Making room for the clarity of simplicity

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When opening the philosopher’s backpack in January, it should really come as no surprise that we find it empty.

Still, addressing negative space is shocking no matter how much preparation for the simplification process we think we have done.

By its nature, January is a purging month. The consequences of the excess of the holiday season, the renewal of resolutions, the de-cluttering — these are innate concepts to the idea of a fresh start to the New Year.

Regardless, negative space can be daunting. It can appear lonely and it can be interpreted as a hopeless vacuum.

With a little encouragement from the Stoics, however, we might find the absence of abundance part of the necessary re-focusing process.

Philosophy, like the visual arts, recognizes the power of negative space. It is more than a preparation for what is to come, more than a void waiting to be filled. It is a perspective change that demands we turn our ideas inside out; it forces us to face uncomfortable creativity, often with a peculiar set of limited resources.

The Stoic philosophy of Epictetus, the former slave turned eminent philosopher, is clear in its charge: in order to achieve peace (contentment), we must differentiate between what is in our control and what isn’t. Like Socrates, Epictetus never wrote anything down, but in the Enchiridion, a work amalgamated from the notes of his lectures, we hear his wisdom telling us we are only in control of our actions.

We must accept that there is only so much of our daily lives that we can dictate, only so much that we can prevent. We are delusional if we think we can determine the direction of our life, our own wealth and our own worldly goals.

“This is of course the ancient ideal of amor fati, of learning to desire one’s fate or destiny,” points out Gordon Marino, Ph.D., a St. Olaf College professor of philosophy and author.

Without context in our contemporary world this would be good reason to panic: An empty backpack, a voyage without provisions, an acceptance of our situation. No. No, this will never do.

For most contemporary minds, this emotional reduction is terrifying. However, if we can pause, meditate on the negative space and reflect, as January encourages us to do, we may find that this isn’t what bleakness looks like, but rather what gratitude materializes into when it is simplified.

A filled backpack can give us a false sense of preparedness. If we anticipated a drought but find ourselves in a flood, our supplies are obsolete. If we braced ourselves for a long walk but find we need to swim, our gear is no longer helpful. In fact, it is a heavy excess to have to carry around with us.

When we face these catastrophic packing job moments, Epictetus reminds us in the Enchiridion to “(e)xercise, therefore, what is in your control.”

And what, we might ask bitterly as we heave the heavy backpack, is that? Stoicism answers that it is our reaction to these situations, our attitude during these situations and our ability to respond with integrity while addressing these situations.

Epictetus and the Stoics, according to Marino, “believed that everyone was a citizen of the world, part of the family of humankind.”

This is both discomforting and reassuring. Here again we find that pesky philosophical connectedness messing up our neat and tidy wants: We face the reverse of our individualism.

This philosophy is beautifully present in the child’s book by Jon Muth, a re-telling of Tolstoy’s “The Three Questions,” a book of the same title. In his rendition, Muth weaves a brilliant narrative about a little boy looking for the answers to three very important questions:

When is the best time to do things?

Who is the most important one?

What is the right thing to do?

Through a series of adventures, the little boy’s questions are answered. A wise turtle responds, “There is only one important time, and that time is now. The most important one is always the one you are with. And the most important thing is to do good for the one who is standing at your side. For these, my dear boy, are the answers to what is most important in this world.”

Suddenly, our complicated, isolated intentions are not the focus; they are instead a muted and complementary color against the backdrop of negative space, a garish contrast to the clarity of simplicity.

Now, our empty backpack makes sense. Now there is room for January’s peace.

Jennifer Lemma is a philosophy instructor at Walla Walla Community College. She can be reached at jennifer.baynelemma@wwcc.edu .

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