Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Letters from a Stoic 11 - On the Blush of Modesty

On the Blush of Modesty

Seneca mentions several physical reactions people may have in certain situations; such as when they are speaking publicly.  These reactions may range from sweating to stammering to blushing.  He contends, that no matter what a person may try, they can never overcome these types of physical reactions.

The steadiest speaker, when before the public, often breaks into a perspiration, as if he had wearied or over-heated himself; some tremble in the knees when they rise to speak; I know of some whose teeth chatter, whose tongues falter, whose lips quiver. Training and experience can never shake off this habit; nature exerts her own power and through such a weakness makes her presence known even to the strongest.  I know that the blush, too, is a habit of this sort, spreading suddenly over the faces of the most dignified men. It is, indeed more prevalent in youth, because of the warmer blood and the sensitive countenance; nevertheless, both seasoned men and aged men are affected by it.

He later remarks that little can be done to remove these habits.

Wisdom can never remove this habit; for if she could rub out all our faults, she would be mistress of the universe. Whatever is assigned to us by the terms of our birth and the blend in our constitutions, will stick with us, no matter how hard or how long the soul may have tried to master itself. And we cannot forbid these feelings any more than we can summon them.

In the spirit of sharing and transparency, I too fall under this category of which Seneca speaks.  In today's terms, we would call it social anxiety.  During high school, I usually never got nervous in public speaking forums or in social situations, such as parties or small group meetings, even with strangers.  But sometime in college, social anxiety began to get the best of me.  One of the earliest times I recall breaking into a sweat, was during a public speaking class I was taking.  I thought it was rare and a one-off.  But as I was presented with more opportunities to speak in public, I would feel my face get flush and I would break into a sweat.

On another occasion, I was teaching small class and I invited another teacher in the room to do a demo and I felt the heat of anxiety set in.  In this case, it was winter time, the classroom heater was on, and I was wearing a long-sleeve dress shirt and tie.  Once I broke a sweat, I got more anxious and it became incredibly uncomfortable.

Over the years, I've learned to deal with it.  Preparation is very important for me.  If I can prepare mentally and practically, then I will feel more confident and the chances of a sweating-attack diminish.  Also, if I know ahead of time, that I have a big presentation, then I will be sure I don't drink much liquid.  This lessens the chance of my brow sweat-spigot turning on!  And on the occasion that I do break into a sweat, I be sure to have something with me, with which I can fan myself.  If there are others near me, I will simply comment that I feel hot, and with fanning, the sweat, and heat pass and things return to normal.

I've since learned that there are some genetic factors to this.  Some of my siblings have mentioned to me that they too suffer from the same condition.  This lends support to Seneca's idea, that as hard as you try, Nature will simply win every time.  You can't fight Nature.

Wisdom will not assure us of a remedy, or give us help against it; it comes or goes unbidden, and is a law unto itself.

Seneca's final remark, in this letter, relates to the practice of having a moral guide (a person) in your mind all the time. This someone should be a person whom you respect and look to as a good example.

Cherish some man of high character, and keep him ever before your eyes, living as if he were watching you, and ordering all your actions as if he beheld them.
Choose a master whose life, conversation, and soul-expressing face have satisfied you; picture him always to yourself as your protector or your pattern. For we must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler.

Indeed, looking to others as an example helps a person a lot, in terms of being steady.  Christians often teach their children the concept of "what would Jesus do?" to guide them when parents and teachers are not around to correct them.  It would seem this is another Stoic idea that Christians have adopted.  Regardless, the idea is valid and useful.  The entire book 1 of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations an an exercise of looking to people who provide good examples.  Marcus was very fond of his mentors and often wrote of them so that they could be in his mind all the time.  We would all do well to think of examples of other people and carry them with us, in our minds.

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