Thelma Kelly sits patiently waiting for Holy Communion to begin at her Parish Church in Stockton on Tees. Suddenly her thoughts are interrupted as two church wardens walk assertively past her, towards the Vicar. They whisper a message in his ear and the Vicar nods. He turns towards his congregation to inform them that World War 2 has begun and, as the air raid sirens sound, he asks his congregation to leave the church in an orderly fashion and evacuate towards the air-raid shelters. It is 11am on Sunday 3rd September 1939.
This is a memory I prised from my mum. Even though she was only 13 years old at the time, it was crystal clear in her memory. I asked her how she felt? What was her family’s reaction? She said they were resigned to the news; it was something they personally had no control over and that they would draw comfort from each other. My mum said her father had survived the trenches in the last war (despite being wounded three times) and they would get through this one too. This was my first understanding of stoicism.
Bettina sits on top of a slide in a playground on holiday in Weymouth, she is 9 years old. I see her looking at other children of a similar age and she looks for their ‘unspoken code’ and clues. Bettina knows she is ‘different’ to them and I see the determination in her eyes, and her body language, to fit in and do the things they are doing. I feel both moved and proud of Bettina. Her struggle to understand and make sense of her world (a daily challenge, even now) is not going to stop her enjoying her life and getting to where she feels she needs to be. Bettina is stoic and it is one of the many attributes I admire and respect.
For Thelma and Bettina being stoic was/is:
- Accepting a situation, you have no control over – smile in the face of adversity
- Thinking before you speak and emotionally react.
- Not to wish for what you do not have, cheerfully making the most of the things that do come your way.
- You cannot put things back to the way they were – so you look forward
- “What really frightens and dismays us is not external events themselves, but the way in which we think about them” Thelma knew that Sunday as they walked calmly to the shelters, that things would change, but no matter what they would make the best of the situation(s) together as a family.
A definition of Stoicism?
Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy which was founded by Zeno of Citium, in Athens, in the early 3rd century BC. Stoicism is a philosophy of personal ethics informed by its system of logic and its views on the natural world. According to its teachings, as social beings, the path to eudaimonia for humans is found in accepting the moment as it presents itself, by not allowing oneself to be controlled by the desire for pleasure or fear of pain, by using one’s mind to understand the world and to do one’s part in nature’s plan, and by working together and treating others fairly and justly.
My 5 lessons from their stoicism
- I will stay grounded and always be open to new knowledge. I know that whatever opportunity comes my way it will come with new learning. (It is a given that I will always have so much to learn).
- Focus on being fair and having a sense of fair play. I will endeavour to avoid emotional conflict. I will avoid wasteful pursuits such as holding grudges and seeking revenge when I think I may have been wronged. I will do this by my living my life well.
- Face each obstacle with patience and see it as an opportunity for growth
- Facing fear with courage like Bettina: https://leadershipintheraw.org/2018/12/10/being-bettinas-dad-what-is-courage-without-fear/
- To focus only on what I can control (my emotions, words and actions) and I will let go of the rest
“A Stoic is someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into transformation, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking.”
― Taleb Nassim Nicholas
During a long journey to work I listened to an audio ‘The Chimp Paradox the Mind Management programme; by Professor Steve Peters. Prof Steve tells his listeners he has three life truths:
- Life is unfair
- The goal posts move
- There are no guarantees
I am not sure that Professor Steve Peters is specifically referring to stoicism, however I think if I adopt these life truths, I can plan for setbacks, disappointments, perceived failures with stoicism and patience like Thelma did and Bettina does every day of her life.
Be a stoic today and tomorrow
Floods will rob us of one thing, fire of another. These are conditions of our existence which we cannot change. What we can do is adopt a noble spirit, such a spirit as befits a good person, so that we may bear up bravely under all that fortune sends us and bring our wills into tune with nature’s.
– Seneca, Letters from a Stoic
Footnote: A year after the war concluded Thelma had the first white wedding in Stockton on Tees parish church (her mum had saved their clothing rations so her family could make this happen).
(Thelma Kelly circa 1940s)
Thelma survived the first five years of Bettina’s life admiring her spirit and endurance (stoicism) as ‘B’ came to terms with her severe autism.
Steve Raw www.leadershipintheraw.org