The Magical Strength of Stoicism
Day 13 of my 1000 words a day challenge
There is a story my father used to tell me of my great-grandfather.
In 1910, when my great-grandfather was a teen, the Japanese imperial army invaded the Korean peninsula and successfully toppled the Joseon dynasty. He bitterly fought in China, Manchuria, and Korea against Japanese forces until South Korea’s liberation on August 15 1945, and then lived through an even more brutal civil war until the armistice of 1953.
He was known for his unrivaled bravery, completing numerous dangerous assassinations and attacks on key strategic targets throughout his life.
Towards the final decade of his life, he grew so upset with the state of South Korea’s political affairs, namely the pro-Japanese government that had been instated, that he and a dozen or so of his comrades committed ritual suicide on the steps of City Hall in central Seoul. He sliced open his stomach with a sword in front of hundreds of onlookers.
Only, apparently this was not enough to kill him. With his intestines hanging out in what I imagine to be unimaginable, unspeakable pain, he walked himself to a hospital (or perhaps was helped to a hospital).
There, he received medical care and fully recovered.
A few years later, he rescued a man from an oncoming train which then mangled his leg so much, that he needed to have it amputated.
10 years later he witnessed the birth of my father in 1963 and took a photo to immortalize the occasion. In the photo is a hardened man with white hair, clutching my baby father in his arms, his stub of a leg bandaged, and crutches in the side of the frame.
Both the baby and the man look like me. It’s like watching myself as an old man, carrying myself as a child and looking back into the camera.
And whether he knew it at the time or not, I believe my great-grandfather was a stoic, and these traits have passed onto me either through my sheer admiration for this man I never met, or through genetics.
Stoic Moments in My Past
When we were young, my brother and I would get into all sorts of mischief and my father would punish us quite ruthlessly with a belt. It was his hardline, emotionless, Korean Christian life philosophy.
The rod be not spared, lest I and my brother be spoiled rotten.
On one such occasion, I felt it would be unfair for my brother to take the blame when he was simply following my command.
And so, my father generously offered to give all the beatings to me. Instead of 15 lashes distributed evenly, I would receive a generous helping of 30. I accepted the offer.
My father at the time was a towering giant and a terrifying object of fear. I had no monsters to fear when almost daily, I was confronted with a 5'11" demon of a man weighing roughly 180 pounds, who always wore his leather belt from Costco, then retailed at $6.99 with an additional 15% off coupon that he had cashed in along with it. He wore it proudly with his jeans Monday through Friday and on Sundays. It was my father’s weapon of choice, a constant reminder to, “Be on your best behavior.”
15 lashes on the hands. 15 lashes on the buttocks.
The first ones are always the most alarming. They send your body into shock. Immediate searing pain. Hot coffee poured on the nervous system.
He’d make me count out loud in Korean.
Oh man. Once I got to six, I could feel the despair hit me like a wave. Normally this is where I’d give up and beg for my life, but not today. I’d bite my lip, count to 30, and focus on the quiet sound of bruises rising like bread, the quiet hissing of blood dripping from my fingers.
I am the one who bears the burden. I am responsible for this suffering.
I felt this calmness honing my spirit and my senses, this absolute refusal to be defeated under any circumstance.
I was attending a debate tournament in 2010, and swine flu was spreading through travelers like wildfire. I had inevitably caught it and my fever spiked at 107F in our 3rd round of the tournament. Regardless, I kept at it and delivered a strong 8 minute speech though I was visibly dizzy, sweating, and my body was teetering like a drunkard’s. It took every ounce of my focus and concentration to communicate my ideas and present them, and by the end of my speech, I knew that my ideas were heard. And once again, I felt a sense of calmness. My body was screaming in rage. It was fuming. My head was exploding like a grenade with the heat and pressure, my body was aching, sweaty, and trembling in pain, and yet I pushed all that aside and focused only on supporting an argument that corporations should be held accountable and provide relief to the working class during economic downturns. I could feel my body’s panic being shoved aside in favor of my spirit.
What is stoicism?
I interpret stoicism as the ability to channel your inner human spirit and have it dictate your course of action.
Too often, we let our emotions or lesser desires decide what is appropriate or what we should do next. We give into our impulses and we either quit pursuing our divine callings and instead distract ourselves with mundane or inane meaningless or harmful drivel.
Stoicism is the ability to push aside fears and anxieties over things you cannot control, and focusing only on the things within your power to change, and maximizing the impact of those precious resources.
It is realizing and accepting the things you cannot change, and focusing your limited resources on that which can be changed.
A simple example of this is to know that wishing you would never encounter people who are awful, stupid, and shameless is an absolutely impossible request. Anyone who deals with people must realize that a great number of them behave awfully on a regular basis. But it is wise to know that the greatest revenge and the only way to truly counteract this nonsense is to not be that way.
I meet a staggering number of people who do not accept this. I often see well-educated, good-intentioned friends of mine who get uncontrollably visibly upset when they scroll through twitter and they discover that people are stupid and wildly intolerant and unsympathetic.
Of course they are. People are stupid. This is a fact. This is known. You’re going to drive yourself mad if you blow a fuse every single time a law of the universe reveals itself in practice. People are stupid. They are intolerant. They are uneducated.
It is important that you live a life that is the opposite of that and that you are able to communicate the value of not being in this manner with your behavior and actions. In time, they might not change, but your wisdom will eventually put you in a position of power above them.
Stoicism is a form of detachment. It is not exactly the same as dissociation, but it is a form of detachment nonetheless. It is to think beyond this immediate pain, this immediate suffering, the present discomfort and fear. You are moving your mind above the current situation so that you can analyze meaning from different perspectives and decide upon the next course of action.
When you are in great pain or discomfort, take a deep breath and remember that if you can control your mind, you can control the entire universe. Empty your mind. Breathe in the silent stillness of the heart. Open your mind’s eye to the clearest path forward. Now stop thinking. Be.