“Did I flinch? Oh, tell me I didn’t flinch!” On idolising stoicism

Did I flinch? Oh, tell me I didn’t flinch!” On idolising stoicism

The line in the title comes from Lark Rise To Candleford, one of my favourite books and a very rare insight into the collective psyche of the British nation at the time of Queen Victoria. Strength, endurance, stamina and stoicism were so prized that girls delivering their first baby would beg the midwife to reassure them that they had not flinched, that they had endured their pain and suffering in appropriately stoic fashion. Some of that came from the supposed Biblical decree that the daughters of Eve would bear their children with great suffering and we must endure it without complaint, but some goes beyond the austere Christianity of the time and has its roots much deeper in a cultural identity.

Mustn’t grumble” is a bit of a mantra in Britain. We’re good at the whole understatement and self deprecation; “Not bad” is often meant as high praise over here, much to the mystification of other English speaking nations. You’ll often see certain phrases in obituaries: someone passes away “after a long illness bravely borne” and the highest praise for someone fighting a life threatening illness is, “She never complains”. On social media, that melting pot of shifting cultural memes, complaining, moaning, whining, whingeing are considered so unacceptable that most of us put a bright, cheerful face on so that we avoid any accusations of being a bit of a moaner. People preface very valid statements with, “I know I shouldn’t grumble” or “I know plenty of people have it much harder than I do so I shouldn’t complain.”

I do wonder if it might be killing some of us, keeping in the anguish, not sharing how we truly feel.

Oh I know we don’t want to make a fuss. We don’t want to be thought weak or pathetic, but why? It’s not as if these days admitting you’re ill, unwell, tired, elderly, frail are going to get you left behind with rations for a day while the tribe marches resolutely onward, leaving you to either starve or be finished off by the cold or wolves. It doesn’t make much sense to me. No one wants to be a burden on others, yet as we get older, inevitably we cannot expect to retain the complete independence of youth and full health and we will come to rely on others to help us. It’s a cycle. We aid the frail and infirm and one day, we too will need the same aid. For some, the frailty comes sooner than for others, but I believe that we are being subtly indoctrinated by the prevailing philosophies espoused by government, into believing that all human worth is based on fiscal usefulness. The Nazis exterminated all those they believed to be “useless bread gobblers” and it’s that fear of being useless that I suspect is what drives the idolisation of stoicism over compassion.

It’s subtle most of the time. We all know folks who never seem to pull their weight, who constantly seem to scrounge and complain and demand attention and it’s unattractive to most of us. We don’t want to be seen like that. No one wants to be known as the one who won’t stand their round at the pub. Because I am no longer working full time, in paid employment, I often feel a sense of shame that I am not earning the kind of salary expected for someone of my education and experience. I fear that I have somehow wasted my education, have done nothing with it – SOLELY BECAUSE I CANNOT SHOW A FINANCIAL RETURN ON IT.

This is palpably ludicrous and shows how seductive that way of thinking is. You cannot measure in fiscal terms my contribution to the world. I believe that the world has been a better place, if only in a very minute way, for me having been in it. I believe that my books, my blog, have aided people in dark times and light. I don’t get any remuneration for blogging and that’s fine because I write it for what I can offer, not for what I can get. Call it a vocation if you like. I earn very little from my books; at one time a year or two back, I thought I might earn, if not a living, then a decent income from my books, but so much has changed and there are so many more authors out there, so many more books, and with a few exceptions, everyone is getting a smaller and smaller slice of the book market pie. I left one Facebook writer group because I got fed up of certain members boasting on an almost daily basis about how many books they were selling and how much money they were earning. Book sales, as part of personal worth, are irrelevant per se. I know some superb authors who sell few books, yet whose work is of enormous skill and is full of soul; the people who are succeeding are those for whom branding and self promotion are not at odds with their ethics and character.

I don’t have any answers. I don’t really have any suggestions. I don’t like complaining but you know what? It’s the squeaky wheel that gets oiled. I might try being more open about how distressing I find life at times and hope that people might cut me some slack and accept that actually, stoicism may not be the healthiest of philosophies to base your life upon.

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13 thoughts on ““Did I flinch? Oh, tell me I didn’t flinch!” On idolising stoicism

  1. At my time of life (68) I really don’t think we should keep anything inside anymore. Gone are the days of the ‘stiff upper lip’ and I think it is a good thing. Suppressing anything will eventually make you unhappy, or worse, ill.
    So let it all out, I say…
    Great post by the way…

  2. This is really ‘not bad’ at all… 😉 I think I will have to print this out to show my parents.
    And yes, you do need some soothing oil/balm for the squeeky bits 🙂 xxx

  3. Yes. Very worth saying. Particularly the idea that worth is seen as fiscal worth, and book sales are the measure of their quality. I have to admit that I am drawn to the stoic, not because I applaud the necessity of stoicism but because they are not the squeaky wheels and their suffering ( to me) deserves a double dose of empathy.

    Happened to find this yesterday. Seems appropriate to this discussion https://www.facebook.com/video.php?v=10152078668023908&set=vb.131929868907&type=2&theater

  4. I left all the Facebook writers groups (on which I didn’t participate much anyway – better things to do), because of that very same thing. Dreadful, awful.

    Whereas I agree with you about the worrying governmental trend towards the Nazis’ viewpoint, I have a different outlook on the ‘mustn’t grumble’ thing. I’ve got loads of things I could seriously whinge about but don’t, and it’s not because I don’t want to be seen as a whinger, or because of guilt, but because it would be bad for ME. I have certain health issues that make a few things difficult, but I am damned if I’m going to let them stop me doing what I want – I’ve got years in which to be old and incapacitated and even more years in which to be dead, so I want to do as much as I can NOW. Similarly, I’ve always pushed myself through emotional crap, too. To sum up, it’s nothing to do with what other people think, but how I want to feel about myself.

    Re the book sales thing – well, it’s always been that way, hasn’t it, even before the self-publishing explosion. The lowest common denominator stuff always sells the best. As I believe I have said before (maybe too many times!), more people watch I’m A Celebrity, Get me out of here than a BBC2 documentary about the Plantagenets. More viewers for the X Factor than a biopic of Lou Reed.

    Great post, as always 🙂

  5. I think that sharing your stuff is completely fine but the problems come when there is a subtext of “fix me”. Being heard can be a great balm to the soul…
    I so agree about the confusion of “worth” and “financial worth” and I have to lead myself by the hand through that one every so often…

  6. To complain is to open a window in my personal life that I long ago welded shut. The time for changing it passes many decades ago. It isn’t stoicism, it’s self-protection.

  7. This is why I often find Facebook unbearable. Sometimes I am in the depths of despair, wishing there was someone I could tell, and I know that even if I posted on FB I would 1) Feel embarrassed, awkward, and self-conscious as soon as the deed was done and 2) No one would comment, leading to 3) Self-loathing, even worse despair, terrible loneliness and abject misery. It is actually worse to reach out and get no response than never to reach out at all.

  8. Pingback: Crisis Revelations. Mining the Dregs of Resolve. | INVOLUTION: Science and God: Mavericks and Inspiration

  9. The history of Stoicism is interesting, and misunderstood today.

    You address what stoicism has come to mean in our time – indifference to pleasure or pain; impassiveness. We know plenty of ‘pipe down’ phrases from people who can’t witness distress because it reminds them of their own burried anxieties. The script is written in childhood – upsetting a caregiver can hold a threat – ranging from being disliked to being abondoned, so holding back becomes a survival mechanism. Like Sessah says, it’s self-protection. I guess we are, in our individual ways, all trying to find a balanced set of boundaries that works for us.

    You comment on Nazis exterminating people who were useless. Actually, it was the opposite: http://ww2history.com/experts/David_Cesarani/The_Nazi_hatred_of_the_Jews

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