a voluntary defect of the mind

“Yet it would be your duty to bear it, if you could not avoid it: it is weak and silly to say you cannot bear what it is your fate to be required to bear. … Would you not be happier if you tried to forget her severity, together with the passionate emotions it excited? Life appears to me too short to be spent in nursing animosity or registering wrongs. We are, and must be, one and all, burdened with faults in this world…”

– Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

For what is, after all, the good life save that
Conducted thoughtfully, and what is passion
If not the holiest of powers, sustaining
Only if mastered.

– Timothy Steele, “Sapphics Against Anger

Yesterday, I attended a lecture on Stoicism by Dr. Anida Hasic at the Ateneo, the last of her series of lectures on Hellenistic and Roman philosophy. Yesterday, she mostly talked about Seneca’s On Anger. Anger is an emotion, and what distinguishes emotions from physical sensations is that emotions involve cognition, some relevant judgment, an interpretation of bodily responses in light of social situations: I feel my jaw clenching, my head aching, my heart racing, my chest tightening, my muscles tensing, my palms sweating, my hands balling into fists — somebody I was arguing with just slammed the door in my face — oh, I am so mad, I wanna kick down the door, I wanna kick him. Feeling anger involves first, the impression of an injury, and second, the mind’s assent that this injury, this wrong, is unjust and ought to be redressed.

Seneca wrote that “anger can be put to flight by wise maxims; for it is a voluntary defect of the mind…” I asked Dr. Hasic whether there were any grounds at all for anger to be good or virtuous from the perspective of Stoicism. Dr. Hasic said that there was none whatsoever. Because in Stoic cosmology, the soul is material, shaped by passions, then when one feels anger, the soul changes such that there is no room for virtue or joy. This is true of all passions, all forms of psychological turmoil — even feeling compassion for another’s suffering, to the extent that it disrupts one’s equanimity, is contrary to leading a virtuous life. To be virtuous in the Stoic way is to work on governing the self, the mind’s interpretation of experiences, so that one can interact with others and react to external events dispassionately.

I asked, Then what is the proper response to an injury one experiences or one witnesses being deliberately inflicted upon another? She said that the Stoic response is dispassionate judgment: the evaluation of the action as right or wrong. But one shouldn’t feel angry or hurt, or react in a way that would cause more harm. She said, if everyone lived this way, disciplining one’s mind so that one would not feel strongly and act rashly, wouldn’t we live in a more pleasant society? Ethical behavior begins with self-government.

Well I wouldn’t argue with that. But my problem with Stoicism as I understand it is that it is individualistic. Train your own mind to will whatever necessity you are dealt, and you need not be pained. The ethical work of the individual ends with self-management. Whatever occurs outside the self must be interpreted so that it does not trouble the self — this is what wisdom consists in. But what of justice? Suffering cannot be privatized. What harms another also harms me, if we consider that all is connected. Like Stoicism, Buddhism advocates dispassion / non-attachment, but it also teaches that the self, this atomizing concept, is an illusion.

I used to be very attracted to Stoicism. I am thinking about it again. I know too little about it to ponder it, so I want to read Seneca’s On Anger. But now I am checking papers and trying not to be angry, or at least not to give vent to anger. I think I am failing. Hahahaha. It’s very difficult work, this management of the self.

It’s okay, that’s love


Walking to the lecture hall, I tell C. how I worry that I’d end up finishing more Kdramas than books this year. I should read more books and watch less TV, don’t you think? C. says, don’t think of it as a lack or loss. You also learn through watching, don’t you?

This past weekend I watched how love is built, shared, and tested by a psychiatrist with genophobia and anxiety disorder, and a bestselling crime writer with OCD and schizophrenia, even as they deal with work pressures, family troubles, heartsick friends, faithless ex-lovers, and childhood traumas involving domestic violence, parental infidelity, arson, death threats, and murder. As the plot, which began as a light-hearted rom-com, took a dark turn, and for a long while refused to look back, I thought, “It’s Okay, That’s Love” is a misleading title for that show. Or is it.

The thing is that we’re all struggling, some with more success or more difficulty than others. What is it that gives strength even to the most miserable?

It would be nice to struggle through life with the certainty that the person I love also cares deeply about me. But can I love without caring? Can I care without understanding? Can I understand without listening? Can I listen well without first muting the voices in my own head, with their unfounded assumptions and shaky conclusions, their quick judgments, their anger, sadness, and fear? Can I mute them without humility? Can I be humble without recognizing that in loving it’s never just about who I am and what I think and how I feel and what I need and what I want? Can I recognize this without also accepting uncertainty, vulnerability, disappointment? Can I accept these without surmounting fear? Can I vanquish fear without trust? Can I trust without assurance? Is that what faith means?


My friends… The next time you are suffering, if this suffering was caused by the person you love most in the world, have recourse to right action and say the fourth mantra: “Dear one, I am suffering deeply. I need you to help me to get out of this suffering. I need you to explain this [the situation perceived to be hurtful] to me.” This is the language of true love.

– Thich Nhat Hanh, You Are Here

In one scene, Jae-yeol tells Soo-kwang: in a relationship, the more powerful one is neither the one who loves more, nor the one who cares less. The more powerful one is he who can love without needing anything in return. A person who can love without clinging is a person who is free. He can be kind and understanding and generous because he does not fear losing himself.

This morning, my sister, while brushing my hair, after cooking food for me to take home to my apartment: “You poop. Meme loves you even if you’re the poopiest poopyface.” I thought it was the sweetest thing anyone had said to me.

Last week, as we were walking to the lecture hall, I told C. how I’d outsource my emotional life to TV and focus my energies on cultivating my mind. I said, dispassion and intellection — these would be my telos! C. just chuckled.

In the still, quiet darkness, where she stands between his body and the wall, he flicks the lighter on to illuminate her eyes, and, smiling at the embers kindled there, whispers to her throat, One moment. It takes but a moment to fall in love again.

Reading habits

… you would know with a book you love:
How nothing held your eyes
The way the words did, with archer-focus:
How each arrow heading toward you
Was slowed by the dripping beehive
On its spike—
– from “Honey/Manila Portfolio” by Farnoosh Fathi

“The love of books. My library is an archive of longings.”
– Susan Sontag

What are you reading these days? he asks. By reading, he means, of course, for leisure.

I say, David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Jonathan Crary’s 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

What? Why? His face, incredulous.

At first I think to reply, Why not, then I realize the import of his query.

There were years when I read a minimum of seven poems a day, upon waking, during mealtime breaks, before sleep. There were years when I recited Sylvia Plath while running. There were years when I felt like my thoughts, my impressions and expressions, my dreams waxed poetic, or maybe that was mere vanity. In any case, I live prosaic days now, and call it names like focus, usefulness, and duty. I read articles on violence, death, and violent deaths, sleep late, and never have nightmares. Sometimes I kind of miss wresting myself awake, heart racing, from images of chopped-off heads and limbs strewn on the ground in a forest clearing, ruby-eyed crows pecking at soiled, ripped skirts in bloodstained kitchens.

He tells her to read Terry Pratchett. I concur, and say, read Small Gods for a critique of religion, and Feet of Clay for a critique of racism, capitalist relations, and class hierarchy. They look at me, and then at one another. He says, I like Color of Magic for worldbuilding. I say, Pratchett is very funny — it’s so hard to be funny.

I feel boring, but even I don’t wait for my personality to seem interesting again.

I ask her why she hasn’t finished her master’s thesis. It’s been years, I say. Your argument on Kantian freedom is ripe and perspicuous. She says, I have yet to read enough poems — I am still collecting words.

In the past three years or so, I sold almost all of my copies of the classics of English literature — about half of my library. Now that I’ve been assigned to teach a survey course on canonical works from the British Romantic Period to the 20th century, I’ve been buying new copies of old titles I’d thought I wouldn’t need to revisit.

The other day, after attending a lecture on Roman philosophy at the Ateneo, I dropped by Fullybooked and left with a copy of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. Earlier, after a class on Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues, I went into Bookay-Ukay and came out with only Michael Curtis’ Great Political Thinkers Volume 1, even if I also saw a rare copy of Karen Cushman’s Catherine Called Birdy.

Birdy, the adolescent daughter of a medieval squire, introduced my grade school self to feminist thought, though I didn’t know the term “feminism” then. In high school I would read Soheir Khashoggi’s Mirage, Jessie Bernard’s The Future of Marriage, Zhou Wei Hui’s Shanghai Baby, the Songs of Solomon and the Book of Ruth (and the entire Bible, actually, even the part that only told me who begat whom), call myself feminist, and decide never to marry.

Not a decade after that, when I was the acquisitions editor of a publishing house, I read Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, and David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress. And I thought, any man I’d consider marrying should first read these books.

I think the only man I considered marrying would simply hate those books, if he had chosen to read them, or me, at all, carefully.

Reading on the Victorian John Stuart Mill, I thought, he seems like the kind of philosopher who’d make a good husband — he was gainfully and meaningfully employed as a civil servant, was utilitarian but not crude and materialistic, championed women’s rights, promoted civil liberties and responsibilities, supported economic democracy and worker cooperatives over capitalist businesses, and critiqued the environmental damages wrought by unrestricted economic growth. He was, however, pro-imperialism; he served as a colonial administrator of the East India Company from the age of 17, and thought that “barbaric” peoples could not be accorded the same rights as “civilized” ones — but then, one can think only  so far beyond the way one’s subjectivity has been constituted through one’s social milieu.

Raised by his father and Jeremy Bentham to become a genius, “the crown prince of the Philosophic Radical movement” that had rationalism and the principle of utility at the core of its ideology, Mill pondered emptiness and suicide in his early twenties. Overcoming suicide ideation, he dedicated his life to social justice, invigorated by the poetry of the English Romantics, especially Wordsworth, and spurred by his friendship and correspondence with the philosopher and women’s rights advocate, Harriet Taylor, whom he eventually married. By all accounts, he admired and cherished his wife, of whom he wrote, upon her death,

Were I [but] capable of interpreting to the world one half the great thoughts and noble feelings which are buried in her grave, I should be the medium of a greater benefit to it, than is ever likely to arise from anything that I can write, unprompted and unassisted by her all but unrivalled wisdom.

I know why I’m not reading as much poetry and fiction as I used to. It’s the same reason I listen to sad lyrics only when they’re put to a happy, danceable tune, why I stage absence, why I no longer write write, as I had been writing.

The last novel I (re)read was Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. In an early chapter, Lord Henry Wotton remarks to the lovelorn painter Basil Hallward, “What you have told me is quite a romance, a romance of art one might call it, and the worst of having a romance of any kind is that it leaves one so unromantic.”

It’s nice to imagine that behind every mundane insipidity or listless productivity might lurk a history of folly, a tender tale.