Another common thread I share with the cloak of stoicism is the view on outward appearance. I'll preface this with an anecdote. It's the year 2004 and little Deepak is on his way to his first day of classes at The British School in Nepal. It will be his first time he will be interacting and forging friendships with other English speaking children, and he's a little nervous. He doesn't know much about "real school," until now he has been home schooled and only attended a local Nepali school for language lessons. So, when in doubt, mom knows best. Right? I'm sure it was with all good intention, his mother dressed and prepared him for his first day of classes. He walked into the classroom (5 minutes late because of an inability to navigate the hallways), every eye turned and looked him up and down. What his well meaning mother thought would be appropriate for his first school day looked something like this: near-knee high white tube socks stuffed into these bad boys:
along with khaki above-the-knee shorts, complete with blue polo (tucked in) and belt, and gelled up hair in true 90's fashion. I look like something out of (reference). I also wielded an like green Scooby Doo notebook. Oh, and a little tip for future or current parents... third graders do not need notebooks.
Anyway, this poor youngster immediately recognizes his outstanding appearance and is quick to sit down (on top of his notebook so as to hide it).
While the students still accepted me, and I avoided a pitfall that so many young students fall into, being ridiculed for being different. I think it was after that day that I developed my now natural skill of adaptation. And my mother has not dressed me since.
How does this relate to stoicism? Seneca emphasizes the importance of maintaining outward appearances, no matter what is on the inside, to avoid being rejected by society. The first thing philosophy promises us is the feeling of fellowship; of belonging to mankind and being members of a community; being different will mean the abandoning abandoning of that manifesto.
What Seneca does NOT mean by this statement, is that you should change who you are to be loved and accepted by those around you. He merely states that one should maintain who they are on the inside, but make it a point to be presentable so that people take what you have to say seriously. He states, The very name of philosophy... is unpopular enough as it is: imagine what the reaction would be if we started dissociating ourselves from the conventions of society.
I have always had a knack for adaptability, since my upbringing was influenced by so many different cultures and subcultures, I had to in order to gain this "fellowship" Seneca talks about. I understood on my first day of class that it would not be acceptable for me to wear what I had always worn growing up in the villages of Nepal, being mainly dirty and torn shorts, a wife beater, and "chappals", a local type of footwear which were basically flip flops often recycled from tire rubber. I wasn't impressing anyone, I was just wearing what was most comfortable to me, as well as most practical, and socially acceptable in a society that cared very little for possessions and appearance. Although my first attempt at blending in failed, all of those subsequent we're more successful, and many of my friends we're not even aware of my previous upbringing. As far as they knew, I was one of them.
I had to undergo a similar process when coming to Malibu, California for my university education. Although it was closer in similarity to my high school than village life was to my elementary school, they were still worlds apart. I was aware of this fact, and I knew my traditional high school attire, consisting of a beat up pair of Converse, baggy jeans that were nearly falling off at any given point, and t-shirts with "funny" quotes on them accompanying a mop of unkempt air , would not fly in Malibu. This description of me, to those of my friends at Pepperdine University, would induce furrowed brows and looks of confusion. They would say, "No, Deepak wears plaid shorts, matching shirts and boat shoes." To take it to an even further level, those Pepperdine students that traveled with me to Florence would say, "Nope, Deepak dresses like a European, skinny jeans, suede leather boots, and leather jackets." I feel almost obligated to change my look again once school starts up again in the fall just to throw people off.
I have found that these constant, until now sub-conscious, metamorphoses are simply in my nature. Everywhere I go, people mistake me for a local. Even in Hungary, I may look like many things, but a Hungarian is not one of them, I was mistaken for someone that lived there and was asked for directions. The same goes for Thailand, Turkey, France, Italy... the list continues, which can be partially contributed to the ambiguity of my race.
Does this mean I am nothing but a continuously changing facade? Absolutely not. While my outward appearance changes with great frequency, my beliefs, values and opinions only change in the natural course of a person's personality development. How else do you connect with someone with which you have nothing in common? It is my method of relating to those who surround me. If we do not share any similarities in culture, thinking or character, the fact that we dress in a similar fashion give us some type of common ground to place our footing.
Does this mean we are to act just like other people? Is there to be no distinction between us and them? Seneca addresses this issue, Most certainly there is. Any close observer should be aware that we are different from the mob.
And any closer observer can indeed attest to the fact that I am different. This usually comes off as me saying outlandish things, or just being "really weird," which I am. Something that I embrace wholeheartedly.
I believe many people do the same, sometimes with the wrong motivation, and too often they do let who they are pretending to be take over who they really are. After all, if you pretend to be something long enough, eventually it's what you become. That's why I like to keep moving, to keep my surroundings and environments different so that I don't become to attached to a certain way of being that isn't my own. Seneca makes a reference to this in another letter, but that's for another post.