'I want to set up the Stoic version of the Shaolin Monks'
Drugs were pretty normal where Richard Weber grew up, in Ansonia, Connecticut. He says: “A lot of people I knew were into them - heroin, cocaine, marijuana. Pretty much everyone I knew had a drugs problem, and many of my friends still do.”
He started himself when he was 12, smoking weed, then taking pills, then building up a big cocaine habit when he was 18. “The habits grew worse and worse, to the point where I was smoking a quarter of an ounce a day, doing cocaine every night, drinking heavily.”
It was, he says, “definitely an escapist thing”. He was pretty angry with the world. “I used to have an absolutely awful temper. I couldn’t get on with anyone in my family.” He was angry with his father for disappearing when he was a kid. He hated his job working as a line-chef in Moe’s Southwest Grill. He hated his school and neighbourhood. He took out his anger getting wasted and playing really loud metal.
He sometimes felt like his anger was appropriate, but he usually regretted it after he lost his temper. “There was one time where a guy in my house briefly choked his girlfriend. And I lost it with him, and got into a big fight. And afterwards I felt really, really bad about it. I had nightmares about it for a while. I tried bragging about it, or playing it off as a joke, but really I felt ashamed of my behaviour. And it wasn’t productive. If I’d had a rational talk with him the next day, rather than attacking him, I might have genuinely changed his behaviour.”
When he was 21, he started trying to find a better direction in his life. He looked into Buddhism, and started practicing meditation. He tried to get involved with politics, and canvassed for Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election. The stories he heard while door-to-door canvassing moved him:
“I remember one lady, telling me her daughter had cancer, and she couldn’t get insurance coverage, and the medical bills were getting bigger and bigger. I remember how upset and worried she was. It made me think about what I was doing with my life, what I could do to help other people.”
One day, in the public library, he came across the Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius. He says: “I completely understood what he was talking about. It reminded me of Buddhism, but it didn’t say that all life is suffering. It said life is good and full of happiness if you learn to follow the path of virtue. Once I realized that virtue was sufficient for happiness, all the bad habits dropped one by one.”
He says: “I started working out every day. I loved the line in Aurelius: ‘At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself, "I have to go to work - as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I'm going to do what I was born for - the things I was brought into the world to do?’”
“I stopped feeling so much self-pity and learnt to enjoy even the tedious parts of my day. I stopped going to work angry, and instead went to work happy I had a job at all, when so many of my friends are unemployed. I now work in the Moe’s Grill in Yale, and it’s enabled me to meet some fascinating people from the university - like an Australian who works in robotics, and a German philosopher of science.”
“And I became a lot less angry with people. I realized people aren’t annoying or badly behaved because they’re evil. A lot of my friends think like that, or speak like that. They say, ‘oh, he’s really evil’, or ‘she’s rotten to the core’. But actually, people behave badly because they’re ignorant, they’re ill, they can’t control themselves. Stoicism understood that, so in some ways it’s quite a modern, psychological view of human behaviour.”
Richard volunteered as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT), driving an ambulance, and wants to start training as a paramedic. He says:
“One day we got a call from New Haven, about a woman who had overdosed on PCP, and who’d fallen unconscious in the middle of the road. We picked her up and put her in the ambulance. I was measuring her blood pressure, when she woke up and started to panic. She attacked me, kicking and scratching me. I thought I was going to start panicking too, but then I thought about what I was thinking, I thought about the situation, and I became calmer, and the other medic came and helped me out. I think Stoicism helped me in that situation, in terms of how I reacted to stress.”
He thinks Stoicism could help other young people too, and he wants to try and spread its message. He already introduces Stoicism into his lyrics (he’s now working as a hip hop MC, called DoctaJones), and he plans to set up a Stoic training centre for young people, particularly those with drug problems.
“I want to start an organization that will help kids so they can use their bodies and minds more efficiently. It would teach philosophy, and also martial arts and parkour. It would teach young people to use their strength to overcome bad habits, and not to hurt others but to help them. It would be like the Stoic version of the Shaolin monks.”
“I’m doing my best to offer my services for free. I’m going to put in any profits I make from my music. I don’t want to rely on any government hand-outs. So far I’ve set up the website, which lays out the Stoic principles. Any martial arts teachers in Connecticut who are interested in getting involved, get in touch.”