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Wednesday, December 29, 2004

My Dad Is A Stoic

My Dad runs a soup kitchen out of his church, which serves the poor in the lower income area of his home town. Recently he was telling me about all of the different people that come through there. Included are several good people who are simply poor or can't care for themselves, etc. But there are also many drug dealers, pimps, prostitutes, and so on.

They often tell him their problems and seek his advice, but he never actively tries to reform them, or tells them they need to straighten up, or tries to encourage them to get a job, or any of that. He just gives out some coffee and doughnuts each morning. But apparently, this is improving the lives of these people and their neighborhood more than one would think.

One older lady tells my Dad about how she has to prepare things for her passing because she's about to have a hip surgery, and at her age surgeries are harder to come out of. My Dad says, "Yeah, that's good that you're preparing for that. At your age that surgery could be it." Expecting words of encouragement, the lady is taken aback. But his calm and light attitude about the whole thing seems to shift her perspective abruptly and they are soon laughing.

Another lady is complaining about how her grown son always takes advantage of her, and how she has to do everything for him. My Dad says, "If you've been doing that all these years he's not ever going to change, and you're not willing to change, so what good does complaining about it do? Just accept it." She hasn't complained since, and more importantly, it has freed up her mind to focus on more important or productive things.

One man has recently had a heart attack, and according to his wife, had been sitting at home doing nothing, waiting to die and certain that all is hopeless. My Dad eventually gets a chance to speak with him and the man moans, "I'll probably get hit with another attack. I could go at any time - it's all pointless." My nods and says, "Yep, you really could go at any time. I felt the same way after my heart attack. But you know, eventually all that sitting around got old. I figured, well dying or not, I've gotta get up and go do something because this is just boring." A few days later the man came into the church and looked brighter, "Well I'm up and around." he told my Dad, "You were right, that sitting around got really boring."

My Dad started out serving everyone in there, cutting cakes and pouring coffee. One man was deeply depressed, had attempted suicide in the past, and said that he felt he had no reason to live. My Dad listened calmly while he worked, only appearing to be offering half his attention. He said, "uh-huh... Say, could you hand me that cup over there?" The man handed him the cup and continued his depressed rant. My Dad, with his hands full, again interrupted, "Could you pour this for those guys over there while I get this food?" Before long, the man was working the room. At the end of the day, my Dad asked if he could help some more. Before long, the man seemed to have something to live for and enjoyed helping the others. Now he is an important part of the soup kitchen and the church and seems much happier.

That's happened with many of the folks that have come in. Where my Dad used to serve everyone, he doesn't do any of the serving anymore. Now the homeless and poor are pouring drinks and serving each other. As a result they are also getting to know one another. Where lone figures once walked up and down the streets of that part of town fearing one another, they now wave. It appears the neighborhood is becoming a friendlier place than it had been. And, with simple listening and the mere example of the right attitude, many of these people are now working to improve their lives.

My Dad has never read much philosophy and didn't know what Stoicism is, but I said to him, "You know, you're a Stoic." I told him that stoics were careful to divide that which they cannot control from that which they can. They knew it was pointless to fret about things they can't control and instead found ways to deal with those things, accept them, and move on.

My Dad knows that these people don't want someone trying to lecture them so he mainly just listens and reacts. Without knowing it, he has managed to spread a little stoic philosophy in one of the last places one would expect to find it, and the results seem quite positive.

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