Nice nature, nasty nature

Nature is a two-faced goddess and going with the flow can be tougher than it sounds...

I don’t know if I could describe myself as a Stoic in an orthodox sense, but Stoicism is definitely the faith / philosophy that has had the biggest and most beneficial influence over my life.

Stoicism originated in ancient Greece in around 400BC. Stoics themselves considered their founding father to be Diogenes the Cynic, this strange philosopher-tramp who lived in a barrel in Athens in the time of Plato, and tried to get people to live according to nature rather than according to the conventions of civilization. If you wanted a pithy definition of the Stoic ethos, it would be ‘going with the flow of Nature’.

This might sound a fairly mellow way to live, but actually, going with the flow of nature is tougher than it sounds.

Nature, as the Greeks well knew, is a two-faced goddess. She can be a nurturing, life-giving mother. Or she can be a cruel and destructive bitch.

The problem with civilization is that it loves one of nature’s faces, and is terrified of the other. It takes some parts of nature and deems them desirable or ‘good’. Thus we deem youth, health, wealth, success, beauty, popularity and fame to be ‘good’, and we exert a huge amount of energy to try to achieve these states.

On the other hand, we deem old age, sickness, poverty, ugliness, failure, unpopularity or ignominy to be ‘bad’ or even awful, and spend an enormous amount of energy trying to avoid these states.

But the nature of nature is change. Stoics like to quote the philosopher Heraclitus, who asserted that the universe was in constant flux, with things constantly turning into their opposites. Nature is constantly shifting, and we can’t control it, try as we might. It's no respecter of our civilized preferences, and is likely to bring us not just the things we consider good – sunshine, youth, life, beauty etc – but also the things we consider bad – rain, old age, sickness etc.

But we can’t accept these ‘bad’ things. They terrify us. We try to protect ourselves from the wrath of nature with all the tools of our civilization – with houses and cars and hospitals and banks and plastic surgeons. But we’re still terrified of the dark side of nature hitting us, and the threat of it fills us with panic, anxiety, dread.

And if ‘bad’ things actually occur to us, we find ourselves plunged into depression and shame. We make our lives hell, worrying about not being successful enough, or not having enough friends, or growing old, or getting sick. If we’re not worrying about the future, we’re ruminating over the past.

According to Stoicism, when we cannot accept something that has happened to us or which might happen to us, we turn ourselves into exiles from nature. We shut ourselves off from the flow, refuse to accept it, make ourselves miserable over it. We no longer live in the present, but ruminate over the past or fret over the future. We feel like we are disconnected, withered, cut off from the vitality of the world.

Stoicism tries to help us become re-integrated with nature. It tries to teach us that what is making us miserable is not the external event that bothers us, such as getting fired or getting old, but our opinion about that event, for example, that it is terrible and unacceptable to be fired or to get old. We have to dismantle these conventional beliefs, and learn to accept that things conventionally deemed awful are not really so catastrophic, and are just part of the flow of nature.

This is hard. Our conventional beliefs are deeply rooted in us. They are the inheritance of millennia of evolution. They are drummed into us by our parents and our society, which tells us that external success is everything, popularity is everything, beauty is everything, and the opposite of these things are awful.

But with practice, you can stand up to these beliefs, you can dismantle them. Each time you stand up to them and resist their pull on you, they become less powerful. Giving up a habitual belief is like giving up smoking.

Stoics approach each situation as an opportunity to overcome their conventional beliefs, and become more free, more in harmony with the ebb and flow of nature.

And this doesn’t just mean you accept that your life is terrible. Because the remarkable thing about acceptance is, when you accept an external situation, you transform the negative emotions that it previously provoked in you. You dissipate the panic or the depression, you feel a wonderful peace and serenity, and feel yourself to be re-connected to nature, re-connected to the world and to other people.

This movement, from miserable disconnection and alienation from nature, to acceptance, re-integration and regeneration, is the basic movement of almost all religions and faiths.

What is beautiful about Stoicism is it provides you with a clear, rational and practical way to follow that path back from disconnection to reconnection with nature.

Jules Evans is the author of Philosophy for Life

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Levi Bellfield, Milly Dowler and the story of men’s violence against women and girls

Before she was so inextricably connected to the phone hacking scandal, Milly Dowler was one of many women maimed and killed by a violent man.

The name Milly Dowler has meant phone hacking since July 2011. The month before that, Levi Bellfield (already imprisoned for the murders of Marsha McDonnell and Amelie Delagrange, and the attempted murder of Kate Sheedy) had been convicted of killing her, nine years after her death. But almost immediately, she became the centrepiece of Nick Davies’s investigations into Fleet Street “dark arts”, when it was revealed that News of the World journalists had accessed her voicemail during the search for her.

Suddenly her peers were not McDonnell, Delagrange and Sheedy, but Hugh Grant, Leslie Ash, Sadie Frost, Jude Law. People she could only have known from TV, now her neighbours in newsprint. Victims of a common crime. She had attained a kind of awful fame, and remains much better known than McDonnell, Delagrange and Sheedy.

There is a reason for that: with Milly Dowler, there was hope of finding her alive. Weeks of it, the awful hope of not knowing, the dull months of probability weighing down, until finally, in September 2002, the body. McDonnell, Delagrange and Sheedy were attacked in public places and found before they were missed. It is not such an interesting story as the schoolgirl who vanishes from a street in daylight. Once there were some women, who were killed and maimed by a man. The end.

Even now that Bellfield has confessed to kidnapping, raping and killing Milly, it seems that some people would like to tell any story other than the one about the man who kidnaps, rapes, kills and maims girls and women. There is speculation about what could have made him the kind of monster he is. There must be some cause, and maybe that cause is female.

Detective Chief Inspector Colin Sutton (who worked on the McDonnell and Delagrange murders) has said insinuatingly that Bellfield “dotes on his mother and her on him. It's a troubling relationship.” But it was not Bellfield’s mother who kidnapped, raped, killed and maimed girls and women, of course. He did that, on his own, although he is not the first male killer to be extended the courtesy of blaming his female relatives.

Coverage of the Yorkshire Ripper accused his wife Sonia of driving him to murder. “I think when Sutcliffe attacked his 20 victims, he was attacking his wife 20 times in his head,” said a detective quoted in the Mirror, as if the crimes were not Sutcliffe’s responsibility but Sonia’s for dodging the violence properly due to her. Lady Lucan has been successfully cast by Lucan’s friends as “a nightmare” in order to foster sympathy for him – even though he systematically tried to drive her mad before he tried to kill her, and did kill their children’s nanny, Sandra Rivett. Cherchez la femme. Cherchez la mom.

I know little about Bellfield’s relationship with his mother, but one of his exes spoke about him earlier this year. Jo Colling told how he had terrorised her while they were together, and stalked her after she left. “When I knew he was with another woman and not coming home it was a relief, but now I know what he was capable of, I feel guilty,” she said. “I did get an injunction against him, but it only made him even angrier.”

Colling fears that she could have prevented Bellfield’s murders by going to the police with her suspicions earlier; but since the police couldn’t even protect her, it is hard to see what difference this could have made, besides exposing herself further to Bellfield’s rage. Once there was a woman who was raped, beaten and stalked by the man she lived with. The end. This is a dull story too: Colling’s victimisation is only considered worth telling because the man who victimised her also killed Milly Dowler. Apparently the torture of a woman is only really notable when the man who does it has committed an even more newsworthy crime.

Throughout his engagements with the legal system, Bellfield seems to have contrived to inflate his own importance. Excruciatingly, he withheld his confession to murdering Milly until last year, leaving her family in an agony of unknowing – and then drew the process out even further by implicating an accomplice, who turned out to have nothing at all to do with the crime. He appears to have made the performance into another way to exercise control over women, insisting that he would only speak to female officers about what he did to Milly.

It is good that there are answers for the Dowler family; it is terrible that getting them let Bellfield play at one more round of coercions. And for the rest of us, what does this new information tell us that shouldn’t already be obvious? The story of men’s violence against girls and women is too routine to catch our attention most of the time. One woman killed by a man every 2.9 days in the UK. 88,106 sexual offences in a year.

Once there were some girls and women, who were tortured, stalked, kidnapped, raped, killed and maimed by a man. Dowler, McDonnell, Delagrange, Sheedy, Colling. More, if new investigations lead to new convictions, as police think likely. All those girls and women, all victims of Levi Bellfield, all victims of a common crime that will not end until we pull the pieces together, and realise that the torture, the stalking, the kidnaps, the rapes, the killing and the maiming – all of them are connected by the same vicious logic of gender. Then, and only then, will be able to tell a different story. Then we will have a beginning.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.