on John Laerum
New Stoa recently got a new Director: John Laerum. John was born in a small place in Southern Norway called Tvedestrand where he also lived most of his time until moving away for good. In this spotlight issue, he tells us about himself and his relation to Stoicism.
Hi John. Thanks for having accepted the interview. Could you tell us about your life?
For some years in my life, nothing seemed to be the right thing for me but then I took a course in Electric Engineering and went to work as an Electrical Engineer in the merchant fleet. I found I liked this work, it made me financially independent and later I went back to school to study more in this field.
As Oil Exploration took off in Norway in the 1970’s I went to work on a Heavy Lift Crane Ship. Equipped with a crane with a lifting capacity of 2000 tons we constructed Oil Production Platforms, first in the North Sea, then in the Bay of Campeche, Mexico. We were much involved in stopping the first major blow-out, the IXTOC 1 blow-out, in the Gulf of Mexico. After working there for some years I also worked on a multi-purpose Diving Support Vessel in the waters off Ivory Coast, West Africa.
In 1984 came the big change in my life, I went to Korea to work as New-building Supervisor for a series of ships to be built there. Before I left Korea I found myself married and the father of a son.
As it were, my wife had a hard time to adjust herself to live in Norway and was very homesick. After struggling for some years we moved back to Korea and I continued to work as a Technical Supervisor, mostly for ships in operation.
Now I am 65 years old and retired but continue to take Supervisor jobs on Shipyards when opportunities come my way.
Let's rewind a little... When did you first discover Stoicism?
I always liked to read history and I was, and still am, fascinated by Greek-Roman history in particular. I had a certain interest in Philosophy also in my young days but it went nowhere.
Enter the age of the Internet and by searching I came to read about the Stoic Way as a way of life. This was something! I studied and started to practice, it wasn’t easy for sure. It took me many years before I noticed that my reactions to “the things that happen” changed for the better.
How does stoicism manifests itself in your life?
In the daily grind I'd say, or that's the way it should be any way. That I react calmly to what happens to me and around me which I mostly do these days. It wasn't always so and this internal change I credit to Stoicism.
As I gradually have become a practitioner, it means a lot to me. Freeing myself from the pull of externals and focusing on the things that are truly my own is a most liberating experience.
Do you have particular practices that you relate to stoicism, like some kind of meditation, a special kind of diet, etc.?
Most important is keeping a journal and every morning I prepare myself for the day to come and write memos for myself.
In the Journal, I:
- try to identify weaknesses that are holding me back and preventing me from reaching Eudaimonia and make notes about ways to overcome this or that weakness,
- take notes from my studies of Philosophy making sure that helpful insights derived are repeated several times over, for weeks if necessary, until it is stuck in the mind,
- write a list of the days tasks. I then pick out one of these things that I really should do but tardiness or sheer laziness often comes in the way. I then focus the mind on that Item and say to myself: ‘today I really shall do this, come hell or high water’. This method of focusing mental energy has really worked well for me.
Also to prepare myself for the kind of people and events that may come as Marcus Aurelius did (in Meditations II-1) I have found very helpful to prevent irritation when things do not go my way.
I keep the old journals for some years and read them again before throwing them away, that gives me an opportunity to check on my progress and, once in a while, congratulate myself.
I have no particular diet, only that I prefer to eat moderately and avoid stuffing myself.
What are the things that most put you to the test, that Stoicism helps you overcome?
Difficulties in interpersonal relationships more than anything else. Like some other members of the New Stoa I have to some degree Asperger's Syndrome and Stoicism has greatly helped me to live with this.
Now, you certainly do not need to be an "Aspie" to have such problems, when I look around, I see quarreling and discord all over the place. This happens due to lack of wisdom, we do not get the Big Picture and place the greatest value on externals and neglect the internal.
What is your way of understanding "living according to nature"?
Accepting the world as it is, the Universe does not exist for my sake but for it's own. Moving away from being self-absorbed and towards an understanding of myself in the greater context of the society I live in. And indeed, as a part of the Universe itself and under the same laws as the Universe.
Man's nature then is that of a mortal, rational and social animal, so our task is to follow Nature, follow Reason and have Empathy with our fellow men. And as Nature is in constant change, so am I. I came yesterday, is here now and will leave tomorrow -- or soon anyway. And since everything in Nature is as it must be and as such good, my own departure is also as it must be and good.
How do you envision the future of Stoicism?
I doubt it will become a mass movement but then again, it never was. Still Stoicism had a lot of influence in its heyday. This can happen again.
The world today needs wisdom. More than anything else, it is lack of wisdom that burn cities, start wars and destroy friendships and families. Stoicism has a lot of wisdom to offer, a funny paradox for a School that took its ethics from the man who insisted he knew nothing, Socrates.
As we have recently seen in Japan, stoic attitudes to life can influence a population no matter if they have been instructed in philosophy or not. In Japan I suppose, it comes from always living on the edge on shaky ground. As if we do not all of us, live on shaky ground one way or the other.
You recently became the Director of our community. Could you tell us how you first found out about NewStoa and what it brought to you until now ?
I have been a member for two years or so and these two years has been very fruitful in terms of my own progress as a practicing Stoic. The greatest benefit I've had so far is the opportunity to have some very interesting E-Mail conversations with thoughtful people from various corners of the world. For this opportunity I am truly grateful.
What does it mean to be the Director, how do you envision your role ?
Well, the title Director may perhaps be a little misleading. I shall serve the New Stoa in accordance with the decisions we make together in the Council. That I am the Director does not mean I am the greatest Philosopher around, it simply means I'll be doing some administrative chores.
That's a very humble phrasing... for a very noble task! Thanks a lot for sharing all this, and for your dedication to the community.