A Stoic Guide to Thanksgiving
Regular readers of this weekly blog are undoubtedly familiar with my interest in Stoicism. From time to time, I will explicitly write about it. In many cases, it will lie beneath the surface of what I’m writing.
Unlike other schools of philosophy whose aims may be more metaphysical or epistemological, Stoicism, like its close cousins Epicureanism and Skepticism, is eminently practical. It seeks to answer perhaps the most pragmatic of questions: How do we live the good life? As the Thanksgiving holiday approaches, I could think of no better guide than the principles of Stoicism to prepare us to truly give thanks and enjoy our time with family. Here are three inter-related lessons that I plan to heed in the coming days.
Lesson #1: Memento mori
Memento mori, which roughly translates from its original Latin into English as “remember thou too must die,” originated as a Roman practice designed to remind us that everything is temporary. The Stoics integrated the ritual, which was largely used following an emperor’s victory in battle, into everyday life. They would kiss their children good night, reminding themselves that it may be their last time. They did this did to wake themselves up from the anesthetized state we typically find ourselves in and to be deeply present to each of life’s infinite joys.
As I look ahead to Thanksgiving, I can see how easily I might succumb to the unexamined assumption that there will be more holidays like it and, in so doing, miss the opportunity to soak in every moment of my experience. Memento mori will be the ritual that awakens me from this default state and reminds me to experience each moment, no matter how seemingly banal.
Lesson #2: Premeditatio malorum
We all have one or more relatives who will predictably say or do something that raises the temperature in the room, triggers others to get emotional, or otherwise disrupts the peace. The Stoics would take exception to this. They would remind us that no one has the power to trigger you but you. As I wrote about last week, it was the great Stoic philosopher Epictetus who said, “Who then is invincible? The one who cannot be upset by anything outside his reasoned choice.”
They would also employ a practice called premeditatio malorum. It is an exercise in predicting what could go wrong ahead of time, so as to fortify yourself against the otherwise automatic reaction to the event. I use this practice in my work with leadership teams. It’s a useful year-end pre-mortem exercise to imagine and then plan to take action against what could predictably go wrong in the year ahead. Families are even more predictable. This year, I plan to imagine the remark that usually frustrates me, remind myself that I am the sole source of my frustration, and remember that this may be the last moment I have with that particular person. That’s what a Stoic would do. And it’s why I believe they were on to something over two thousand years ago.
Lesson #3: Preferred Indifference
The Stoics have been greatly misunderstood as people who lived joyless and disengaged lives. Nothing could be further from the truth. They just knew how to deal with disappointment better than most. They wanted outcomes just like anyone else. Yet, they trained themselves to be indifferent to those results not materializing. This notion of preferred indifference – wanting something but being unattached to getting it – was central to Stoicism. The Stoics realized that expectation was the main culprit in suffering. Remove expectation and all you have left is appreciation for what is. Seneca remarked, “Expectations are the greatest impediment to living. In anticipation of tomorrow, we lose today.”
We all have expectations about this upcoming holiday. In many cases, we hope for things that we can predict won’t occur. And when they don’t, we lose our ability to be thankful. What if, instead, we didn’t give up our preferences, but we were truly grateful for the families we have, for the lives we lead, and for the simple fact of being alive? To me, this is what Thanksgiving is all about.