The bike rental shop was packed with jostling touroids eager to get their rides and hit the Stanley Park seawall. It was a bright Saturday morning in August. One man just would not wait his turn. He was belligerent, and he hounded the harried clerks. He was a man in his Fifties, spoke with a Southern-States drawl, was maybe a lawyer of some sort (personal injury)? He oozed entitlement. He lobbed barbed, belittling remarks at other customers in the store — especially the young people and the women.
That’s when my brother-in-law stepped in.
Ian’s a big dude: played college hockey and semi-entertained a pro career (the L.A. Kings scouted him). But his power he keeps in quiet reserve. I’ve never even heard him raise his voice. He’s like a nuclear deterrent. He stepped in front of this gentleman and simply said: “Back off.” The gentleman did. Ian said, “Hey, man: we’re all on vacation, here.” It was the kind of movie moment where a bully gets put in his place, a sense of perspective is restored, and the whole room erupts in applause.
Then my brother-in-law turned to me and said — so softly only I could hear:
“There’s a guy who has never been punched in the face.”
Yeah, I thought. Wait, what? Was he suggesting that if this man had taken a few haymakers back in his youth, it might have pre-empted the cowardly arrogance we’d just seen on display? Why?
The bike-shop incident sprang to mind recently as I listened to a radio interview with Massimo Pigliucci, a philosophy professor and an expert on the Stoics more on him in a moment).
Turns out, Seneca was exactly on the same page as my brother-in-law. Listen to what he wrote to his friend Lucilius:
For our powers can never inspire in us implicit faith in ourselves except when many difficulties have confronted us on this side and on that. It is only in this way that the true spirit can be tested… No prizefighter can go with high spirits into the strife if he has never been beaten black and blue; the only contestant who can confidently enter the lists is the man who has seen his own blood, who has felt his teeth rattle beneath his opponent’s fist, who has been tripped and felt the full force of his adversary’s charge, who has been downed in body but not in spirit.
Bike Shop Guy had never been downed in body, so his spirit was weak. His arrogance was driven by fear. This made him seem, in that instant, somewhat less of a knob. It made me pity him more and despise him less.
But then I thought, Wait a sec: have I ever been punched in the face? Not seriously. Not like a boxer or a hockey player or even a mugging victim. Because it has never happened to me I too probably fear it more than I should, and move through the world differently.
Seneca was big on “facing the thing you fear the most.” When you do that, and it turns out not to be as bad as you imagined, you kind of de-fang it. And it no longer has power to shape your days going forward. You kind of wear your mastery over it, but invisibly.
I’m starting to think this would make a great Big Day. Not courting a punch in the face, exactly, but identifying a few longstanding fears and just confronting them.
Do the thing that scares you most and discover you can handle it. Now that’s empowering.
By the way, professor Pigliucci took on an intriguing personal challenge himself not long ago. He committed to trying to “live like a Stoic” for a full year.
Check out his blog “How to be a Stoic”