Stoicism: Day 19 – Hosting a Houseguest is the Ultimate Stoic Exercise

Yesterday tested my patience. I had to drive my girlfriend to her doctor’s appointment in the morning, which required me to feel rushed in my morning routine (gym + scheduled writing). There were annoying drivers on the road, one of which honked at me for not forcing myself into oncoming traffic quickly enough. I then had to do hours of data entry at work, and then in the evening, had to drive to a social event at my girlfriend’s co-workers home (which is exhausting for an introvert).

Thank God it was Friday.

My ice bath was a welcome respite from a somewhat annoying day.

During yesterday’s ice bath, my mind wandered to the topic of “things that annoy me”, and I realized that one of the most annoying activities is hosting a houseguest.

Benjamin Franklin wisely said, “Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days.”

Here is a fantastic explanation from Psychology Today about the psychological reasons houseguests are such a pain:

Houseguests then, are stressful to the extent that they disrupt our routines and usurp the high amount of control we normally enjoy in this personal territory. If their routines interfere with ours or if their presence restricts our normal uses of home spaces, stress is likely.  Maybe Ben was right; a few days we can tolerate, but stress builds as visits go on. Anxiety-prone hosts in particular may become stressed by disruptions in their routines and loss of control over personal spaces.

Primary territories also differ from other territories because their occupants feel a sense of ownership (i.e., “This is my home and my stuff”). When guests invade our territory by roaming too freely throughout our home or touching our personal items, when they contaminate our territory by leaving their stuff around or not cleaning up after themselves, or when they create resource shortages by snarfing our food or using all the hot water, we naturally experience this as a territorial invasion and react defensively.

I experienced these feelings this week when I hosted a houseguest for a few days. My routines were disrupted. For example, I did my writing in my bedroom because the guest was staying the living room. Not uncomfortable, but it was more inconvenient. I was also more nervous about my ice baths because I wasn’t sure when she would be home. I really didn’t want to explain why I was sitting in a tub of ice and shivering like a mad man (though I guess a Stoic wouldn’t care what the guest thought).

The worst part was I couldn’t relax. I couldn’t lounge on the couch (because that’s where she slept), and it was just tiring having to be “on” all the time.

This is just the nature of having houseguests. Some are easier than others, but it will generally be an uncomfortable experience.

Which, if you are like me and trying to be more Stoic, is an excellent opportunity to practice Stoic exercises.

Understanding the nature of things

On the first night the houseguest arrived, she asked if she could store some of her snacks in the fridge. No problem. Of course she could. Not a big deal.

She was taking an unusually long time putting away her strawberries, so I asked her if she needed me to clear some space for her stuff.

“Nope! I’m just looking at what you have in there.”

Excuse me?

That annoyed me, mostly because it was so strange to see someone openly rummage through my fridge.

This was a perfect opportunity to apply Stoic logic to ease my anxiety.

I told myself that only I have the power to cause myself to be annoyed.

Then I asked myself what exactly is causing this feeling of irritation? All she is really doing is opening the fridge and looking around. It’s not as if she is taking each item out one-by-one, lecturing me on why I shouldn’t eat bacon, and then throwing it down the garbage disposal. By dissecting the nature of the action, I could realize how trivial it was.

I calmed down.

In the Meditations, [Marcus] provides us with a technique for discovering the true value of things: If we analyze something into the elements that compose it, we will see the thing for what it really is and thereby value it appropriately. Fine wine, thus analyzed, turns out to be nothing more than fermented grape juice, and the purple robes that Romans valued so highly turn out to be nothing more than the wool of a sheep stained with gore from a shellfish.  – William Irving

Negative Visualization

The next morning I had to be extra quiet when grabbing my coffee from the coffee maker and then inconveniently do my writing from my bed. Ugh. This is not the proper forum for doing great writing!

But then I thought to myself, what am I actually complaining about? I live in a nice (though overly expensive and small) apartment. I’m writing on my Macbook Air from my comfy bed and I’m drinking delicious French Roast coffee from Trader Joe’s.

I could be living at home, or worse, homeless. I could have no computer, or God forbid, a PC! I could have grown up without an education and been illiterate; unable to express any thoughts in writing.

So, after thinking about all the ways in which my life could be worse, I stopped feeling bad about having to change my routine for a few days.

We would be much better off, Marcus says, to spend this time thinking of all the things we have and reflecting on how much we would miss them if they were not ours. Along these lines, we should think about how we would feel if we lost our material possessions, including our house, car, clothing, pets, and bank balance; how we would feel if we lost our abilities, including our ability to speak, hear, walk, breathe, and swallow; and how we would feel if we lost our freedom.  – William Irvine 

Contemplate your own faults

The following evening, our houseguest was talking about an apartment she looked at which was apparently very nice, but the way the closet was built turned her off and for that reason, she would not be living there.

How prissy of her! I lived in a friggin’ hostel last summer when I moved to DC.  I had to deal with snoring middle-aged men and excruciating heat! I would have loved to have a closet, let alone a room to myself!

But who am I to judge? I have many flaws of my own. I spend hours per day wasting time by browsing the Internet and watching TV. I don’t talk to my mom enough and when I do, I’m often too eager to get off the phone.  I am quick to dismiss people who I consider naïve or dumb. I am selfish and self-centered, and spend too much time thinking about myself.

When thinking about all the ways I am a terrible person, our houseguest’s decision to decline a place to live based on the closet situation doesn’t seem so bad.

More generally, when we find ourselves irritated by someone’s shortcomings, we should pause to reflect on our own shortcomings. Doing this will help us become more empathetic to this individual’s faults and therefore become more tolerant of him. When dealing with an annoying person, it also helps to keep in mind that our annoyance at what he does will almost invariably be more detrimental to us than whatever it is he is doing. In other words, by letting ourselves become annoyed, we only make things worse.  – William Irvine

Death as a sweet, sweet release

If you find yourself with the houseguest from hell, consider that life is short and you will be dead soon and you will longer have to deal with irritating people.

Suppose that even though we follow the above advice, someone succeeds in annoying us. In such cases, Marcus says, we should remind ourselves that “this mortal life endures but a moment,” meaning that we soon will be dead. Putting annoying incidents into their cosmic context, he thinks, will make their triviality apparent and will therefore alleviate our annoyance.  – William Irvine

 The next time someone takes a little too long putting away her strawberries, remember the above advice.