Stoic Indifference and Its Place in Everyday Life

Inspired by my Recent Heartfelt Volunteering Struggle

On Mondays I volunteer for a few hours at the Stanford Cancer Center, and my formal title there is “Ambassador.” I decided to pursue this position because of some very personal experiences I had in various hospital settings where I was close to people who received news that they would be dying soon, and was able to witness the intense overflow of emotions that accompanies that situation—on several occasions. I developed a deep appreciation for the miracle of presence as it pertains to having a person nearby to help you when you get such horrible news, and overall, wanted to give back and do what I could to help reduce suffering.

I knew I wanted to volunteer because I noticed that at startups, it can take years for us to see actual change, or to really “see” how our products improve the lives of others. It’s a continuous struggle, and in many ways, I was craving the human connection. I wanted to help people faster, and to do something that really mattered in the sense that I could connect with the people I was helping on a shorter time scale. I started researching positions at Stanford Hospitals—since they had been incredibly good to me in the past, and I wanted to give back.

I also knew that I wanted to work with cancer patients, and that I would effectively be throwing myself in the belly of the beast, but in a way, I didn’t care. It was time.

I had always dreamed of being so successful that I could one day effect significant societal change, the kind that typically requires larger budgets, but came to realize that this was a bit of a myth—or that I was putting the cart before the horse. The reality is that you don’t need anything to help people right now.

Low and behold, I found a position at the Stanford Cancer Center that was exactly what I was looking for. In this role, I help patients by bringing them food and water, making coffee, bringing blankets, sitting with them during procedures, assisting in mobility, escorting them to procedures, and a variety of other tasks.

I spent weeks going through training (interestingly the most thorough application process for any job I’ve had to date), taking numerous tests, doing blood work to see if I qualified, and the like. It was grueling on top of my normal startup schedule, but I felt like I was on the right track.

Fast forward to my first few weeks of work. I quickly learned that I didn’t have the emotional armor developed to cope with the enormity of what I would be facing. I felt a holiness while walking through the infusion rooms, and being with patients, that I have never felt before. I felt so humbled that I wasn’t sure if I was actually suited for the role. It was too heavy, to such a degree, that I would come home and attempt to tell my wife about my experiences that day, and would tear up. I realized that I was able to compartmentalize a lot of what was happening, but the act of telling someone about it, of describing the experience, was too much to bear.

I needed to grow up. I needed to grow up in a way that they don’t tell you about, in my ability to be with death. To love in spite of death. To give people my best although we both know what they are fighting. To be here, now. It took me over five weeks to get to a place where I could come home and succinctly describe my day without feeling like I got punched in the chest. Without feeling the deep sorrow of existential grief placed around me like a heavy blanket.

At the time, I was also re-reading “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius, which I would highly recommend to everyone. In it are several anecdotes about stoicism and indifference, and this led me to researching essential keys to stoic indifference in search of an antidote.

What I found was a practice in balance, and less in futility. Indifference in my context is the ability to see what is happening, and balance the reality with your ability to prevent it from penetrating too deeply. To be present without being as quick to break. For me, it meant mindfulness in my interactions with patients, and being lively and attentive, but not letting their personal stories and our connection too deep into my psyche. As a colleague told me during a discussion of the matter, “you have to love them, and be there, but you can’t take their stories home with you, or it will crush you, man.”

Knowing that over time there is a high statistical likelihood of experiencing this sort of … world, it’s hard to do, but around week six or so, I was able to perform my duties with a clearer head. To be present with our patients without feeling crushed when I would take the flight of stairs up to the next floor. It has been an enormous growing experience for me, and one that I haven’t mastered by any means, but slowly but surely I am learning.

Nick Warren

Nick is the Founder & CEO of MetaSensor, a venture-backed internet of things startup located in Silicon Valley, and a Behavioural Product Designer at Duke's Center for Advanced Hindsight (with Dan Ariely et al.). | Read Full Bio »

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