Today’s Daily Stoic writing prompt: Am I displaying my best qualities?
The associated Daily Stoic entry elaborates a bit on this–how to avoid bemoaning circumstances you cannot control and focusing on what you can choose, such as choosing to be kind, or truthful, or gracious. So I think a better word would be “demonstrating.” “Display”, I think, has an unfortunate “look at me” kind of connotation. So let’s go with that. The point is that these qualities are not innate–you are, for the most part, not born with them (although innate things certainly can influence them). They are choices.
Right now, I am hugely concentrating on the present. I’ve never been the kind of person who has a long-term plan for my life; instead, I try to acquire skills and to be informed–and ready to pivot when I need to, when circumstances change. However, I’m a huge short-term planner–that’s probably my project management training. I’ve always known, up to a year in advance, some of my plans. In a not-pandemic world, I would have mapped out a plan for events, concerts, vacation, and the like, and would be “executing” on that plan now. These days, I might have a plan for a couple of weeks out–tops. And I am choosing to find happiness in what I do have, rather than what I cannot have–while acknowledging that the ache for what I once had and have lost (for now at least)–not to mention my ache for the losses the world is enduring (particularly in the US)–is real, and will not go away though any kind of positive thinking. Acknowledging that that pain exists, and should be expressed, makes it easier to live with on a daily basis. It also fills me with empathy, and makes it that much more important to strive to be kind and gracious and to work for justice.
Evening: I can see in today’s topic the kernel of truth in the popular misconception of Stoicism as a philosophy whose main message is “suck it up, buttercup.” “Easy to say for a rich white guy,” some would say. What the message here actually is is different: While it’s in a way understandable that a person raised in or subjected to horrible circumstances would become a horrible person, it’s not inevitable. In fact, the refusal to become a horrible person, but to reach out to help others in such circumstances is an affirmation of humanity. I’m reminded of Viktor Frankl’s account of those who were able to survive the Nazi death camps, noting that many of those who did were those who thought of others instead of turning inwards. I’m reminded of Dmitri Shostakovich writing to Lavrenti Beria (!!!) to intercede when his friend Mieczyslaw Weinberg was sent to the gulag in the midst of the persecution of the Jews at the end of Stalin’s regime. I’m reminded of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. I am reminded of a friend of mine, raised in a horrifically abusive home, who is as an adult one of the most compassionate and gracious, yet at the same time incredibly tenacious (when it comes to seeking justice) people I know. If those people can rise above when their own mere existence is under constant threat, what the hell is stopping me? Or you?
Sometimes the rabbit holes are serious. Sometimes they are silly. Struck by Igor Levit’s interpretation of Schumann’s Ghost Variations, I ordered the CD (Life) on which the piece appears. Unlike more traditional classical music offerings, this one is a more personal collection, inspired by the death of one of Levit’s closest friends. I’ve only gone through a couple of the pieces (including the Variations, again–oh, that 5th variation!), but based on just reading the liner notes, I had to find out more about Levit himself. Turns out he was the pianist I had heard of earlier in the year who was giving a nightly house concert during lockdown from Germany. I’m hoping I will be able to track down the recordings of some of these, because they are intriguing–and he is intriguing. Earlier this year, before the lockdown, he performed the entirety–2 1/2 hours of it–of Shostakovich’s op. 87 Preludes and Fugues. He’s a younger guy, 33 years old, and a pretty serious left-leaning activist, describing himself as a mensch, in the Yiddish sense of that term. The world needs more mensches.
And now, the sillier rabbit hole. This image came across on my feed, with the caption “Bublik Russian bagels sale. Photo by Dean Conger, Moscow, USSR, 1966.”
I knew someone else, in a way, selling bublitschki in 1966 in Moscow–and that would be Shostakovich, in his second Cello Concerto (mentioned yesterday–what’s the universe trying to tell me here?). He incorporates a folk tune into the second movement of that work that is a rather unforgettable earworm (and it subsequently invades the third movement).
Here’s a rendition of that folk tune by Gogol Bordello. (Incidentally, Gogol was Shostakovich’s favourite author. Boogety boogety.)