A Stoic Tightrope: Generosity, Curiosity and Consistency

James Ryan Leonard
Dec 26, 2018 · 6 min read

Living a stoic life is like walking a tightrope.

It is a life that demands strength and balance and serenity; a life with a center of gravity that keeps you stable and moving forward even amid distractions and challenges that would pull you down.

The tightrope walker must, above all else, keep their center of mass directly above the rope. With every step, the muscles and ligaments in their feet make fractional, subconscious adjustments in order to maintain that center.

The long pole the tightrope walker holds bends downward at each end, moving the center of gravity deeper and creating a more solid foundation. We all need help making our center of gravity stronger. We need trusting relationships, and we need the strength of our convictions, and we need responsibilities that demand our best effort.

The tightrope walker creates tension in the rope with every step. Vibrations flow to the end of the rope and back, threatening to undermine their stability.

Everything we do in our lives creates vibrations in the world. If we are acting in tune with those vibrations — that is, not exerting undue influence or submitting to emotional toxins like guilt, blame or mistrust — we can keep moving steadily forward.

This kind of harmony with the world is within our grasp, but it’s not enough to just do the right thing or be a nice person. It requires living always with positive intent — maintaining a mindset of generosity and curiosity until it becomes so embedded that no person or situation can shake you out of it.

Kindness is invincible, provided it’s sincere — not ironic or an act. What can even the most vicious person do if you keep treating them with kindness and gently set him straight — if you get the chance — correcting him cheerfully at the exact moment that he’s trying to do you harm: “No, no, my friend. That isn’t what we’re here for. It isn’t me who’s harmed by that. It’s you.” And show him, gently and without pointing fingers, that it’s so. That bees don’t behave like this — or any other animals with a sense of community. Don’t do it sardonically or meanly, but affectionately — with no hatred in your heart. And not ex cathedra or to impress third parties, but speaking directly. Even if there are other people around.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 11.18

We are each on our own tightrope. We move through life at the pace we’re comfortable with — some too fast and reckless, and some too slow and wavering. If we stand still, we’ll lose our balance and fall. If we get careless and veer too far left or right of center, we’ll lose our balance and fall.

Usually we keep our balance through reflex — our mind senses the lean before we do, and it makes infinitesimal adjustments in our muscles to keep us on the rope. Our instincts save us, more often than not. This is true at work, in our relationships, and everywhere in life.

That’s because our instincts are, by and large, to be a good person and to do the right thing. Humans have evolved to seek community for the safety and security it provides.

However, we also have deeply embedded survival instincts that cause unnecessary anxiety when they appear in today’s society. We overreact to perceived threats, and we deviate from what we know to be right, and we begin to flail as we feel ourselves falling off the tightrope.

The answer to this is to resist that fear and anxiety, and to instead default to generosity and curiosity:

In every interaction, be generous: “How can I help?”

In every interaction, be curious: “What can I learn?”

The result of this mindset is the solace that comes with knowing that you are living a good life, and the trust and kindness you subsequently receive from others. Living with positive intent improves your life. Doing good brings its own rewards.

If we were able to examine the mind of a good man, what a beautiful sight we should see: how pure, how astonishing in its noble calm — bright with justice and strength, with moderation and wisdom. In addition to these, thrift and moderation and endurance, kindness and affability, even humanity — a quality, hard as this is to believe, rarely encountered in humans — would add their own brilliance.

Seneca, Epistles 115.3

As on a tightrope, we can achieve in life a mastery over our emotions, and finding our balance thus becomes easier. Once we become comfortable with our balance in life, we can begin to accelerate. (As the stoics are quick to remind us, we could die tomorrow, so we should progress as far as we can in the time we have.)

Of course, the only way to truly grow is to push yourself beyond what is comfortable. This means walking faster along your tightrope, even if you don’t feel ready to. You will occasionally move too quickly, and you will lose your balance.

This fleeting moment — when you realize that you’ve allowed yourself to lean too far, or that you’ve moved too fast, and you begin to fall — can be sickening, or it can be exhilarating. When the moment arrives, you have two options if you want to stay upright and keep momentum.

You can return to your center, and to the things you know you can trust; you hunker down and weather the storm and emerge stronger and more solid, ready to take that next step.

Or, you can trust in yourself and your abilities, and keep accelerating; you overcome the obstacle in their path, and you emerge stronger and more solid, ready to take that next step.

(Wisdom, it follows, is in recognizing when it’s time to slow down and when it’s time to speed up.)

The virtuous tightrope walker is steady, in every way. You move forward at a steady pace, and your center is steady enough to withstand both your own failings — those little missteps that can become catastrophes, but only if you let them — and the unexpected things you cannot control, like the wind.

Whatever happens to you, remember to turn to yourself and ask what power you have for dealing with it. If you see a good-looking boy or woman, you’ll find that the power for such things is self-control; if hard labor is at hand, you will find endurance; if abusive language, you will find patience. And if you make this a habit, the appearances of things will not carry you away with them.

Epictetus, Enchiridion 10

That the wind will buffet you is in no doubt. The question is only how stable you can make your foundation — your center of gravity in life — so that you’re ready to withstand the wind when it comes.

Your fitness matters, both physically and emotionally. Deficiencies in either can sabotage you.

Your posture and your composure matter. You must carry yourself and comport yourself in the right way.

Your center of gravity matters. It must be deep; you must feel it in your bones. You must embrace it and cultivate it. And when feel yourself leaning, you must return to your center without delay.

Strengthen your center of gravity through the daily practice of generosity and curiosity — through the emotional labor of positive intent. Place one foot, and then another, and then another, and never stop moving forward. When the wind comes, you will be ready for it.

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James Leonard is a purveyor of positive intent, the creator of STOIC @ WORK, and the author of Tokens (a daily blog of rigorous generosity and unwavering curiosity).

A Philosopher’s Stone

A place for a discussion of the ideas all around us in…

Thanks to Brenden Weber

James Ryan Leonard

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Author and leadership coach. Public relations professional. Purveyor of positive intent.

A Philosopher’s Stone

A place for a discussion of the ideas all around us in society, culture, philosophy, and more.

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