Lawrence Becker (1938–2018) and how to live a meaningful life against the odds

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Larry Becker

Prof. Lawrence Becker, the author of A New Stoicism, passed away last year. I met Larry in early 2016, right at the beginning of my sabbatical leave that resulted in the writing of How to Be a Stoic, my first book on Stoicism. I had heard of Larry because my friend Greg Lopez organized several months worth of discussions of A New Stoicism for his New York City Stoics meetup. It’s a hard book to read, if you don’t have any background in philosophy (I mean, it’s got lengthy commentaries after most chapters, not to mention an appendix containing a calculus for normative logic). That is why, under Larry’s supervision, I wrote a 10-part commentary of the entire book for the layperson.

The basic info about Larry as a philosopher is nicely summarized in a brief obituary that appeared in Daily Nous: PhD in Philosophy from the University of Chicago in 1965, taught at Hollins College, VA, until 1989, then William R. Kenan Jr. Professor in the Humanities as well as Professor of Philosophy at the College of William and Mary, where he retired in 2001.

Larry didn’t write just about Stoicism, though A New Stoicism is a landmark that has helped immensely to both put modern Stoicism on the map and update the philosophy in a creative and yet philosophically rigorous way. He was also interested in the concept of reciprocity; wrote on habilitation, health, and agency; on the justification of moral rights; on discrimination, bioethics, and public policy; and on property rights. Together with his loving wife, Charlotte B. Becker, Larry edited the monumental (2,020 pages…) Encyclopedia of Ethics for Routledge.

But here I want to tell a more personal, and yet profoundly philosophical, story about Larry Becker. Reading A New Stoic I had immediately realized that he was a serious student of the philosophy, of course. But it soon turned out that I had no clue as to just how seriously! By chance I discovered that my friend and colleague Nick Pappas at the City College of New York, who is an ancient philosophy scholar (see this excellent essay of his in the NYT), was a good friend and former colleague of Larry. So I asked Nick if he could “introduce” us via email.

An interesting correspondence ensued, which eventually led to the idea of actually paying a visit to Larry in his home in Roanoke, VA, where he has retired with his wife. The result was the interview that I will publish in full later today.

When I arrived in Roanoke I was fully prepared to see Larry in a wheelchair, since I knew he had been suffering for decades from the aftermath of polio. Nick had told me about heroic feats performed by Larry to overcome his disability and keep at a flourishing teaching and scholarly career, which had of course already put his book and interest in Stoicism into a whole different perspective for me and made him one of my personal role models.

Larry made me aware of a video he did some time ago for Post-Polio Health International, of which he was President and Chair from 2006–2009. Here I will use the video as a real-life example of practical Stoicism under very hard conditions. Although the video is in the public domain, I obtained Larry’s permission to write candidly about him, as I’m going to do in this post.

[The video can be watched here]

Before you watch the video and read the commentary below, it may be good to have some more personal information about Larry (which, again, I asked him permission to share, before he died) in order to put things into perspective.

The context of the video was that of a presentation to an audience of medical professionals and polio survivors who would immediately understand three things about Larry’s disability (including from previous acquaintance with his writing for Post-Polio Health International over the years). One is that he had polio in his teenage years, prior to the vaccine, and spent a lengthy time in a rehabilitation hospital. A second is that his breathing became compromised enough so that he had to use a ventilator to sleep. And the third is that the situation had gotten worse as he was aging.

Larry told me that he was 13 when he had polio in 1952. Initially he was quadriplegic in an iron lung. After two and a half years of rehabilitation hospital, he regained the use of his legs, but not of his arms. He also could not use his diaphragm, which means that he breathed with his neck muscles, and that when he went to sleep, he stopped breathing entirely until his CO2 went up enough to wake him up. As he put it, “That’s inconvenient.” So he used a small portable ventilator for sleeping, and for resting during the day. All of that recovery he had so mightly struggled to achieve was gradually going away as he aged, and near the end had made it impossible for him to teach other than in a one-on-one situation.

You can imagine how grateful I was, after learning all this, that he graciously spent an entire afternoon and evening with me for the interview.

Let me now go back to the video. You can watch it at your leisure, but I will highlight here some important points from a Stoic perspective, as well as summarize his underlying argument and advice to fellow polio survivors. As I hope you’ll see, that advice is actually quite universal, not limited to people affected by polio, or indeed by any disability. It’s the result of the careful thinking of a wise man who lived a difficult life and manage to make it count.

Larry begins the video by explaining that he was initially able to leave his wheelchair and to walk up and down stairs to get to and from his teaching at Hollins College. But things started to get worse in the early 1980’s, and he dreaded the idea of going down the stairs, going to class, attending faculty meetings. His initial reaction was to say nothing to others and to simply avoid having to walk or climb stairs as much as possible. But he quickly got to the point where he had a hard time dealing even with the four steps necessary to go from his office to the open campus. He was spending idle time in his office, worrying about getting outside, and even about going home in the evening.

His initial analysis was that he was suffering from a phobia, perhaps accompanied by something like panic attacks. So he went to see a psychiatrist who specialized in rehabilitation. The psychiatrist himself was disable, he was totally blind, something that must have made it no cakewalk for him to go through medical school.

The psychiatrist’s office was in a nice old house, with five uneven steps from the parking lot, and four more to the front porch. No handrails. Not good.

After an initial explanation from Larry, the psychiatrist asked him what was bothering him right at that moment, to which Larry replied, with some heat, “I’m bothered by how I’m going to get out of your building.” The psychiatrist calmly picked up his phone, called his secretary, and checked with her whether they had a ramp running around the back of the building, down to the parking lot. She confirmed that they did.

“How do you feel now?” inquired the psychiatrist. “I feel fine about that.” The doctor then went through a series of potential practical solutions for the problem: can you change office? No. Can the University build you a ramp? Possibly. The doctor explained that he took subways to go to medical school, and that as a blind man he was terrified of subway platforms. “It’s a reasonable fear,” he added, “and you’ll notice that I chose to practice in a city without subways.”

At that point Larry began to feel a bit foolish. The University did build a ramp for him, and he got a wheelchair with foot controls. That was a good lesson in practical Stoicism, without the theory.

Larry commented that that sort of things continued to happen to him throughout his life, and that moreover they happen to everyone he knows, disabled or not. It is reflecting on this truth that he put together the five points of his talk about developing a personal philosophy about life, with or without disabilities. Here they are:

I) The importance of agency. It was important for him to feel like an agent in the world, not a patient. This requires the accomplishment of three big tasks: First, to become and remain an agent in the first place. We begin our lives as “patients,” helpless infants (“entry level human beings”) who are entirely dependent on others. We slowly learn how to be agents, from scratch. We become adults, taking charge of our lives, claiming and earning our agency (all of which is perfectly compatible with the Stoic doctrine of ethical development). For Larry, the most devastating disabilities were precisely those that severely limit or entirely erase our agency. Yet he claimed that even if polio paralyzes you completely, it by itself still doesn’t permanently rob you of your agency. But you may need to reclaim it, slowly and painfully, as he had done since he was hit by the disease in his youth. Indeed, he saw the whole question of dealing with his disability as coinciding with his need to reclaim his agency. After you have reclaimed agency, however, you are in the same position as everyone else, needing to figure out what to do with your life.

Second, you have to become good at being an agent. This, Larry said, requires lining up six elements: values, preferences, goals, deliberations, decisions and actions. If these are incoherent, incomplete or weak then you are paralyzed no matter what your physical condition is. You can also be paralyzed by indecision, because you are not committed to a particular course of action and wish to retain multiple possibilities open. Too many choices on the menu, or too many cars in the dealer’s lot aren’t a good thing. To complicate things, there is the fact that the world itself changes, requiring constant adjustments to our goals, decisions and actions.

Which means, thirdly, that we need to learn how to maintain agency under changing circumstances. Like airline pilots, we need to keep learning new skills, but unlike airline pilots, we don’t have the luxury of simulators. Life only happens once, and we learn “in the air,” not in a safe environment, and we usually have passengers (i.e., people we care about) on board, too!

II) Focus on abilities, not disabilities. Larry learned to disregard his disability, or at the least to regard it as unimportant (what a Stoic would call a “dispreferred indifferent“). This requires four more tasks: i) Keep the focus incessantly on abilities. The emphasis should be on what we can do, not on what we cannot do — and of course this goes for every human being, including those who we normally don’t recognize as “disabled.” “I can’t do that” becomes “You can do it, this way.” ii) The Socratic task: know thyself. Know your physical and psychological abilities, which includes knowing their limits. Ignorance, or worse, self-deception, about one’s abilities is a very dangerous thing in life. iii) Keep an up-to-date, accurate account of what is possible for you. This will depend not just on your abilities, but also on the specific (and variable) physical and social environments in which you find yourself at different times. iv) Recognize when you have lost a good fit between your abilities and your activities. It is about developing what Larry called an “internal alarm system,” which tells us when it’s time to stop suffering and begin (or resume) to take charge. Larry knew from experience that all of this is hard, that it takes practice and that, in his opinion, requires some perspective.

III) Developing a life plan. Here Larry commented on the importance of taking a look at your entire life, making plans and arriving at decisions “all things considered,” as philosophers say. The idea isn’t the naive one of figuring out what one wants to do in life early on and then just implement the plan, Soviet-style. Rather, the suggestion is to reflect on what is important for us and on the best way to achieve it, but also to continuously revise “the plan,” according to our changing abilities and circumstances. Our dynamic plan should be coherent, ambitious, possible to achieve, revisable and — ideally — compatible with general rising levels of life satisfaction. In his particular case, Larry admitted that he failed to keep things in perspective in the late ’80s, or he wouldn’t have denied the onset of the late effects of polio, instead he would have said to himself, “you know, maybe this fear of long staircases is not that unreasonable after all.”

IV) Internal harmony. This is about constantly attempting to harmonize the components of your (dynamic) life plan. We need to harmonize spiritual and rational experiences, our desires and our needs, our reason with our action. “Personally, I think to have a harmonious life is preferable to being an interesting subject for a biographer, a journalist, or a gossiper.”

(V) Brick walls. We need to recognize them when we hit them, and even better to see them coming before we hit them hard. This, Larry said, amounts to knowing when to quit: not a minute too soon, nor a minute too late. It means to keep learning about your abilities throughout life. If it looks like a brick wall, first make sure it really is one, then try to act accordingly. “If it is an illusion, then you can go through it; if it is not, then you need to work around it, or go in another direction entirely.” The problem, he adds, is that we seem to have trouble figuring out which brick walls are worth worrying about, or trying to tear down. The way Larry dealt with it was by going back to the basics and first identify his fundamental life goals and commitments: to his wife of almost half a century and to the goals of their life together, to his professional goals, to creating a truly physically and socially hospitable environment for everyone. Those are the cases when he was willing to stop only if there was an actual brick wall, and only if he hit it pretty hard. Ramps, however, didn’t fall into that category, “doing without a wheel chair is not a basic life goal.”

I last spoke to Larry just a couple of weeks before he died. His wife, Charlotte, had very recently passed away. He told me he had had first hand experience of what Epictetus meant when he said that we should whisper goodnight to our loved ones in full knowledge that they may not be there the following day. That thought gave comfort to Larry, and it comforts me now that he is gone. It is a reminder that everything is impermanent, and that we should therefore enjoy our loved ones and our friends when they are here, right now. That’s what Larry did, thanks to his Stoic philosophy, his whole life. We should all follow his example.

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