on Jeff Worthy
This month, the Spotlight is cast on Jeff Worthy, a very interesting character who has many things to share with the community.
Hi Jeff! Could you present yourself to the community?
My name is Jeff Worthy, and I was born and raised in south eastern Washington state. I now live with my wife and two beautiful children in north western Washington, where I am a high school literature and composition teacher. One of my classes focus on classical literature with an emphasis in Greek and Roman authors, but I also teach a kind of "foundations" of literature course covering fiction, poetry, and drama. I also teach a research writing course from time to time. I have a BA in English from Washington State University and a Masters of Education focusing on Curriculum and Instruction. I have been teaching for 20 years.
Can you tell us how you got interested in Stoicism?
One day many years ago, a student of mine came up, handed me a book, and said, "Have you ever read this? I think you would like it." It was the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. I took it home, started reading, and was unable to put it down. I have since contacted that student who is now pursuing a PhD in music, and thanked him for starting me off on the journey that has transformed my life. I started amassing a library of Stoic texts and resources, including Pierre Hadot's The Inner Citadel, Tad Brennan's The Stoic Life, The Roman Stoics by Gretchen Reydams-Schils, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William Irvine, and Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life by A.A. Long. There are no doubt a lot of other great resources out there I have yet to find, but those were my starting points. I immersed myself in the philosophy, working to absorb as much of the background as open mindedly as possible. Now that I feel I have a good grasp of "Stoic basics," I am working to be much more deliberate about living the philosophy every day. Marcus Aurelius said to himself, "Throw away your books!" When I first read that I reacted pretty strongly. Throw away my books? Never! Of course, he means to get out and live the live of the good man, not to just read about doing it. I am really focusing on the living part of it now, though I still read the Stoic texts regularly to remind me of the maxims I need to continue to follow and strive to get better at the practice of this philosophy on a daily basis.
What does it mean to you to be a Stoic?
To me, being a Stoic means letting logic and reason guide my life; never allowing my emotions to overcome my rational mind. As you know, that isn't easy. I meditate a lot, working to bring stillness to my mind so that when I encounter situations that have the potential to bring out powerful emotional responses, my reason can quickly rise to the forefront and the most positive reaction to the situation can be applied. I still have a long way to go there, but every day, with practice, I am improving. I practice negative visualization and keep a journal of what I call "hypomnemata haiku," little poems that encapsulate my thoughts, in Stoic terms, about the things that happened to me in my life that day. As a young person, I was exceptionally shy and sensitive, and took what others thought of me very seriously, to the point where I was living to please, and not upset, others. I did things because my parents or friends said I should do them, such as turning out for sports I didn't like just because my parents said that since my cousins were doing that, I should too. I have come a long way since then, but even today I am sensitive to the reactions and emotions of others. Now, I work to put my feelings in a Stoic framework.
The work I do, teaching young people, is my way of improving the state of man and the society. It is my means of "working with my brothers"; I encounter all manner of students in my life, who come to me with all manner of opinions, attitudes, and backgrounds. My duty is to work with all of them for the common good. Focusing on Stoic philosophy has helped me to effectively communicate with students, parents, and colleagues in productive, logical, non-confrontational ways, and it has been very liberating. I take criticism for what it is worth, examine what my role is when criticized to really see what part of a situation I own, and I discard the rest. If I'm wrong, I'll own it. If I'm right, I'll stand by it, and work to reason with my critics to help them understand where I am coming from. If I take a criticism personally, that feeling does not last long. Prior to my studies of Stoicism, I would have brooded and fretted and worried for weeks or months about something most others would have forgotten in a matter of hours. Not any more. Stoicism is helping to thicken my skin and guiding me to pursue things in my life because I want to do them, not because others feel I should do them. It has made a remarkable difference in my life, and I am so glad I discovered it.
Can you tell us a little bit about the place of Stoicism in your life?
As far as the place of Stoicism in my life, it takes a pretty visible and prominent one. I am a person who draws great inspiration and meaning from symbols. I have found some symbols for Stoicism and have turned them into posters that hang in prominent places in my home and workplace, always to remind me of my philosophy.
Interesting... can you tell more about these posters?
What I can do is direct you to the symbol with which I most resonate. It is at this website. I just found that one and liked the thoughtfulness that went into it. The designer of the symbol seems to encourage others to use the symbol so long as they don't take credit for it or profit from it. You see it there on the blog right away, followed by a description of the symbol. I just printed it, and printed the description below it, mounting both on a piece of construction paper which I put on the wall by my bedside.
Nice! What other things have you planted in your house?
The Invictus poem, is in my closet where only I can see it. I have a copy of The DOE by Erik Wiegardt that I copied from The Stoic Handbook attached to the inside of the bathroom medicine cabinet door.
Also there is a photograph of Sir Ernest Shackleton, the Antarctic explorer and captain of the HMS Endurance, which was trapped in pack ice and destroyed in the early 1900's. That is a fascinating story, and if ever a man deserved to be called a Stoic, it was him.
I wear a ring of my father's which is a silver eagle, a symbol of Rome, which reminds me constantly of the impact Roman Stoicism has had on my life.
Again, I am a very symbol oriented person. I love the Phoenix symbol on the New Stoa website. I wish we had that on patches or coffee cups or pins or something.
How do your family react to all these Stoic reminders?
My wife and children rarely see anything save the symbol by my bedside, though they are well aware of how I feel and what I believe (though it is really only my thing, my wife seems to live a lot of the Stoic principles without ever having read one word about it, at least when it comes to staying rational and grounded).
I share my Stoicism with them indirectly, by speaking in words of Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, or Seneca in response to our live situations. I guess you could say I teach it by example, and I hope they absorb it little by little.
Speaking of writers, are there some particular quotes you cherish?
I have several favorite passages from the Meditations that I keep constantly in my mind. They are too long to write out here, but some would be Book Two, Passage One and Book Four, Passage 49. These are quotes I also have on the wall in plain view. I have other things in various places around the house, such as the poem Invictus by William Ernest Henley, which I have committed to memory and recite aloud each night before going to sleep.
These visuals, my meditation practice, my poetry writing, and continued reading and research help me to bring my Stoicism alive each day so that I live my philosophy in every moment.
I'm sure the community would like to read some of your poems. Do you mind sharing some of them?
The hypomnemata haiku basically serve as a daily journal, inspired by the Emperor's Journal: Classical Meditation handouts written by Erik Wiegardt from the New Stoa website. I don't have a lot of spare time, so each evening, before I settle in to read in the only window I have for it each day, I open the journal I have and write two to six of them. So far I have written 75 of them. They come to me very quickly, and allow me to feel that a journal was kept without having to spend an hour on some long prose journal entry. Here is a little sample of what they look like:
It is not enough
Just to slavishly exist;
You must learn to live.
Free me from desire—
Vices, they assault my mind.
Reason will resist.
Learn to spurn your wants;
More accumulation won't
Bring joy to your life.
Let annoyance go;
Do not dwell on minor things
That are meaningless.
Give no heed to pain;
No amount of agony
Can impair your soul.
That is the general idea of them. They are written in three lines, with five syllables in line one and three, and seven in line two, a typical haiku structure. Again, this really works for me, as I can generate six of these in about five minutes or so. If I were to work on them for half an hour, I could likely write 30 or more. It's fun. I love poetry, and plan to branch out to other poem forms of greater length and complexity tackling major Stoic maxims when I get the chance. I write a lot of poetry for friends and family to honor their major life thresholds, like graduations, anniversaries, and even memorials. I have no desire to write a bunch of my own poems and publish them just for me.
Apart from the student who gave you that book, do you know other people who are interested in Stoicism? Did you yourself spawn any interest in it?
Directly, I am not aware of any others who are interested in Stoicism. Sometimes I really feel like I am living on a deserted island in that regard. That is why I joined the New Stoa, to reach out in any way to like minded spirits, like you and Michel and any others who want to talk about things. I would really love to engage in regular direct dialogue and collaborate on projects, perhaps poetry related ones, with fellow members. Anything we could do to spread the philosophy, I would be totally up for. I feel we are heading into a period of human history when this philosophy is going to be really needed, and it is imperative that knowledge of it be fostered and preserved.
Stoicism is generally considered a very personal journey, how would you feel about "advertising" about it?
Yes, it is indeed a very personal journey—a challenging one. I think that is what turns a lot of people away from it; it requires such a degree of self-discipline that most contemporary citizens just can't handle turning their backs on materialism and the vice-ridden culture that surrounds us. It's very sad to me. Happiness just can't be found at the mall. Whatever I can do to encourage the spread of Stoicism as far and wide as I can, I would be happy to do.
Thanks a lot, Jeff, for all you have shared with us. Something tells me that it's not the last time we hear from you in the RR columns (wink wink to the readers who liked your poetry), so see you soon!