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From Vol. 4, Issue 12, December 2022

Learning to enjoy the festival of life

Feature || Brittany Polat

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As an introvert, I strongly dislike noisy crowds and crowded parties, and I tend to avoid them if possible. But as a mother to three energetic children, I am obliged to be right in the middle of many noisy crowds (soccer games! graduation ceremonies!) and crowded parties (birthday bashes! holiday celebrations!). Even a normal day at home is a party, full of animated discussions, rowdy activity, and various sorts of highjinks and jollity.

Meditating on Epictetus’ advice

While of course I love being with my children, I don’t always enjoy taking them to all those places and activities that extroverts enjoy. That’s when I meditate on Epictetus’ advice. Speaking to a student who, like me, prefers quiet study to raucous crowds, Epictetus reminds us that noise is simply a dispreferred indifferent, an external condition that has no bearing on our ability to live a good life.

Student: Must I spend my life, then, in the midst of all this commotion?

Epictetus: What do you mean by commotion? Being among crowds of people? And what hardship is there in that? Imagine that you’re at Olympia; think of it as a festival. There, too, one man shouts one thing, and another man another, and one man does this and another does that, and one man knocks up against another, and there is a crowd of people at the baths. And yet who among us fails to take pleasure in the festival, and who isn’t sorry to leave? - Epictetus, Discourses 4.4, 24.

As Epictetus points out, we have a choice in how we respond to a crowd. We could allow ourselves to be bothered and upset by all the commotion – his student, for example, continues to protest, “But they deafen me with their shouting!” Or we could choose to see it as an interesting and entertaining spectacle. Through a shift in our mindset, we can turn it into an opportunity for learning about other people and enjoying our human experience. Instead of thinking about the unpleasant aspect of a crowd, we can focus on its underlying humanity:

If things turn out in such a way that you find yourself living alone, or with few companions, call that peace and quiet, and make use of those circumstances as you ought; converse with yourself, work on your impressions…But if you get caught in a crowd, call it the games, call it a public gathering, call it a festival, and join in the festival with everyone else. For what sight could be more pleasant to someone who loves his fellow human beings than a crowd of people? Epictetus, Discourses 4.4, 26.

Our ability to make the best of any situation

The emphasis here, as always, is on our ability to make the best of our current situation. If you like staying at home and you get to stay home, that’s great – make good use of your time. But if you like staying at home and you’re required to be out in a crowd instead, you can still find a way to enjoy it. Or, as we all saw during the pandemic, if you like being out and about but you’re forced to stay home, make the best of that situation, too.

Even if we don’t prefer sitting in a stranger’s backyard chit-chatting about trivialities, we can always make proper use of our impressions. No circumstances should prevent me from exercising my desire and aversion in accordance with nature. If I believe this is the right thing for me to do on behalf of my family, then I should do it with good grace and a smiling face. To do otherwise would not be virtuous.

Making peace with lack of peace

Over the years, I have gradually made peace with my lack of peace. While I may never love all those boisterous activities, I have learned to focus on their benefits. I try to see these festivities as opportunities to teach my kids virtues like moderation (only one piece of cake), benevolence (be happy, not jealous, when others receive gifts), and good sportsmanship (win or lose graciously).

And perhaps most of all, these festivities allow me to grow as a person. I’m forced to get outside my comfort zone, do things I would normally never do, and learn to enjoy new people, places, and activities. I’ve gotten to know and appreciate some wonderful friends. And I’ve realized that even though the festival may be noisy, it can still be beautiful, fascinating, and just the right place for living a good life.

Brittany Polat, author of Tranquility Parenting: A Guide to Staying Calm, Mindful, and Engaged, holds a Ph.D. in applied linguistics but researches and writes about Stoic psychology and philosophy. Brittany's latest project is Living in Agreement, where she applies her lifelong interest in human nature to the discourse and practice of inner excellence.