see the bad in life more clearly than the good. I get very affected by bad news – and there’s a lot of it: worsening inequality, dismantling of the welfare state, another financial crisis potentially around the corner while we’re still in debt from the last one, climate change, antibiotic resistance, global conflict / power struggles, refugees living in squalid camps…

Thanks to media such as Twitter and Facebook, I find it easier than ever to learn about all these things, and to access really stimulating viewpoints and analysis that is constantly helping my own understanding and awareness to develop. I would much rather have that access than not; however, there are times when I just have to scroll past it all and look for some cute puppy video instead. I get exhausted with concern.

And I have difficulty with Sunday Assembly’s ethos of “celebrating life” because, when it comes down to it, I’m not convinced human existence is a good thing. The rest of the planet would be better off without us, for sure. It’s hard to feel joyful about being alive while keenly aware of how spectacularly the human race is fucking up at the general aim of not doing harm to ourselves or each other. And even if we were doing much better, nature alone can be cruel enough to us. What’s there to celebrate?

On the other hand, what good does it do to feel so negatively?

I’m reading a book about Stoicism just now. According to the Stoics, the only thing needed for deep happiness and well-being (eudaimonia), is to be the best human being one can be. This means perfecting the rationality and practical wisdom that humans alone can develop. This in turn entails acceptance of things outside of one’s control; it doesn’t make sense to worry or get upset about things you can’t do anything about.

I’m really wrestling with this! I find myself wanting to protest: that there is no clean division between what is and isn’t under your control; that it’s unrealistic to expect your happiness to not be affected by your circumstances (and has the potential to trigger shame); that even if it were possible to be that detached, it would surely lead to amorality – that there wouldn’t be any point in justice or making anyone’s circumstances better because their happiness can only come from within.

But I do wonder if I’m missing the point on that last part; Stoicism, after all, does promote justice and compassion and there is a sense of some outcomes being ‘preferred’ (even though they are ultimately indifferent with regard to eudaimonia). It’s confusing. It reminds me of similar confusion I’ve had with Buddhism in the past.

Maybe the answer is that eudaimonia, although important (and heavily emphasised in Stoicism), isn’t the only thing that matters?

Perhaps the problem I’m having lies in the English language and the fact that words like ‘happiness’ and ‘joy’ are just too broad-brush. One example of this comes to mind from the Pixar film Inside Out, in which the main characters are anthropomorphised emotions inside a human character’s head. In the film, Joy has to learn that there is a place for Sadness; that Sadness is able to help their human host come to terms with an unwanted change in circumstances, and connect with the love and care of others, in a way that Joy cannot. Joy does not represent all positive experiences – she merely represents an upbeat, cheerful mood. I think we lack a clear word in English for the positive experience Sadness was able to bring about – in the film, we see the creation of a core memory that is a mixture of sad and happy.



And I think there are probably many distinct emotional and mental states that we lack distinct words for and that get muddied together under words like ‘happiness’.

So, maybe this is partly why I have difficulty seeing how a positive emotional state can coexist with concern about problems. Maybe it’s possible to really want things to improve while at the same time being able to really accept that things are as they are. This seems like a contradiction to me but I have moments where I can see these as two separate processes.

I think Buddhism and Stoicism really come into their own in situations of extreme suffering that cannot be averted – where the only way forward is to be ‘philosophical’. Their emphasis on eudaimonia and its possible independence of circumstances is perhaps an over-emphasis for the context of my everyday life of relative comfort. I keep having difficulty with them because I have the exact opposite approach: can’t feel OK about life until all the problems are solved. But that is also why I keep being drawn to them.

Posted in absolute goodness, meditation, morality, personal reflection, philosophy, Stoicism, suffering, Sunday Assembly | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Social justice, fairness, and ableism

In his post “Who owns the world?“, Doug Muder looks at the ‘justice’ in social justice, and argues that economic justice – or fairness – requires recognition of one’s debt to the commons. He explains that private ownership of natural resources (starting with fertile land) was essentially a human invention, and that this monopolisation of the means of wealth production was unfair. A parallel pattern now exists in people developing commercial products using pre-existing knowledge and technologies that are, or should be, part of a common legacy. Because of this, a mechanism is needed to continually re-level the playing field, to keep correcting for the inherent unfairness in people being allowed to make money from things that were not wholly theirs by rights.

That’s a pretty radical understanding of the rationale for progressive taxation. But there is a further problem with the concept of fairness, which is explored in an interesting article by Dylan Matthews, “The case against equality of opportunity“.

Equal opportunities would be impossible in practice, but even if we could all somehow have the exact same start in life, each person’s ‘opportunity’ to create a decent life for themselves would still depend on their innate talents and weaknesses and their ability to work hard. When people say there should be equality of opportunity, what they mean is that success should depend on talent and hard work alone – which might be perfectly reasonable, but when material well-being depends on achieving success (at something), it has this dark, unspoken corollary that those who are not so talented or cannot work hard are less deserving of a decent living standard. I think when you take into account the genetic and environmental lottery we all play, there is no real way to define the concept of “deserving”, and it seems inhumane that some people should just fall through the cracks.

Doug Muder touches on this problem towards the end of his post, but his answer seems to be that charity is still needed even in a world with equal opportunities. Which doesn’t really address the issue around “deserving”, because it puts people who can’t work at the mercy of the generosity of those who can. I don’t really think that is a whole lot more humane, or fair: a society in which wealth is stratified by intelligence and hard work is arguably not much better than one stratified by persistent accumulation of wealth and privilege, since intelligence and an ability to work hard are privileges in a way also.

I think most countries in the ‘developed’ world do provide a basic standard of living for those who can’t earn it for themselves (although we probably can’t take even that for granted; as I write, our government is busy cutting chunks out of disabled benefits, potentially to reduce middle-class tax bills…). And more wealth is not necessarily better for well-being, past a certain point. Dylan Matthews seems to suggest that we should ensure that everyone is at least OK and then not worry too much about the inequality above that, and I can see the point there.

But inequality does have real effects on the overall well-being of a society. It’s clear that we do tend to view our relative material position as a value judgement from society, and not as merely an indifferent consequence of impersonal labour market forces. Besides, money is power – people with wealth can influence and shape society in ways that others cannot (through the media, through political lobbying, and so on).

I read somewhere a while ago that ableism is the basis of all oppression. I have been mulling that statement over ever since. It’s true that every type of oppression, every instance of one group having power over another, is a result of the opportunistic grabbing of that power – they could, so they did. (Gender inequity, for example, perhaps originates in the difference in physical strength and the unequal division of reproductive “work” between male and female bodies.) Sometimes it’s just down to who got there first – as in those who got the first title deeds to productive land.

In an age where Darwinian natural selection and “survival of the fittest” is widely understood, and the Protestant work ethic deeply embedded in our culture, it’s difficult for our sociological imaginations to see structural ableism as something that can be questioned, and to conceive of another way. What would it be like if we didn’t have to work for a living? Many people are discussing this since technological advances may sooner or later render most people redundant. Would we find a way, as a society, to come to some agreement that we all have a share in the wealth produced by that technology? Probably we would have to for practical reasons, but would that in turn change how we thought about fairness?

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Lean In vs Lean Out, and thoughts on diversity

I recently read “Lean Out” by Dawn Foster, a response to “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg. It gave me a lot to think about.

I think these books together highlight two contrasting approaches to resolving inequality: one is to try to remove differences and distinctions between people; the other is to preserve differences but try to change the power balance.

Based on having seen her TED talk, Sheryl Sandberg’s advice to women seems largely to come into the first category. It teaches women how to succeed in the male-dominated world of big business, essentially by being more like men in having greater self-confidence and willingness to promote themselves. She does suggest that workplaces need to become more woman-friendly (or motherhood-friendly), too, but seems to put most of the onus on women to start getting into top positions in greater numbers so that this kind of change can be created. This approach has been heavily criticised because it’s mostly concerned with the success of elite women, and ignores the awkward fact that such success depends on an army of nannies, housekeepers and unpaid interns, to whom none of the benefits “trickle down” in practice.

“Lean Out” seems to be more concerned with political change to obtain protection, better conditions, and financial security for the majority of women nearer the bottom of the pyramid. There seemed to be nothing in the book about challenging cultural gender roles – it’s more about seeking protection for women in the roles they currently find themselves in (not just in terms of work, but motherhood, particularly single motherhood, unpaid caregiving, and so on) and getting society to value the work they do.

What about my own feminism? Well, I have some issues with the “we are all the same really” approach. My generation has been taught to be colourblind, to believe that we are all the same underneath the skin; I have more recently become aware of how this actually erases people, denies them true representation, whenever one group is particularly dominant. (See for example Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s excellent talk ‘The danger of a single story‘.) The same is true with gender – males and females are socialised differently throughout life and to deny or minimise those differences when trying to get more women into male-dominated arenas essentially just means women have to assimilate into the male ‘culture’. This seems to me what Sandberg is trying to do and I don’t really agree with it.

Foster on the other hand doesn’t really question the fact that there are differences, and instead sees the problem as lying in women’s traditional roles being under-valued, rather than women needing to be better-equipped to “succeed”. A lot of which I agree with, but I guess I see gender role segregation as a bad thing, too; not just for the resulting inequality, but for exaggerating the differences between the sexes.

I want all labour to be valued. I also want roles to change, but in the process, for differences to be respected and valued; I want true diversity in that sense. I think it would challenge unhealthy norms and groupthink, everyone would learn more, and problem-solving could be more dynamic. Is that all just pie in the sky really though?

I noted in my previous post that my feminism had developed into, partially, an idealistic mandate for women to mitigate their collective vulnerability by insisting on equality in every area of life. In other words, there was a good bit of “Lean In” in there, in the sense of putting the onus on individual women. I had created new expectations for myself and others, around embracing diversity and challenging traditional role segregation, that need to be critically examined.

Diversity is really hard! One of the examples of diversity in action that I most admire is Unitarianism – I found Unitarian church much more radically inclusive than the global Sunday Assembly community has turned out to be – and yet, of course, I stopped going regularly because I didn’t feel there were “enough people like me there” (i.e. secular types). I treasure diversity and yet it seems I cannot bear to be in a minority, even when I know I am welcome. How much more careful, more neutral, would the content of the services have to be so that I would feel I belonged? If this is an analogue for, say, state-schooled students in elite universities, women in politics, or men taking a chunk of parental leave in a country where baby-changing facilities are hardly ever provided in men’s bathrooms, what does this say for the prospects of my “diversity” ideal?

Of course, none of these approaches is easy. But I think what “Lean Out” has given me is a greater appreciation for the need to focus on addressing the power imbalance directly – rather than purely indirectly through desegregation of gender roles.

Posted in feminism, gender, personal reflection, politics, social justice, Sunday Assembly, Unitarian | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Shame, pain, and protective ideologies

In the previous post, I discussed what I had learned from Brene Brown’s book “I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t)” about the way shame can arise from failing to meet expectations.

A second major route into shame is through difficult circumstances, misfortunes, that result in pain and suffering. This happens because of others’ fear. It’s horrible, but people often instinctively want to distance themselves from anyone going through a bad, painful experience, to differentiate themselves in some way from that person, in order to have some basis for feeling “safe”. It couldn’t happen to me, because I’m not like them. This is an empathy barrier and unfortunately, depending on the form it takes, it is often tantamount to blaming the person in some way for their suffering.

Although the blaming can be subtle, and somewhat unconscious, it’s very easy for the suffering person to pick up on it – because we all intuitively know how it works. Perhaps it works reflexively as well, as we look for a reason why something happened to us and not to the person next door – the random nature of misfortune is just one of those difficult things to accept about life. Of course, the result is shame. The route out of shame is again through empathic connection, perhaps most easily established with others who have gone through a similar experience.

This got me thinking about the role fear plays in establishing belief systems or ideologies, and how they feed into shame. It seems to me that we often wrap ourselves in protective ideologies to avoid feeling that vulnerability to suffering. To some people, perhaps adhering to a strict moral code or religious lifestyle is the answer to keeping chaos at bay. The problem with this is not only that it’s a somewhat illusory safety but that it encourages the person to judge and blame others who haven’t seen the sense to get on that “right path”, when suffering befalls them.

In political conservatism there is a defining belief that anyone can “make it” if they simply work hard. Arguably, this embodies a desire to disconnect, to differentiate between self and other, in order to avoid concluding that pain and misfortune (such as poverty) could happen to anyone. A difficulty of the very privileged to empathise with the struggles of the less privileged is relatively straightforward to understand, but what about about less affluent people who appear to embrace this belief and vote against their own class interests? I guess what I’m seeing now is that, for people who’ve struggled a bit and had nothing handed to them on a plate, and who have internalised an individualistic analysis of that (i.e. experienced shame) and embraced a Protestant work ethic as the solution, it is also an idea that readily fits – and, of course, readily lends itself to judgement of others further down the socioeconomic ladder.

(I came across this relevant meme on social media recently:


I have found this very interesting to think about because while I have always been a left-leaning voter (probably largely due to my culture and family), I am by no means immune to these sorts of psychological mechanisms – I don’t think anyone can be. I find it easy and natural to be against the concentration of wealth and power that results from neoliberal policies, but does that mean I really, truly, empathise with the plight of my former neighbours on benefits who kept me awake at night with their yelling and their chaotic lives and police visits? Or with former classmates who had kids that are fed and clothed courtesy of tax credits and benefits while I have scrimped and saved for my deposit, flat-sharing like an overgrown student well into adulthood, not getting a driving licence until age 30, reaching my mid-thirties before I feel I can even think about having one child? That is a bit more challenging, if I’m really honest. And until now I hadn’t recognised the role of my own shame in this.

Feminism is the most recent example of an ideology that I have used to feel less vulnerable. Embracing some of the ideas of liberal feminism initially helped me make sense of some of my own struggles (particularly in the workplace), relieving some shame for me, but I did note in a recent post that I had found it difficult to be moderate in my views. I have partially taken feminism as a mandate for us all to “wise up” to the limitations of traditional gender norms, thereby making gender equality a matter of personal responsibility, to some extent – and yet another thing that one can “fail” at. Which is pretty humbling to realise.

I suppose all this leads to a question around how far empathy can or should go, and where individual responsibility actually does kick in. I don’t have an answer but I’m sure it’s a question I will be pondering.

Posted in feminism, morality, personal reflection, politics, social justice, suffering | 2 Comments

Shame and expectations

My first book of 2016 was “I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t)” by Brene Brown, a fascinating introduction to her work on shame resilience. It has triggered a lot of productive thinking for me over the last few weeks – I have found the “shame” paradigm a really useful one through which to analyse many aspects of my personal life, and even my political thinking has been affected. It has been amazing. I now feel I have a “way in” to tackling some of my most long-standing issues.

Shame is a sense of being flawed in such a way as to make us unworthy of love, acceptance, or belonging. It is different from guilt: guilt is a sense that we have done something bad, and it can be useful. Shame is a sense that we are bad. Brene Brown’s message is that shame is an unavoidable part of the human social world; that it serves no particularly useful purpose; and that we can learn to improve how we deal with it – develop shame resilience.

One of the main ways in which shame arises is through failing to meet the expectations of others or of society in general. Many of our culturally-absorbed expectations are contradictory and therefore simply impossible to meet. This is particularly true around certain roles such as mothering. The expectations, and the people whose comments and views perpetuate them (which is probably all of us at some time), constitute a “shame web”.

One of the effects of shame, if it takes hold unconsciously, is to make us judgemental towards others who show the very weaknesses that we feel shame about – weaknesses we are trying hard to hide, deny, or overcome. These weaknesses relate to an “unwanted identity”: a type of person we cannot bear to be seen as; we distance ourselves from that identity by judging and criticising anyone who seems to behave in that way. And thus we become part of the shame web that has trapped us in the first place. Feeling judgemental or critical can often tell us far more about ourselves than anything else, and examining these feelings is a really good way to uncover our own shame triggers.

Brene Brown identifies three types of “shame screen” – behaviours that we typically use to mitigate our sense of unworthiness in a shame-triggering situation, but that don’t really deal with the shame effectively. These are: moving away (withdrawing or hiding oneself), moving towards (appeasing, looking desperately for signs of approval and acceptance), or moving against (being confrontational and defensive). We might use all of these at different times but we probably have a preference for one of them. (For me it’s definitely moving away! Hello, shyness!)

Having discovered that we are experiencing shame, how can we break out of the web? Critical examination of the expectations is key. If we can recognise that the expectations are unrealistic and / or not as important as we have taken them to be, it is easier to accept ourselves as we are. Empathy is also key. Shame is about disconnection, and so the antidote to shame is genuine connection with another person. Telling someone about an experience that triggered shame, and receiving empathy (and perhaps a similar story in return), is very powerful as it immediately dispels the idea that we are alone in our struggles and undeserving of acceptance. Expectations can be radically challenged just by connecting and learning that despite outward appearances, others struggle just as much to meet those expectations.

Of course, it matters who you reach out to for empathy. Opening up to someone who has internalised shame around the same issue and is not yet able to recognise it, would be likely to lead to an exchange that leaves you feeling worse, not better. The best you could probably hope for is sympathy. And one really interesting insight was that sympathy is sort of the opposite of empathy: empathy connects, whereas sympathy keeps you at arm’s length – sympathy is basically a nice way of saying, “from where I am sitting, things look pretty bad, and I wouldn’t want to be over there with you”. I had always wondered why sympathy was such an unpleasant thing! It seemed like it should be comforting or touching and I felt bad for not experiencing it that way. Now I know why.:)

All of this has been plenty of food for thought in itself. But one of the most fascinating discoveries for me in the book was the link between pain (or painful experiences) and shame. I will write about that in my next post.

Posted in personal reflection, self-improvement | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments