Stoicism is a practical philosophy. Although of course it has a theoretical framework — otherwise it wouldn’t be a philosophy — the crucial part, what makes it different and appealing, is that that framework is meant to help actual people living their lives to the fullest possible extent. Hence my “what would a Stoic do?” occasional series.
But can Stoicism be helpful also to people who are forced by circumstances to live seriously challenged lives? The answer seems to be yes, at the least some of the time. This essay is about one such example, of a modern Stoic who has found that his adopted philosophy of life has made it possible for him to cope with a very debilitating condition.
The person in question is none other than Larry Becker, about whom I’ve written a good amount on this blog (you can find all the relevant posts here). I initially became aware of Larry because of his book, A New Stoicism, which then my friend Greg Lopez decided to spend several months going over in great detail with the New York City Stoics meetup group. The book is not easy to read without some background in philosophy, and the style was, shall we say, unusual. From the beginning, Larry refers to the Stoics as “us” and “we,” a choice that may be off-putting for some, but which I soon warmed up to. Here was someone who evidently took the idea of Stoicism as a personal philosophy very seriously.
But it soon turned out that I had no clue as to just how seriously! By chance I discovered that my friend and colleague Nick Pappas at the City College of New York, who is an ancient philosophy scholar (see this recent essay of his in the NYT), is a good friend and former colleague of Larry. So I asked Nick if he could “introduce” us via email.
An interesting correspondence ensued, which eventually led to the idea of actually paying a visit to Larry in his home in Roanoke, VA, where he has retired with his wife, life-long companion and collaborator Charlotte (they together curated two editions of the Encyclopedia of Ethics). The result was the interview that I serialized recently on this blog (part I, II, III and IV).
When I arrived in Roanoke I was fully prepared to see Larry in a wheelchair, since he had been suffering for decades from the aftermath of polio. Nick had told me about heroic feats performed by Larry to overcome his disability and keep at a flourishing teaching and scholarly career, which had of course already put his book and interest in Stoicism into a whole different perspective for me.
Recently, Larry made me aware of a video he did some time ago for Post-Polio Health International, of which he was President and Chair from 2006-2009. I intend to use the video as a real-life example of practical Stoicism under very hard conditions. Although the video is in the public domain, I have obtained Larry’s permission to write candidly about him in this forum.
Before you watch the video and read the commentary below, it may be good to have some more personal information about Larry (which, again, I asked him permission to share) in order to put things into perspective.
The context of the video was that of a presentation to an audience of medical people and polio survivors who would immediately understand three things about Larry’s disability (including from previous acquaintance with his writing for Post-Polio Health International over the years). One is that he had polio in his teenage years, prior to the vaccine, and spent a lengthy time in a rehabilitation hospital. A second is that his breathing is obviously compromised enough so that he uses a ventilator to sleep. And the third is that his breathing has gotten worse as he has aged.
In fact, Larry told me that he was 13 when he had polio in 1952. Initially he was quadriplegic in an iron lung. After two and a half years of rehabilitation hospital, he regained the use of his legs, but not his arms. He also cannot use his diaphragm, which means that he breathes with his neck muscles, and that when he goes to sleep, he stops breathing entirely until his CO2 goes up enough to wake him up. As he put it, “That’s inconvenient.” So he uses a small portable ventilator for sleeping, and for resting during the day. All of that recovery is gradually going away as he ages, and has now made it impossible for him to teach other than in a one-on-one situation.
You can imagine how grateful I was, after learning all this, that he graciously spent an afternoon with me for the interview.
Let me now go back to the video. You can watch it at your leisure, but I will highlight here some important points from a Stoic perspective, as well as summarize his underlying argument and advice to fellow polio survivors. As I hope you’ll see, that advice is actually quite universal, not limited to people affected by polio, or indeed by any disability.
Larry begins by explaining that he was initially able to leave his wheelchair and to walk up and down stairs to get to and from his teaching at Hollins College. But things began to get worse in the early 1980’s, and he started dreading the idea of going down the stairs, going to class, attending faculty meetings. His initial reaction was to say nothing to others and to simply avoid having to walk or climb stairs as much as possible. But he quickly got to the point where he had a hard time dealing even with the four steps necessary to go from his office to the open campus. He was spending idle time in his office, worrying about getting outside, and even about going home in the evening.
His initial analysis was that he was suffering from a phobia, perhaps accompanied by something like panic attacks. So he went to see a psychiatrist who specialized in rehabilitation. The psychiatrist himself was disable, he was totally blind, something that must have made it no cakewalk for him to go through medical school.
The psychiatrist’s office was in a nice old house, with five uneven steps from the parking lot, and four more to the front porch. No handrails. Not good.
After an initial explanation from Larry, the psychiatrist asked him what was bothering him right at that moment, to which Larry replied, with some heat, “I’m bothered by how I’m going to get out of your building.” The psychiatrist calmly picked up his phone, called his secretary, and checked with her whether they had a ramp running around the back of the building, down to the parking lot. She confirmed that they did.
“How do you feel now?” inquired the psychiatrist. “I feel fine about that.” The doctor then went through a series of potential practical solutions for the problem: can you change office? No. Can the University build you a ramp? Possibly. He explained that he took subways to go to medical school, and that as a blind man he was terrified of subway platforms. “It’s a reasonable fear,” he added, “and you’ll notice that I chose to practice in a city without subways.”
At that point Larry began to feel a bit foolish. The University did build a ramp for him, and he got a wheelchair with foot controls. That was a good lesson in practical Stoicism, without the theory.
Larry commented that that sort of things continued to happen to him throughout his life, and that moreover they happen to everyone he knows, disabled or not. It is reflecting on this truth that he put together the five points of his talk about developing a personal philosophy about life, with or without disabilities. Here they are:
- The importance of agency. It has been important for him to feel like an agent in the world, not a patient. This requires the accomplishment of three big tasks: i) To become and remain an agent in the first place. We begin our lives as “patients,” helpless infants (“entry level human beings”) who are entirely dependent on others. We slowly learn how to be agents, from scratch. We become adults, taking charge of our lives, claiming and earning our agency (all of which is perfectly compatible with the Stoic doctrine of ethical development). For Larry, the most devastating disabilities are precisely those that severely limit or entirely erase our agency. Yet he claims that even if polio paralyzes you completely, it by itself still doesn’t permanently rob you of your agency. But you may need to reclaim it, slowly and painfully, as he has done since he was hit by the disease in his youth. Indeed, he saw the whole question of dealing with his disability as coinciding with his need to reclaim his agency. After you have reclaimed agency, however, you are in the same position as everyone else: ii) You have to become good at being an agent. This, says Larry, requires lining up six elements: values, preferences, goals, deliberations, decisions and actions. If these are incoherent, incomplete or weak then you are paralyzed no matter what your physical condition is. You can also be paralyzed by indecision, because you are not committed to a particular course of action and wish to retain multiple possibilities open. Too many choices on the menu, or too many cars in the dealer’s lot aren’t a good thing. To complicate things, there is the fact that the world itself changes, requiring constant adjustments to our goals, decisions and actions. Which means: iii) We need to learn how to maintain agency under changing circumstances. Like airline pilots, we need to keep learning new skills, but unlike airline pilots, we don’t have the luxury of simulators. Life only happens once, and we learn “in the air,” not in a safe environment, and we usually also have passengers (i.e., people we care about) on board, too!
- Focus on abilities, not disabilities. Larry has learned to disregard his disability, or at the least to regard it as unimportant (what a Stoic would call a “dispreferred indifferent“). This requires four more tasks: i) Keep the focus incessantly on abilities. The emphasis should be on what we can do, not on what we cannot do — and of course this goes for every human being, including those who we normally don’t recognize as “disabled.” “I can’t do that.” “You can do it, this way.” ii) The Socratic task: know thyself. Know your physical and psychological abilities, which includes knowing their limits. Ignorance, or worse, self-deception, about one’s abilities is a very dangerous thing in life. iii) Keep an up-to-date, accurate account of what is possible for you. This will depend not just on your abilities, but also on the specific (and variable) physical and social environments in which you find yourself at different times. iv) Recognize when you have lost a good fit between your abilities and your activities. It is about developing what Larry calls an “internal alarm system,” which tells us when it’s time to stop suffering and begin (or resume) to take charge. Larry knows from experience that all of this is hard, that it takes practice and that, in his opinion, requires some perspective.
- Developing a life plan. Here Larry comments on the importance of taking a look at your entire life, making plans and arriving at decisions “all things considered,” as philosophers say. The idea isn’t the naive one of figuring out what one wants to do in life early on and then just implement the plan, Soviet-style. Rather, the suggestion is to reflect on what is important for us and on the best way to achieve it, but also to continuously revise “the plan,” according to our changing abilities and circumstances. Our dynamic plan should be coherent, ambitious, possible to achieve, revisable and — ideally — compatible with general rising levels of life satisfaction. In his particular case, Larry admits that he failed to keep things in perspective in the late ’80s, or he wouldn’t have denied the onset of the late effects of polio, instead he would have said to himself, “you know, maybe this fear of long staircases is not that unreasonable after all.”
- Internal harmony. This is about constantly attempting to harmonize the components of your (dynamic) life plan. We need to harmonize spiritual and rational experiences, our desires and our needs, our reason with our action. “Personally, I think to have a harmonious life is preferable to being an interesting subject for a biographer, a journalist, or a gossiper.”
- Brick walls. We need to recognize them when we hit them, and even better to see them coming before we hit them hard. This, says Larry, amounts to knowing when to quit: not a minute too soon, nor a minute too late. It means to keep learning about your abilities throughout life. If it looks like a brick wall, first make sure it really is one, then try to act accordingly. “If it is an illusion, then you can go through it; if it is not, then you need to work around it, or go in another direction entirely.” The problem, he adds, is that we seem to have trouble figuring out which brick walls are worth worrying about, or trying to tear down. The way Larry deals with it is by going back to the basics and first identify his fundamental life goals and commitments: to his wife of 46 years and to the goals of their life together, to his professional goals, to creating a truly physically and socially hospitable environment for everyone. Those are the cases when he is willing to stop only if there is an actual brick wall, and only if he hits it pretty hard. Ramps, however, don’t fall into that category, “doing without a wheel chair is not a basic life goal.”
It is hard for me to add something meaningful here. I am truly in awe of a decent human being who is a serious scholar, a committed Stoic, and who has clearly lived his philosophy under very challenging circumstances. I’ll try to remember that the next time I think I hit a brick wall that much more likely is just an illusion. As Epictetus put it: αηεχου και απεχου
(bear and forbear, Discourses, IV.8).