Stoic Lessons from Camping

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Our  family took a one night, two day camping trip in the woods of Indiana and it was a great experience for many reasons, one of which was the chance to practice some Stoic thinking. One key part, highlighted nicely in A Guide to the Good Life is to deprive yourself of things in an attempt to further appreciate what you have. Hardship makes soft living much more comfortable the thinking goes.

William Irvine, when writing about Musonius, “we might periodically allow ourselves to become thirsty or hungry, even though water and food are at hand, and we might sleep on a hard bed, even though a soft one is available.”

Enter camping.

We arrived at our campsite to find it adjacent to another, one of the minority setup this way. This meant that our fireside conversations were going to be shared with the adjacent campers and theirs  with us. My sister-in-law who arrived the night before also reported they were loud and profane until two in the morning. I’m not bothered by either of those things, except at two in the morning. Having annoying neighbors helped me appreciate the great ones I live next to.

To camp we had to set up our tent and spread out our sleeping bags. Unintentionally we have a bag from each of the last three decades and I was assigned the oldest and most threadbare of the group. This meant that not only it it lack the down to keep me warm but also left me feeling each root, rock, and rut under me as I slept. Falling asleep on the ground took longer than in my bed and each time I rolled over I stayed awake wondering if I might just be more comfortable in another position. I would roll over again, only to feel the same. Sleeping on the ground helped me appreciate my bed.

Our food choices while camping were the typical campground fair, except for my wife and I, who are on the Whole30 program. This meant cold chicken salad, cold fruit, but a nice hot hamburger that took approximately six hours (estimate) to cook over our wooden fire. Each meal took time to remove from the cooler, prepare without a table and without dropping, and consume while standing. Then there was the production to keep bugs off the food and return things to the cooler without too much loss of temperature. Food preparation while camping helped me appreciate the luxuriousness of my kitchen.

To get anywhere at the campsite we had to walk. Up hills, over roads, on gravel paths we traveled. It was warm and there were a number of mosquitoes out. On our walk to the beach I carried a bag, chair, and child and made a separate supply run later in the day. While I quite enjoyed walking around the woods and the beach was about perfect it gave me an moment to reflect. There are many conveniences in life that make it easy.

When I first learned about Stoic thinking these sorts of reflections nearly made me admonish Stoicism for being too negative. I didn’t want to be thinking about all the ways something could be worse.  Again, William Irvine helps clear this up.

it is a mistake to think Stoics will spend all their time contemplating potential catastrophes . It is instead something they will do periodically: A few times each day or a few times each week a Stoic will pause in his enjoyment of life to think about how all this, all these things he enjoys, could be taken from him.

Really this is what camping was for me. The beach was a wonderful experience, situated on a narrow part of the lake so that the wake from passing boats sent small waves scurrying through the swimming area for the children to play in. The sand was fine enough for digging but stout enough for building. It wasn’t crowded, no one was playing loud music, and we saw a sea plane land right in front of us. Everyone in my family was happy and healthy during the trip and my daughters delighted in seeing giant spider webs, playing with a cousin, and eating s’mores.

My short, momentary thoughts about the relative deprivation of camping was a boost to the experience rather than drag.

//Photo is of my nephew and me fortifying the wall to “New Orleans.”

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