Avoid the Masses (Stoic Sunday)

Halloween 2007. I was dressed in jeans and a bright yellow jacket. My partner was Neil and we had our map. It was going to be good night.

Not for trick-or-treating, or partying. No, it was going to be a good night to be members of the Halloween safety patrol. Neil and I were both completing a year of  Americorps service, and part of that was to volunteer to patrol the streets of Athens Ohio during the Halloween block party. While college towns around the country could use volunteers like this every weekend, Halloween in Athens is a new experience.

The small college town at the gate to the Appalachian region in Ohio begrudgingly welcomes thousands of revelers each year. They overwhelm the city, choke off traffic, and stress the limits of public safety. It’s also an event to participate in, to be part of such a large crowd, and to feel the energy. In years past I had been at a party, now I was on patrol.

For all the neatness of it; seeing creative costumes, feeling the energy, meeting new people, there is a degeneracy. That the city ask for volunteers to patrol the streets is a good sign that people are dong dumb things. In our four hour patrol, Neil and I asked many young people to pull up their pants, pee in the house, and put away their open containers until they arrived at their destination.

Seneca writes about this in Letters From a Stoic, “I have never come back home with quite the same moral character I went out with.” I knew this first hand from being at parties one year to walking past them the next. To be at a party in college had a meaning to it, an attitude. Consider that picture above, it’s full of engineering and premedical students. There are people who will be MBAs and CEOs, just not that night. On that street, in that crowd, they will change beyond their costumes.  Some of those same students will be here a few months later:

When we find ourselves in crowds we act in new ways, it influences our moral character.

In Mindless Eating, professor Brian Wansink writes about the ways we are influenced by the people who eat around us. If we are around people who eat more, we will eat more. In 59 Seconds, Richard Wiseman writes how our views skew towards that of the group we are in. If we are moderately conservative and put in a group of strong conservatives we will come out a bit more conservative than we entered.  For Seneca in ancient Rome, me at the Halloween party, or you at work we should acknowledge the influence of those around us.

How has this stoic thinking affected what sort of father I am? 

To create better crowds around my family I try to give thought to what we are doing. To the television we watch, the books we read, the kids at school we befriend. I don’t want to stop this or control it absolutely, but just recognize it is there. My daughters will someday be in crowds I don’t like, just like I was. The stoic virtue I’m trying to take away is to be aware that crowds will always surround us, and we can choose the crowd we are in.

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