I saw a documentary on TV a while back in which a charming Bill Clinton was speaking to middle school students in a classroom.

One polite young girl asked whether the ex-president ever regretted not intervening in Rwanda, where 800,000 were slaughtered in 1994.

A demure Clinton admitted that, yes, indeed, that had been a great mistake.

That was when I knew that this guy, a master politician, was a different species of human being than I am.

Did he ever lose sleep over that decision? Maybe.

But he seemed to take it all in stride, unlike our own (then general) Romeo Dallaire, the Rwandan peacekeeper who suffered terribly and was emotionally haunted for years by the UN's failure to intervene.

A tough hide

To be fair, Clinton did consult widely about Rwanda and, after much political advice — not to mention the failure of the American mission in Somalia and the killing of American soldiers there — decided not to do anything about the pending genocide.

Still, whether it is the result of having a tough hide or simply the ability to "move on," America's most cherished political emotion, putting behind you a mistake that cost the lives of almost a million people, well, that's a remarkable feat indeed.


A famous Stoic. The gilded bronze equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, dating to the Roman emperor's reign, appears in its new hall at the Capitoline museum in Rome. (Reuters)

There are people who worry about what they said to a friend or colleague and apologize a day later. And there are those who do not lose much sleep over catastrophes.

In any case, I'm lucky, I suppose, that I am not in a position to cause much damage (that I am aware of).

As a columnist, if I make a mistake and get some fact or a name wrong, no one usually dies. It is not like it's brain surgery, which, having been on the operating table, I speak of from experience.

Still, I think people who don't have life-or-death occupations shouldn't use that as an excuse to be sloppy or lazy. I do have some sense of what's at stake.

In my case, trustworthiness, professionalism. And I take my cues from the Greeks — arête. Excellence.

Try to do your work well (as a focused athlete would). You owe it to yourself and your audience to make the right choice, even if in the end it doesn't make much difference.

A sturdy anguish

I was reminded of all these things, about facing up to criticism and living with choices, when I spoke with William Irvine, an American philosopher and academic for an Ideas show.

Irvine did something many philosophy professors don't do, as too often now their work is rather technical: He went looking for a philosophy of life and found it in the ancient Stoics.

His book is called A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy.

And what Irvine tells us is that we have a mistaken idea about the Stoics. People think these ancient Greek and Roman philosophers advocated a quiet suffering, a kind of stiff-upper-lip attitude toward what life can throw their way.

Irvine's reading of them, however, is quite different. He values the Stoics not for their sturdy anguish but for their sense of equanimity.

Rising above the hubbub

Now, there are differences between the schools of stoicism, whether Greek or Roman, or early, middle and late; and there are also important differences to be gleaned from powerful Stoics like the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius and Seneca (condemned to die by the crazed emperor Nero), as well as from Epictetus, who had been born a slave, the history books say.

Irvine minimizes these differences in favour of boiling down their wisdom for us modern worrywarts.

What Irvine values is tranquility, an odd, almost perverse idea in this time when excitement is the norm and executives brag about how little sleep they get.

For most us, tranquility is for vacations, that is, if you take them.

So I felt I had to ask, why would anybody want to be a Stoic in this crazy world of ours? Is it even possible to rise above the hubbub?

But before I had the chance, the lines that connected Bill Irvine's studio in Ohio from ours in Toronto crashed.

Volcanic spouting

Oh boy. I had only booked so much time. After the first few minutes, I must admit, I could feel this niggling worry emerging. I felt helpless, a little frantic. But Irvine was as calm as can be.

As our technicians scrambled about trying to figure a way to continue recording, I began calculating what questions I should ditch.

I admit I was rattled (all this had eaten up so much time!). But I was in no danger. I wasn't an airline pilot asked to land in fog. I wasn't stuck for a week in a crowded airport, waiting for a volcano to stop spouting.

Still, who hasn't had moments like these while driving, commuting, rushing, rushing, rushing.

But Stoics, Irvine tells us, live by the adage that it is important to understand what you can and can't control, while discerning the vast middle, where the two get tangled.

Clearly Irvine couldn't control the technical breakdown. But he could and did offer to return to complete the interview at a later time. Chalk up one for modern-day stoicism.

Watch yourself

However, to become a good Stoic doesn't come easily. It's a project. You have to work at it, says Irvine.

You have to develop a second self that watches you while that first self mucks about haphazardly.

In this way, being a Stoic is a little like being a Buddhist, or a person who practises meditation. But it is not like you can become lazy.

In Irvine's case, for example, he has taken up competitive rowing. When he competes, he competes against himself, vigorously.

What's crucial for him, he says, is that he focuses on internal goals. In that way, he may be like all those Olympic athletes who came in second, third or place at all, yet who told us they were pleased with their performances, as they smiled stoically for the camera.

What does this have to do with Bill Clinton, politicians and making big mistakes that can cost hundreds of thousands of lives?

It's hard to judge another soul, or the conditions under which another person has to make some terrible decision.

But what I have learned, from Bill Irvine and experience, is that being Stoic in this world requires endless self-examination, not callousness. Only then, when we're satisfied we did what we could, can we be truly tranquil.