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Stoic Practice at Christmas Dinner

The Stoics tell us to find opportunities to practice philosophy. On Christmas, I received a great opportunity. After my family and I sat at the dining room table for a great Christmas feast (thanks Mom!), the conversation somehow shifted into neighborhood gossip. People who live in the neighborhood are pretty close and like to talk to each other, especially when people go out to walk their dogs. Mom said that she gave out a few gifts to our neighbors because she really enjoys these small acts of thoughtfulness. The gifts were nothing big really; just a few treats for the pups.


As the conversation continued, I noticed my mom start to get disappointed. The disappointment stemmed from the fact that she did not receive any gifts for our dogs this year. I love my mom very much and I've learned countless things from her in our cherished interactions. At this very moment, I thought about suggesting to her that it's unhealthy to do actions and expecting something in return. After a cool minute, I decided that this suggestion would ultimately cause more harm than good, given that the family gathering would lose a lot of its spirit.


When I first reflected on my practice, I thought I made the wrong decision to keep silent. The main teaching that caused this second-guessing is where Marcus Aurelius reflects, "If a man is mistaken, instruct him kindly and show him his error. But if thou art not able, blame thyself, or blame not even thyself" (Meditations X:4). However, the more I thought about it, the more I concluded that my silence was key at that moment. Anything that I said at that time could have progressed into something rash and unintentional.


Epictetus tells us to, "Remain silent for the most part, or say only what is essential, and in a few words" (Enchiridion XXXIII:2). Massimo Pigliucci, in his book How to Be a Stoic, includes this passage from Epictetus in his section on spiritual exercises (219). I am glad that fortune placed me in a situation that tested one of my weaknesses. I have more to say about this, but I will go ahead and be quiet.

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