Seneca at the photocopier: Practicing stoicism as an graduate intern

Jack Worthy punches the elevator call button as a steaming cup of Folgers sloshes onto his naked wrist. His punishment for lateness is compounded by his perception of today’s upcoming duties. As he sidles to the back corner of the elevator pod, he turns to scan the announcement board. He remains turned with each floor passing, effectively ignoring incoming passengers. He gets off at 11 and unlocks the door with his free hand. After crashing into his swivel chair, he makes way to the binder. The binder holds his duties, his wants and dreams for the next 4 hours. After initially making peace with the binder, Jack runs down the list of reasons why this all sucks. He deserves better – isn’t he a little old to be doing this? He’s more than educated enough to get someone else to do it (I mean, he is a graduate student after all). He was late and no one noticed! Surely he’s not that important if that’s true.

Bored with complaining, Jack made his way to the copier. He would need to unbuckle the first however-many sheets, line them up, enter his email address, ensure that the file name would reflect the purpose and genre of the sheets in transit and punch “Start.” He would bring a book or something to do while the machine did its thing, but it often jammed unpredictably. He realized that any more than 20 pages at a time would be a risk. Also, sheets were frequently out of order. A CRF might be mingled with a PHI, and a consent form sprinkled in the middle of MEQs or RFAs. So he developed a system of binder clips to allow for easier bindering and organizing down the line. He felt a bit dubious for thinking this “innovation” would increase his productivity (what did it mean to be more productive at scanning?) but the added free time was nice.

Very slowly then all at once, Jack felt calm. Succeeding at a game he created (how can he scan more records more efficiently and cleanly?), the frame of his administrative duties had flipped. He was more than accepting of its banality, he was grateful...

Jack Worthy does not exist. He is a fictional account of my first day as a student intern in a local health clinic’s office of records. His realization of gratitude mirrors my own after reading William Irvine’s The Stoic Challenge, Professor Irvine invokes the stoics, a set of philosophers from antiquity interested in bringing balance and tranquility to their way of life. Far from being debbie-downers, the stoics took great joy in life as they frequently visualized life without its most joyful components. The quick glance into a poverty of good stuff or good relationships made their reality a miracle.

Irvine’s main piece of homework, the “stoic test strategy” asks that we treat each of life’s setbacks as we would an exam: how did we react to them emotionally and logistically? Only if we found a reasonable solution, and did so without anger or frustration can we call it a pass.

The other day, I decided to take Irvine to task. I would test both my overall performance on the day and sprinkle in sub-tests for tasks that would be particularly trying of my patience. I thought it might help pass the time or make me seem at least outwardly pleasant. I did not expect, however, for it to create an overwhelming sense of calm and gratitude.

I am now on the hunt to talk with anyone and everyone who’s been in my shoes. How have you taken this opportunity to do more than “get through” something? Depsite seemingly exponential progress in machine learning, I doubt AIs will be scanning, filing and redacting our old paper copy medical records in the next decade. They certainly won’t be calling participants to check on them (unless they expect to get hung up on). A significant portion of our economy still centers on administrative tasks — some estimate as many as millions of people still serve to categorize, store and move information. How might adopting a stoical philosophy reframe this activity for us who think that we have “better things” to do?

Let me know what you think- How have you handled the burden of menial tasks? How would the “stoic gods” have thought you performed in doing so?

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