Saturday, March 24, 2018


Firefox has this functionality called Pocket, which (apparently randomly) suggests articles for you. When I fired up my long-neglected laptop this morning and launched the browser, it was ready with a link to an article called "Stop Giving Toxic People Your Time." Thinking (incorrectly) it was actually something I'd read before, I clicked over to it. I realized my error the moment I saw the datestamp, but what the heck, I had time.

I didn't make it far. Early in the piece the author notes:

We say that others make us feel that way. But that’s false. You decide how you feel about the things that happen in your life.

Events can’t harm us. Our perception of an event harms us. That’s one of the most important ideas of Stoic philosophy.

In other words, you decide what meaning you give to the things that happen in your life. If your friend tells lies about you behind your back, and you get upset, that’s because you decided to get upset.
I could hear the alarm bells. Not because I essentially disagree with what the author was saying. But because of how they were saying it.

I'm a firm believer in taking responsibility for one's feelings and emotions. And that means understanding that other people do not genuinely control them. And in that sense, the idea that other do not make us feel certain ways is entirely correct. If a friend tells someone else a damaging falsehood about me, my reaction to that is not their doing. It's mine, and I should own it, if for no other reason that avoiding self-talk that posits myself as being at the mercy of others helps me to feel more in control and able to manage my life. But I also realize that my perception of, and reaction to events is not a simple matter of conscious choice in the moment.

It's like seeing a dark shape looming up in front of you when you weren't expecting it. The perception of possible danger and the fight or flight response to it is a part of us, not the coat that we'd forgotten that we'd hung on the coat track last night. And because those things are part of us, we can control them. But just in the same way that we learned some or all of our response to that situation, and that learning took time, we have to learn different responses, and that learning also takes time. It may also never be 100% effective. A person can practice their powers of perception and observation all they want, but if they're color-blind, no amount of practice will change that. This is where an understanding of the concepts of a Fixed Mindset and a Growth Mindset are very useful. In the world of corporate buzzwords, they've become the new Goofus and Gallant, but in reality, both are useful - the trick is knowing which one applies in any given circumstance. And that's something that business types and self-help gurus alike can miss in their desire to boil things down to simple and understandable bites.

The article goes on to say:
The great Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, said this in his Manual For Living:

“Avoid fraternizing with people who don’t share your values. Prolonged association with those with false ideas can only tarnish your thinking.”

It’s something I truly live by. I’ve seen others destroy people’s lives too often to take this idea carelessly.

And I bet that you’ve had your share of, for lack of a better term, “toxic” people in your life.
And that's when I decided that I'd had enough.

Now, I'm not familiar with Epictetus - this was the first I'd heard of him. And so I don't really know what his philosophy is like. So I'm not going to pass judgement on it. I will take exception however, to the way it's been deployed here. I suspect that the apparent equivalence of "people who don't share your values" and "those with false ideas" is ephemeral in that a continued and deeper reading of Epictetus' Manual For Living would provide some way of understanding which ideas are false and which are not. But in the context of "Stop Giving Toxic People Your Time," a difference in values (and the author goes on to say "I think that less than 1% of the population has values.") becomes how one determines if someone else is toxic, and a danger.

But for me, if you're going to take those twenty-one words as something to live by, you have to understand that this: "Prolonged association with you and your false ideas can only tarnish their thinking," is just as likely to be true. In other words, if a lack of shared values equals toxicity, then that toxicity flows both ways.

Not trusting my immediate emotional response to be an accurate one, I read a little farther, but didn't see a nod to what I considered an important point - that our understanding of the world is subjective.

I'll freely admit to not having values. After all, I said it myself, people don't have values or principles, they have interests. The appearance of values is little more than understanding, articulating and pursuing our interests in ways that don't saddle others with the costs, if they haven't expressed a willingness to bear them. But it's worth bearing in mind that this isn't an objective statement. The reality of pursuing one's on interests without shifting the costs is not something that can be scientifically determined. It all depends on how we understand the world around us.

And that understanding of the world around us is not itself objective. I currently live in the suburbs of Seattle, but I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. And "Seattle cold" and "Chicago cold" are not the same. So when the people I know who grew up here describe the weather as "cold," I tend to chuckle. But I also realize that this isn't a defect on their part; they don't have the same lived experience I do. Just as I have it on pretty good authority that "Chicago cold" and "Anchorage cold" are not the same. I have no idea how I would deal with "Anchorage cold." But seeing how people from Anchorage deal with "Seattle cold," I suspect that I'd be in for a kicking if I tried it unprepared.

My personal understanding of myself as a person without values has come from a desire to avoid making value judgements about how others live their lives. Which I get is a problem for some people. But that's their problem, and not mine. My interests tell me that I'm better off understanding things in terms of adaptive/maladaptive, legal/illegal or safe/risky than good/bad or value-driven/valueless. Because I like people, and defining them as "toxic" while avoiding the label for myself, flies in the face of that.

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