Powerless . . . but Enlightened
Guest Contributor

14 April 2009

Posted by Bill Irvine

(Author of Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy)


       On Saturday, September 13, 2008, Hurricane Ike slammed into Texas.  Since I live in Ohio, my interest in this event can best be described as passing--those who live near the coast, I reflected, have to expect this sort of thing.  But then events took a surprising turn.
       On Sunday afternoon, the remnants of Ike caused a severe windstorm in my part of the world.  The wind was not of hurricane force, and unlike in Texas, it wasn't accompanied by rain.  It was nevertheless sufficient to cause trees to snap and roof shingles to fly.  At about 4:30 in the afternoon, the power went out.
       At first I assumed that it would be a few hours before power was restored, but by the next evening, my optimism had waned.  As I lay in my dark bedroom, studying the dust motes caught in the beam of my flashlight, I found myself turning to philosophy for consolation.
       For the last several years, I have been studying the philosophy of the ancient Greek and Roman Stoics.  As a result of doing this, I started putting Stoic advice to work in my own life, and before long, I realized that I had, much to my surprise, become a practicing Stoic.
       According to the Stoics, anyone wishing to have a good life would do well periodically to live without the things they value.  In particular, if we are affluent, we should "practice poverty"--we should, that is, live for a time as if we are poor.  We might, for example, eat simple meals even though gourmet food is available, and we might make a point of dressing simply even though we possess an expensive wardrobe.
       Why engage in this seemingly masochistic exercise?  Because by doing this, said the Stoics, we can dramatically increase our happiness.
       One key to a happy existence, philosophers, theologians, and psychologists agree, is to persuade ourselves to want the things we already have.  Unfortunately, we humans tend to take whatever we have for granted and instead make our happiness depend on the attainment of things we don't have.  The problem, of course, is that there is no guarantee that we will be able to attain these things, and even if we do attain them, we will soon find ourselves taking them for granted and will thus end up no happier than we formerly were.
       How, though, can we persuade ourselves to want what we already have?  The Stoics thought they had an answer to this question: we should periodically spend time contemplating the loss of the things we value or better still, live without them for a time.  This is doubtless good advice; the problem is that it will take effort to follow it.  Who, after all, wants to eat macaroni and cheese when lobster is available?
       A power outage, though, forces us to do what, according to the Stoics, we should have been doing of our own free will--namely, practicing poverty.  Because of the power outage, my neighbors and I found ourselves deprived of television and the Internet, light to read by, and warm showers.  The experience made me more appreciative of all these things, but as a practicing Stoic, I expected this to happen.  What I found striking is that it seemed to have the same effect on my neighbors.
       Some of them whined about their predicament, but many more seemed to take it in stride.  Indeed, this mini-crisis seemed to infuse them with life.  I encountered these newly-minted Stoics in restaurants, in the supermarket, and out taking walks in our darkened neighborhood.  After offering stories on how the outage was affecting them, they would often comment on how things could have been worse: "At least we still have water."  It brought to mind interviews of tornado survivors who, standing in front of the ruins of their home and surrounded by family members, declare that they still have everything that really matters.  (It says something about the human condition, by the way, that it takes a tornado to make us aware of what really matters.)
       After a week, our power was restored, and those who experienced the Great Power Outage of 2008 started to forget whatever lessons they learned while sitting in darkness.  It was precisely for this reason that the Stoic philosopher Seneca advocated that we supplement the hard times the world inflicts on us with “artificial” hard times that we periodically bring on ourselves, by practicing poverty.  He also thought that we should engage in"bedtime meditations": as we lie in bed waiting for sleep to come, we should think about how much we would miss our spouse, our home, our job, and the other things we value if we suddenly lost them.
        Practicing poverty and meditating in this fashion are not, to be sure, as dramatic as living through a power outage.  They are nevertheless an effective way to convince ourselves to embrace whatever life we find ourselves living.

Comments (2)

Guest's picture


Tuesday, April 21, 2009 -- 5:00 PM

I strongly agree with the statment "we should thin

I strongly agree with the statment "we should think about how much we would miss our spouse, our home, our job, and the other things we value if we suddenly lost them."
This is a key part of how the human mind and its psychology operates- Fear of loss is very powerful.

Guest's picture


Wednesday, April 22, 2009 -- 5:00 PM

thank you for your insight. I never thought of it

thank you for your insight. I never thought of it before but I guess I am a practicing stoic. I think it would be best if we all took a moment to truly appreciate what we have and what we could lose at a moments notice. thank you for the inspiration.