Monday, November 9, 2015

Sci-Fi Stoic Week 2015: Saturday-Sunday

This is the last in my series, Sci-Fi Stoic Week 2015.  You can find out more about Stoic Week and my sci-fi take on it in my first post in the series.  Also, feel free to check out parts two and three.

Saturday: Resilience and Preparation for Adversity
Be like the headland on which the waves break constantly, which still stands firm while the foaming waters are put to rest around it. ‘It is my bad luck that this has happened to me!’ On the contrary, say, ‘It is my good luck that, although this has happened to me, I can bear it without getting upset, neither crushed by the present nor afraid of the future.’ 
— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.49
Stoics aim to be resilient, and one way to develop resilience is to prepare for difficult situations.  The 2015 Stoic Week Handbook guides readers through an exercise in which you imagine an adverse situation; you consider the emotions it evokes, its duration, the consequence of the exercise, and an analysis of whether this situation would really be as bad as you initially thought (p. 39-40).

The idea is that analyzing your reaction to something bad will reduce the fear and anxiety that it provokes.  Imagining how you would deal with not getting a dream job, for instance, makes it easier to cope when you don't get the job.  Academics and science fiction authors can imagine being rejected from a top journal or publisher.  I usually make a list of other journals where I can submit a paper after rejection, which helps me deal with the rejection endemic to academic life.  I think preparing for adversity also makes enjoyment of success that much sweeter, since you enjoy the success itself, not the mere overcoming of anxiety.
The Doof Warrior (Mad Max: Fury Road) helping us overcome adversity

Science fiction has a whole sub-genre devoted to preparation for adversity: dystopia.  Dystopian science fiction asks us to imagine adversity on a large scale: zombies, viruses, alien/AI apocalypse, nuclear war, asteroid, totalitarian governments, etc.

Dystopias are all the rage these days.  Hollywood and YA authors are cranking out dystopias as fast as zombies will eat your brain -- The Walking Dead, The Hunger GamesDivergent, ad nauseam.  Even stories that don't end up as dystopias often begin dystopian (think of Interstellar).  My favorite dystopias find creative ways to work within the dystopian genre to challenge it from within, like Mad Max: Fury Road, David Brin's The Postman, Walter Miller, Jr.'s A Canticle for Leibowitz, and Octavia Butler's Earthseed duology.

As I discussed in my review of Mad Max: Fury Road, the deeper point of dystopia is not simply to imagine how we'd survive in a dystopia -- the whole point of most dystopias is that most of us wouldn't survive.  Sure, we may get some comfort from the survival of the human race or a thrill from seeing how the characters' resilience helps them survive, but the real point is to appreciate what success we have in avoiding such dystopias.  We might even be encouraged to work to end the real life dystopia for the 1.6 billion human beings living in extreme poverty.

Sunday: Nature and the View from Above
A fine reflection from Plato. One who would converse about human beings should look on all things earthly as though from some point far above, upon herds, armies, and agriculture, marriages and divorces, births and deaths, the clamour of law courts, deserted wastes, alien peoples of every kind, festivals, lamentations, and markets, this intermixture of everything and ordered combination of opposites.  
— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 7.48
The view from above is pretty much science fiction already.  Such cosmic views are a staple among some of my favorite science fiction authors like Arthur C. Clarke and Iain M. Banks.  It takes on a weirdly perverse nature in the work of H. P. Lovecraft.  Eric Brown's short story, "The Rest is Speculation," which I read in The Mammoth Book of Mind-Blowing SF, and Stephen Baxter's Manifold: Time, turn the "view from above" into the "view from the unimaginably far future."

Another great example is this scene from Men in Black.

Many people find such cosmic views depressingly bleak.  If we are but infinitesimal motes of dust soon to be obliterated by the inconceivable expanse of space/time, does anything we do really matter?  As the Bhagavad Gītā says, time/death is the "vehement destroyer of worlds" (11.32).

Does death destroy the meaning of life?  I'll return to that soon, but first let me note that the cosmic view can be liberating as the strongest ever reason to follow the advice, "don't sweat the small stuff."  It's all small stuff.  Does it really matter if the barista gets your coffee right?  Will it be the end of the world if you don't get that promotion?  The world will eventually end on its own whether you get it or not!

If taken too far the cosmic view might lead to nihilism, the view that everything is meaningless.  But I think this rests on a mistake.  The only reason the cosmic view would lead to nihilism is if you assumed that something can be meaningful only if it lasts forever.  But why would you assume that?

It seems to me that death is the end for all of us, all of our ideas, every institution, the human race, even the universe itself.  But that doesn't mean that things aren't important here and now (I explore this idea in my post on Interstellar and the meaning of life).  The Stoics use the view from above to lessen our harmful attachments to the day-to-day bustle of the world, but if it threatens you with nihilism, maybe the lesson is to set your sights a bit lower.  Maybe on virtue, family, or cute pictures of cats.
Cute cats vs. nihilism

Let me end, appropriately, with death.  People get worked up about death.  We ignore it.  We deny it.  A lot of science fiction denies the reality of death with stories of uploading one's mind into a computer or a new body.

But I go more the route of people like Iain M. Banks.  He says that his imagined civilization, The Culture, has this attitude:
Philosophy, again; death is regarded as part of life, and nothing, including the universe, lasts forever.  It is seen as bad manners to try and pretend that death is somehow not natural; instead death is seen as giving shape to life.   
- Iain M. Banks,  "A Few Notes on the Culture"
Death is simply part of life, the universe, and everything.  Accepting this is part of what makes life worth living, an attitude appreciated by Buddhists, Epicureans, Stoics, and many others.  Perhaps Marcus Aurelius said it best.
I travel along nature’s way until I fall down and take my rest, breathing out my last into the air, from which I draw my daily breath, and falling down to that earth from which my father drew his seed, my mother her blood and my nurse her milk, and from which for so many years I have taken my daily food and drink, the earth which carries my footsteps and which I have used to the full in so many ways. 
— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 5.4

1 comment:

  1. Here's a great Existential Comic that has Epictetus using the exercises for overcoming adversity (also, the Buddha, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer):