‘I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee.’ – Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five
Writing this piece is one of the most personal things I’ve ever been asked to do, and perhaps one of the most difficult as well. When discussing Stoicism and its therapeutic effects on persons with post-traumatic stress, what could I add to the new Stoa that Donald Robertson hasn’t already covered with his Stoic cognitive behavioural therapy? Or to the work of Thomas Jarrett, who applies Stoic principles in his mental-health course, Warrior Resilience and Thriving, which helps instil ‘post-traumatic growth’ in our warriors so that they may move forward with their lives? Let alone to the heroic account of the Stoic fighter pilot James Stockdale, who underwent a brutal, Epictetan experience for years as a prisoner of war in Hanoi. I might, however, be able to participate in the Stoic dialectic by adding another first-hand account of one more former soldier who, lost and reaching out from the abyss, found a hand grabbing mine in that spiralling chasm of anger, despair, and grief. One more person who, in reading Epictetus, took the hand of a crippled and scarred former slave- a hand that slowly began pulling me out of the darkness. If this is the story I was asked to tell, then lead me, Zeus, and begin the way you see fit.
I couldn’t sleep well for years after the war. I took night jobs and ruined relationships. I was stone-faced and ‘unfeeling as a statue’ when I did, and yet would sometimes cry uncontrollably at scenes of injuries from explosions and gunshot wounds in documentaries. Not all gunshot wounds though; just the ones from the AK-47. Similarly affected, some of the soldiers I had served with had believed they found some vestige of respite in drugs and alcohol. I had a close comrade who, one night a few months after being kicked out of the Army for drug abuse, took too much of both. To say it was suicide would suggest some thought-out intention, an act of will- an answer to Albert Camus’s only serious philosophical problem. Rather, it was one last random desperate act in a short post-war life full of random desperate acts.
Is there balm in Gilead? Is there philosophical life after post-traumatic stress from the war? Can the Stoics convince us that virtue is the only good? That vice is the only evil? That all else is indifferent? Even if that ‘all else’ means being burned, being maimed, seeing others mangled and torn? Their ears burned off and their eyes blinded by fire and explosives, staring vacantly, asking us if they ‘can go to sleep now’? Even if that ‘all else’ means children too charred to scream? Or the Iraqi woman, quietly hovering over her limp, mangled child, somehow impossibly still standing on her own shrapnel-shredded legs? Or that recurring memory of the road-kill we run past that we realize is in fact the top half of someone’s head, blown a block away by the winds of war? Soldiers are tough and bold, and we make light of it all at the next meal, getting it out, seemingly unaware that there’s still someone else’s blood on our uniforms, our hands, underneath our fingernails. We forget for the moment.
If the intellect is convinced and one accepts the doctrine of adiaphora (indifference of externals), and the mind is shown by reason that it is in the nature of animals like the ones we are to die, to be killed, and to burn like the flesh of any other mammal, that any piece of earthenware eventually breaks and returns to dust, then what do we make of those moments in the night years later, when we wake up fighting for breath and life and can’t remember why? Or alone, staring at walls, when we remember how beautiful our comrades were in life, in all their rough edges and profanity and stubbly dirty beards. The soul jerks and wrenches. When the thousandth memory surfaces, the sand in our mouths, the steaming sweat flowing from underneath the helmet and armour in those years in the relentless desert heat, those shrieking women’s voices in an unintelligible idiom in their grief or confusion, do we still hold the doctrine of the ancients to be true, or no? And if so, is it only possible to be understood by the rare phoenix that is the Stoic sage- that person of the rank of Odysseus, Socrates, and Diogenes among us? Here Epictetus shakes us awake, and pulls us further from the darkness of our thoughts:
‘Things seen by the mind, whereby the intellect of man is struck at the very first sight of anything which penetrates to the mind, are not subject to his will, nor to his control, but by virtue of a certain force of their own thrust themselves upon the attention of men; but the assents, whereby these same things seen by the mind are recognized, are subject to a man’s will, and fall under his control. Therefore, when some terrifying sound comes…or something else of the same sort happens, the mind of even the wise man cannot help but be disturbed, and shrink, and grow pale for a moment, not from any anticipation of some evil, but because of certain swift and unconsidered motions which forestall the action of the intellect and the reason.’ – Gellius, 17.19 [Oldfather’s translation, slightly modified].
As a slave, Epictetus had been crippled by a cruel master, and his many references to chains, sword, rack, and scourging in his few discourses is a window to what his former life may have been like and what he had witnessed done to others. I doubt very much that he would not have been affected, at some level and early in life, with some semblance of what we moderns call post-traumatic stress. What he guides us with in these matters is this: for those of us grappling with these symptoms – hypervigilance, the first stirrings of grief, of anger – we might accept that we have them, perhaps ‘cannot help but be disturbed’ by them at first, and yet come to terms and realize that these impressions are not in themselves terrible. Nor must we necessarily accept that they represent something terrible. If, as the Stoics say, ‘the business of life is being a soldier’ and ‘life itself is warfare,’ then we can accept that we may now, and perhaps always, have these recurring thoughts and feelings of our formidable ‘sojourns in a foreign land’ that “thrust themselves” upon our attention. The first Stoic, Zeno, with an admirably resilient dismissive attitude, calls these ‘lingering scars.’ Seneca even suggests they can be lessened over time. But what are they, for a Stoic like Epictetus? Impressions. Impressions and nothing else. Not the impressions of something morally good, or morally bad, but merely impressions of past trauma. What did we expect to happen in life and war?
Life is chemistry: if we want to see what something is made of, we test it – we burn it, we stretch it, we crush it. For these brilliant philosophers, so it is with these impressions. And with enough time and practice, the soldier’s ‘winter training’ of doctrines attested by the warrior-emperor Marcus Aurelius, the slave-philosopher Epictetus, and Seneca (that household tutor of the brutal, unhinged Nero), we can yet start to see these memories and impressions as nothing more than bogeymen scurrying in the dark, with power only to scare children and fools. They need not make us irascible, bloodthirsty, unfeeling, miserable, or cowardly. We mustn’t let them. For Epictetus, there is a way out of our post-traumatic abyss, and it begins by testing our thoughts and feelings:
‘Soon, however, our wise man does not give his assent, but rejects and repudiates them, and sees in them nothing to cause him fear. This is the difference between the mind of the fool and the mind of the wise man, that the fool thinks the cruel and harsh things seen by his mind, when it is first struck by them, actually to be what they appear, and likewise afterwards, just as though they really were formidable, and he confirms them by his own approval; whereas the wise man, when his color and expression have changed for a brief instant, but keeps the even tenor and strength of the opinion which he has always had about mental impressions of this kind, as things that do not deserve to be feared at all, but terrify only with a false face and a vain fear.’ (Ibid.)
We often choose to assent to these ‘cruel and harsh’ impressions. We allow ourselves to mistakenly believe that death is an evil, that injuries and pain are evils; that comrades should not die. That something bad has happened when nature, Zeus, calls his elements back to himself – whether those elements are momentarily in soldiers or children. To believe all this is unreasonable and, to keep with the ancient pantheism, impious. It is to fall in love with fantasies and externals; to fail to understand necessity and nature- our own and the world’s.
We can, however, accept that a certain type of animal, with a certain neurochemistry and disposition, may perhaps necessarily experience something of the sort after a traumatic event. We can, and perhaps will, shake, become pale, perhaps occasionally even weep. There is no shame in this when it is beyond our control. But we, the rational animals, can also do this without experiencing a violent passion, without assenting that something bad has happened to us. We need not identify with our impressions. The ancient Stoics show us that a rational animal can accept necessity, and to some extent comprehend the web of causality – the mind of Zeus. We can grow past our once-painful experiences and become better people because, in themselves, these impressions are nothing of moral value. Whether we will or not is up to us.
Oldfather, William Abbott (1998) (Trans.) Epictetus: The Discourses as Reported by Arrian, the Encheiridion, and Fragments. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Leonidas Konstantakosbecame a special education teacher after the Army, has a Masters in Liberal Studies from Florida International University and adjuncts philosophy at night. He has more papers on academia.edu if anyone wants to read further.
from Philosophy for Any Life: an open-source self-help book
by Zachary G. Augustine
Editor’s Note: This piece follows on from Zachary’s previous post. The book is freely available to download at philosophyforanylife.com.
Today I escaped from anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions – not outside. —Marcus Aurelius[i]
There is a real danger in focusing too much on learning about techniques as opposed to implementing them. The goal of therapy aims to break the linguistic circle of reading-and-thinking, ad infinitium, and to prompt a shift toward action.
Those who experience anxiety know unpleasantness of thinking too much. An apt description of anxiety is one of ‘rumination’. Those with social anxiety may ruminate on what could go wrong in a social interaction, or endlessly repeat inconsequential events. Those with more generalized anxiety may ruminate about nearly anything. The word itself refers to the digestion method of large grazing animals (like cattle) that ferment cellulose by holding it in a special, extra stomach for a long period of time. Cattle must sleep standing up because the slurry of grass and digestive juices would otherwise spill into their other stomachs.
Not that cattle aren’t infinitely interesting, but the point is that rumination has a negative connotation, one of referring to the lower animals. That is, while humans are distinguished in our ability to pause and think through problems (as no one has ever seen a cow ponder), we are also responsible for deciding, that is, stopping thought and resuming action at an appropriate time. Ultimately, humans are distinguished by action in combination with thought, not either alone. And action without thought is worse than ignorance, for the base form of judgment is one of blindly trusting the desires and judgments of the body. This leads to consequences that you would not otherwise accept. The opposite is also true: Thought by itself moves nothing.[ii]
Treatment depends on honest and good judgment of oneself. A key factor is the recognition of your own anxiety-producing practices. You must find their root, which tends to be mental and verbal in origin.[iii] Problems can seem large when they are dealt with in an excessively verbal manner – anyone who has sat in on a bureaucratic meaning can attest to the damaging powers of bloated words. Rather, you will feel relief if you can develop your own techniques to break the verbal cycle. To get outside of your own head, so to speak. The techniques themselves vary based on the situation, but fundamental to all of them is correctly identifying that your recovery is within your own control, the acceptance that it may be difficult and a willingness to try in spite of this, and a responsibility to take your recovery into your own hands. Kabat-Zinn summarizes the importance of this disposition:
“The deciding factor…is the willingness of the patient to try to do something for himself or herself to cope with some of the pain, particularly when it has not responded fully to medical treatment alone. People whose attitude is that they just want the doctor to ‘fix it’ or to ‘make it go away’ are not good candidates. They won’t understand the need to take some responsibility themselves for improving their condition. They might also take the suggestion that the mind can play a role in the control of their pain to mean that their pain is imaginary, that it is ‘all in their head’ in the first place.[iv]”
The notion that pain is realbut mental is crucial to the whole effort of recovery. This is not to deny that pain feels bad or can impact our lives. But it to deny, firmly and absolutely, that we can do nothing about it. While we cannot outright ‘cure’ our mental ailments, we can minimize them to the point of nonexistence. Even more so, we can learn from them and grow into a stronger, more loving person than had we never experienced that kind of pain. In the end, any ailment ends up being an impetus to change, an opportunity for growth. But it is only an opportunity, one you have to actively take. The ailment itself is changed through this realization, just as you are changed by the ailment, and changed again by acceptance of the ailment: in all three cases, suffering ceases the moment it acquires meaning.[v] You may find that the pain itself lessens once you stop fixating on it. (This was certainly my experience.) Instead, a positive outlook actually and physically makes your situation easier to bear. The key is to direct your energy toward other activities, almost as if you are distracting your mind, long enough to show yourself that you can think about other things besides an unpleasant situation. And once you begin to think that, it will become easier and easier to distract yourself until you no longer feel compelled to think of the pain as a hindrance.
Mental health treatment must be viewed as an ongoing process of change, not merely just a cure delivered to an otherwise static patient. As patients, we often want doctors to change our bodies in order to relieve our minds. But relief often only comes from the opposite: we must make up our minds, and then our bodies will follow. Doctor’s simply won’t say this, because it defies their job description, and the ideal we hold of them. It is a matter of shifting the locus of control from an external antidote to an internal one already contained within your mind. Realize truly what is within your control, and what is without. Here especially, be patient as you learn to accept these things. You will feel frustrated. Things you wish you could be now, ideas yet unfulfilled, shapes you can see the outlines of but never materialize, a thought you grasp for only a moment before it disappears and is replaced by the nagging pain of knowing that you’ve forgotten. This is frustration. But you can teach yourself not to accept frustration and work through it. You can cultivate the muscle of patience and understanding, through forgoing false judgments in favor of reality and all its flaws. This is because, “the value of attentiveness varies in proportion to its object. You’re better off not giving the small things more time than they deserve.”[vi] And the pain you feel is outside of your control, and thus not something worth focusing on.[vii]
When your mind becomes obsessed with anything, you will filter everything else out and find that thing everywhere. —Pi[viii]
You can’t change the fact that this obsession exists. For you, it’s real. Don’t waste energy denying that.
But you can modulate your response.
This is the problem I felt most acutely. I developed irrational fears about things that never used to bother me. I knew they were irrational but I couldn’t stop. That was the worst of all.
I became fixated on ways I might accidentally or intentionally hurt myself. I was afraid that I might hurt myself. Through that fear, I became afraid that I mightwant to hurt myself. This fear grew and I ended up causing myself a lot of emotional suffering. My fear of suffering directly caused my suffering, because I was stuck in certain mental feedback loops. It is illogical, ironic, and borderline insane. But through simply feeling fear, worrying about fear, and worrying about worrying about fear, I spiraled downward and watched as I let my obsessions begin to impact my daily life. (This happens to be a good litmus test for looking more objectively at the state of your own problems – to what extent do your problems impact your life on a daily and long-term basis?)
I developed an irrational fear of knives, scissors, heights, and driving. I knew it was ridiculous – I had no intention of ever hurting myself – but in spite of this knowledge I could not stop worrying that one day I might. If any of those situations presented themselves, I froze. If I was cooking in the kitchen, I was watching the knives. I would sweat constantly, my heart stuttering as I walked up a tall staircase for fear that this time I would lose control entirely, have a mental breakdown, and throw myself off.
These obsessions carried over into my personal relationships. It became difficult to drive to see my friends. I became worried about trivial matters, like small sums of money or arguments with strangers on the Internet. These were ways that I could express my desire for control, in however small a way. I was so afraid of losing control that I lost it. Now, I am at peace with the fact that much is outside of my control.
So believe me when I say even some of your own thoughts are outside of your control. That’s a horrible feeling – to lose control of yourself. But it is manageable, I promise. Don’t get discouraged, “Don’t let your imagination be crushed by life as a whole. Don’t try to picture everything bad that could possibly happen. Stick with the situation at hand, and ask, ‘Why is this so unbearable? Why can’t I endure it?’ You’ll be embarrassed to answer.”[ix] Take that feeling of embarrassment, and focus on that. Laugh at how strange your mind works, how silly sometimes you are. Don’t invalidate the way that you feel or the things that grab your attention. But see the humor in it, and take them for that they are worth. How things that seemed urgent a moment ago now don’t make much sense.
If you look for the light, you can often find it. But if you look for the dark, that is all you will ever see.—Iroh[x]
Depression is the inability to imagine a future.[xi] It is the assumption that your current mental state will continue indefinitely, and that such a continuation would be bad. Why would it be bad? Because your current mental state feels unpleasant, you don’t want it to continue. It would be bad because it is bad to have your current feeling continue indefinitely. It is a vicious feedback-loop. It is illogical. But, it is nonetheless real.
Depression can occur by itself or in tandem with other conditions. Often, more fundamental problems such as anxiety, phobias, or other chronic conditions wear you down. They may weaken your overall health, and leave you more susceptible to other things: difficulty sleeping, worsening eating habits, weakened immune system, etc. It is often in situations like this that one can begin to feel discouraged. And that is the breeding ground for depression, a capstone added on top of your health problems when your back was already strained. You didn’t ask for this, but you have to face it nonetheless. If you begin to feel depressed for other reasons, you obviously have to deal with the root problem. Learning to handle your anxiety or OCD can take the edge off of growing depression before it becomes a full-blown problem.
That said, depression can have no other illnesses exacerbating it. It may seem that there is no physical reason for it; this may be true. In that case, it is important to get help. It could be as simple as not getting enough vitamin D, or it may be an issue that needs to be talked through. The only way you can know is if you get help. But in any case, reasonable or unreasonable, physical or mental, you can construct your own sense of meaning in your life. This meaning can be anything you can think of. And having some sort of focus, even if it appears simple or is just a hobby, will always make your condition easier to bear. And before you know it, you’ll feel much better.
Nothing but what you get from first impressions. That someone has insulted you, for instance. That – but not that it’s done you any harm. The fact that my son is sick – that I can see. But ‘that he might die of it,’ no. Stick with first impressions. Don’t extrapolate. And nothing can happen to you. —Marcus Aurelius[xii]
It’s important to stay positive, and it is always possible to do so. Those words mean little by themselves. But behind them is a deep truth relevant to all of our lives. Living is painful, and often for no good reason. But life in itself is reason enough to keep going – it is always worth it, and it is always possible to believe as much, if you choose.
Take every step you can to improve your overall well-being. Any positive change you make will also have effects on your ailment. There is no reason for your pain; it is random, or unlucky, or unforeseeable. But there is always a reason to endure pain. It acquires meaning when you choose to endure it. For pain only becomes suffering when you cease to endure it. That word is important; it is active, it is everlasting, it is optimistic. It says that you have within you a willpower that you can always stretch further than before, and always replenish quicker than last time. It may not get better, but it will get easier.
Despite your ailment, you will wake up every day with determination, energy, and hope. It may not feel like it now, but it will. To wake up every day and face a new set of challenges is wonderful. You just happen to have more challenges than some people. But you also have less than other people, and for that you should be thankful. There was no way to know where you would end up on the random spectrum of what life has dealt us. And even now, although things may seem bad, there’s no way to know where you’ll end up. Won’t it be interesting to find out.[xiii]
It may end as quickly as it began, or not at all. It could stop and come back. But the answer in every case is the same: do the best you can. Don’t let yourself get discouraged by a lack of external progress, for the only progress that matters is internal.
Often these kind of things are what you have to learn to live with. And when you finally feel defeated and are about to give up, you resign to the fact that this is something you will have to get used to. You will just have to deal with it, and make the best of it. Then, at that precise moment, it passes. Paradoxically, when you stop trying to get rid of it, it disappears. This is something that requires suffering to realize. You have to go through it to understand: it didn’t go away. It’s still there. Only, now, it doesn’t bother you. What you did instead was learn that it doesn’t need to bother you. You learned how to get around, despite the obstacles. Only by fully and honestly submitting to the reality of the situation can you come to live with it in the best way possible.
Pain is neither unbearable nor unending, as long as you keep in mind its limits and don’t magnify them in your imagination. —Marcus Aurelius[xiv]
A positive attitude is integral to your recovery. What if what was holding you back this entire time, preventing your recovery, was your negativity? What if just by changing your mindset – which is always within your power – you can change your life? Then you have nothing left to fear. Often, paradoxically, it is our behaviors that sustain our illnesses. Like the addict who realizes his deteriorating condition and wants to change, but lacks the resolve to do so yet. Perhaps that addict is used to feeling this way. Perhaps he has come up with behaviors that no longer give him comfort, but are simply familiar. And so the addict continues, not because he enjoys it anymore, but because he’s frightened of change. As Aurelius says
Frightened of change? But what can exist without it? What’s closer to nature’s heart? Can you take a hot bath and leave the firewood as it was? Eat food without transforming it? Can any vital process take place without something being changed? Can’t you see? It’s the same with you – and just as vital to nature.[xv]
As difficult as it may be, you need to want to change. What you want to do is suspend the doubts of your mind for long enough to act positively. Action has great positive changes on the body; this much is well known. If you change your physical state, if you achieve a basic state of physical health and activity, your mind will follow. And if you change your mental state, it will be easier to change your physical state in the future. And then you know how it works, and that it can be done, and it becomes much, much easier.
This takes time. Be patient with yourself. There will be times when it feels hopeless, when the pain is unbearable. When it would be easier to return to your old ways. This is good! It shows that your body is resisting the changes you are trying to implement. This means that you are close to overcoming the body’s resistance. Feel the pain (don’t deny that it’s there) but don’t give into it fully. “Unendurable pain brings its own end with it. Chronic pain is always endurable: the intelligence maintains serenity by cutting itself off from the body, the mind remains undiminished. And the parts that pain affects – let them speak for themselves, if they can.”[xvi] Maintain control of your mind despite the pain – always keep a bit of yourself pulled back a bit to watch what’s happening to yourself. Just watch.
Through this act of self-observation (metacognition) your pain will lessen as you come to understand yourself better. You will reinforce a self-imposed divide between body and mind, one that nature would rather do away with, reducing you to little more than an animal. But as anyone who can endure great pain can tell you, the body cannot rule the mind; they should never converge to the same entity.
Do not hesitate to ask for help; for your worries about appearing burdensome are a just another internal barrier you have erected to bar your own recovery. You are far more conscious of your own faults in this regard than anyone else – it is just as likely that those close to you want to help, but don’t know how or are afraid to ask. It is your responsibility to ask for help, and you will be floored by the support that you receive. The stigma surrounding mental health issues is already disappearing rapidly, and what little that remains is mostly imaginary. Your problems, however, are real, and any barrier to your recovery must be overcome. Any stigma is then useless or illusory, and can be safely ignored. Do not be afraid; everyone you could possibly encounter during your recovery wants nothing more than for you to succeed.
Do not be discouraged if progress is slow. As Hemingway says, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places. But those that will not break it kills.”[xvii] It is okay to be broken, for you will always heal stronger. And to break in some areas and recover is infinitely better than the alternative. I want everyone to become strong at the broken places, and I hope that this book will help you in some way. But these words are no substitute for serious medical help, if that is what you require. So please, ask for help when you need it, because there are some things that are outside of your control.
In the end, you will find yourself stronger than had you never faced any difficulties. You will look at yourself and be proud of who you became. And you would do it all over again if given the chance. Because if you didn’t, you wouldn’t have learned anything. You wouldn’t be as strong as you already are now, or nearly as strong as you will become. It will all be worth it. Always.
Friends and Family
We must not force crops from rich fields, for an unbroken course of heavy crops will soon exhaust their fertility, and so also the liveliness of our minds will be destroyed by unceasing labour, but they will recover their strength after a short period of rest and relief: for continuous toil produces a sort of numbness and sluggishness. —Seneca, On Peace of Mind
There is a constant tension between asking those close to you for help and remaining silent. You need support more than anything, but it can be impossible to communicate something you don’t fully understand or even accept yourself – so how is anyone else supposed to? And that feeling of burdening those close to you never quite goes away. But I have been on both sides of that emotional support system, and I can guarantee you that there’s nothing they would rather do than help you. So please reach out to them. It will be as relieving for them to help you as it will be for you.
If you know someone who is struggling, you must understand they are already beyond frustrated with themselves. They already feel immense lot of guilt, shame, embarrassment, and helplessness. Constantly they feel as if they are a burden. So you must take great care to not add to this weight.
Also recognize that they express this internal frustration outward, and often to those closest to them. So take any negativity they express with reservation, for surely it does not reflect upon you and your actions. Even if you treat them with nothing but kindness, you will inevitably receive responses from them that are unwarrantedly negative – from your perspective. If only they could see that things aren’t as bad as they’re making it out to be. From theirs, the world is drained of its color, and you would have to be blind to not see it. Keep that in mind.
If this happens, reflect that you have far more perspective, willpower, and patience than they do in their current state. Don’t criticize their behavior, which is a direct representation of their mental state, which they have little control over (at this moment in time). To criticize any of this – to express your frustration or empathy or pity for their sorry state – is to further degrade their already minimal self-worth. You may feel frustrated that they can’t exit their slump. But surely they feel this same frustration ten times more strongly. It’s not that they don’t see it, it’s that they feel powerless to do anything about it. It is a compulsion, a necessity. And an unfortunate byproduct of that is you will have to shoulder some unpleasant encounters, reassurance, and complicated or otherwise stressful situations. Be patient, for your patience is one thing you can do to help.
Don’t take how they treat you personally; they may feel so trapped that they likely don’t have much else they can do other than lash out at you in this way. Remember that your willpower goes ten times as far as theirs. In their state, it is almost as if they are a different person.
With your support, they will emerge stronger than they were going into the ordeal. And when they come through the other end – and they always will – they, with their newfound perspective, will be incredibly thankful for how you helped them. The previous feelings of guilt and shame will be replaced with only love. The sense of burdening one another fades, instead replaced by an image of the posts of a new foundation: what weight would crack one alone is effortlessly supported by multiple. While similar things would be crushing alone, they are that much easier to bear when we rely on each other. It will be because of you they succeeded, and they, too, will help you to succeed. That is what a meaningful relationship is, and it is perhaps the strongest thing there is.
Zachary G. Augustineis a student of philosophy and history at the University of Chicago. Besides writing, Zach does contract work and teaches as a graphic designer and is an advocate for open content, tech education, and mental health. Take a look at his work or send him an e-mail at zacharyaugustine.com. Zachary has written an open-source self-help book, based on Stoicism, which you can find at http://philosophyforanylife.com.
[ii]Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics.
[iii] “There is evidence within the CBT literature that a preponderance of verbal processing in the form of rumination is associated with a range of psychological symptoms, overgeneral memory, and poor problem solving (e.g. Watkins, 2008). Conversely, the ability to flexibly integrate verbal and sensor/perceptual information may be the hallmark of more adaptive processing.” Richard. Stott, Oxford Guide to Metaphors in CBT: Building Cognitive Bridges, Oxford Guides in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 19.
[iv] Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living, 287.
[v]Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning.
[vi]Aurelius, Meditations, 2002, IV.32.
[vii] A theme repeated often in the excellent Richard Carlson, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff – and It’s All Small Stuff: Simple Ways to Keep the Little Things from Taking over Your Life, 1st ed. (New York: Hyperion, 1997).
[x]The Legend of Korra, Animation, Action, Adventure, (2012), bk. 2 Episode 10: A New Spiritual Age.
[xi]Steven Soderbergh, Side Effects, Crime, (2013), http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2053463/. This movie may be disturbing for those with mental health illnesses, but this phrase taken alone sticks with me as an accurate depiction of depression.
[xii]Aurelius, Meditations, 2002, VIII.49.
[xiii]The Legend of Korra, bk. 4 episode 2: Korra Alone.
[xiv] Aurelius, Meditations, 2002, VII.64.
[xvii]Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms, 1st Scribner classics ed. (New York: Scribner Classics, 1997).
The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts: therefore, guard accordingly, and take care that you entertain no notions unsuitable to virtue and reasonable nature. —Marcus Aurelius[i]
All is a matter of perspective. Or, “The world is nothing but change. Our life is only perception.”[ii] Good or bad, you live inside your mind, so you make it so. You must make it good.
Every day you will be confronted with things outside of your control. This is not bad. The things themselves cannot harm you. Rather, you harm yourself when you judge these accidental facts as bad. And so things outside of your control are nothing to regret, or worry about, or fear. When you are faced with something like this, tell yourself: I am freed from the burden of trying to control this.[iii]
It is not enough merely to endure these things outside of your control; you must actively deny their importance. They are not relevant; they are indifferent. In a perfect world, you would be indifferent to indifferent things. But you are so used to calling them bad that your mind is often tossed around by things you can’t control. So you must, instead, reject these external things. To fail to deny them is to tacitly submit to things outside of your power. To remain neutral in the face of indifferent things is to behave in bad faith.[iv] You must, in a way, be active in your denial. Not that they happen – for every day you will face matters you cannot control – but rather, it is the meaning of indifferent things that you must reject, that they hold any sway over you and your actions. And your actions are the only thing you can control entirely.
—Surely you admit that much in life is outside of your control.
Yes, of course.
—Then why do you resist those things?
On the contrary, I neither resist nor welcome things I cannot control. I am indifferent to what I can’t control. Instead, I reject their importance. To welcome them is to excuse yourself for your own failures. This reinforces the pleasant illusion that you are not in control of your own life, replacing it instead with a comfortable falsehood that you’re ‘doing the best you can’, that external factors entirely govern your being. But you are in control, you just refuse to accept it. And to resist them is to delude yourself in a different way, that you can change the will of others, control chance, or refuse the falling rain. This you will never be able to entirely control, and you must accept it, or you will grow frustrated. Instead, you must learn an accurate and precise perception of the world. You must be honest with yourself about this appraisal. Only then, will action become easy, and you will know the answer in every case: if you can change it, do so. If you can’t, you must accept it.
—Even if I do accept that, won’t that just lead me to become complacent – to stop trying to control what I can?
You already know the answer to your question – you said it already. The first step, more important than any other, is recognizing what is within your power. You don’t need to deal with all of those other things right now. In this moment, your only focus is to internalize what we have just discussed. You don’t need to have all the answers, you only need to try to tell the difference between what you can affect and what you can’t. It is so obviously true that there will be things outside of your control, yet constantly we frustrate ourselves instead of accepting them. Watch yourself for this habit, and break yourself of it. Try to recognize this fundamental distinction first, and the motivation to affect what you can will follow, you’ll see. Now, all you need is the desire to get better, and the resolve to put in the effort when it matters.
—Don’t you think that attitude is kind of defeatist? You really believe that you can be happy by giving up control over external things? I think when the time comes, you need your health and your family to be happy. You could lose these at any moment.
You again – don’t you have anything better to do than to doubt yourself? Do you never tire of thinking of the worst outcome? To think that my conscience is such a downer. I swear, you are like a doubting little demon, sitting on my shoulder and questioning my every effort! You’re getting ahead of yourself. You’re missing the point of what we’re working on right now. We’ll deal with all of that later, and you’ll see that it’s not quite as it appears. It’s not as if I can ‘give up’ control over something that was never within my control to begin with. It’s just a matter of perspective, and that’s what you have confused here. It’s only natural, you probably have some mistaken beliefs of your own; I know I probably do.
As for health and family, they are outside of your control, but onlyin part. You can work on both. But part of this work is recognizing that you might lose them. This is nothing to be afraid of, it’s just a fact. And you should be prepared. In fact, you’re obligated to call it like it is and not pretend that they’ll be around forever. And this fact of impermanence shouldn’t cheapen their value in your mind; it makes your time with them all the sweeter.
I’ll deal with your doubts like I deal with anything else. First, I recognize that I can’t control when your objections appear, or even what they are. It’s natural for you to be a pessimist; I feel that same strain in myself often. In certain situations it may even help me to listen to your caution, as having an active conscience is not a bad thing.
But you can get carried away. So, second, I choose to reject your doubts. Now is not the time and you know it; now is the time to learn, and to do that we have to suspend doubt for a moment and actually try. It’s like anything in life – like a lost set of keys or a broken car – you can’t help when it happens or that it does. But it is absolutely essential to choose how to respond, in every case. It won’t help you to get angry that your car is broken. Worse, it’s counterproductive to get angry: that you couldn’t see it coming, that it’s in the past, that anger won’t fix your car, and that you’re already wasting time getting it fixed and moving on in life. The latter reason, you know, is the only thing that is truly within your control: your response to the perception of a broken car. The ability to choose your response is one of your greatest gifts – it very well may be the secret to happiness. It’s so obvious it hardly needs stating, yet just watch your thoughts. How many times do you make yourself angry through choosing a counterproductive response? You know this to be true. So then you also realize how important it is to spend time on this, even though it’s obvious.
Third and finally, I’ll press on in spite of your doubts. This is the response I choose, and it’s one of action. Changing my perceptions will take practice. But how much more peaceful to be concerned only with those things which I can actually affect.
Through drawing this division in my mind, I will separate the wheat from the chaff and safely discard that which I cannot control. With practice, I can train myself to recognize this more and more easily. Soon I will mold and temper my mind in such a way to accept the stresses and weights placed upon it. If I can make disciplining my judgement a habit, I will flex where previously I would have snapped. With practice, I will ride the waves of emotion that used to crash around me. I will forego uncertainty and excessive self-doubt for inner peace.
To domesticate your emotions, rather to be ruled by them – to stand up straight, not straightened – is to live in accordance with nature.[v] Only then can you respond properly to that which truly matters – matters of choice. Honest choice and just action are only possible with the clarity of a disciplined mind. So you must start at the beginning – which no one wants to do[vi] – with watching your thoughts and rejecting those judgements of indifferent things.[vii]
There is a fundamental distinction in every human life. Look at your hands holding this book, your body in a chair. Your body is the limit of your control. Outside of it, the world is subject to many other forces, mostly other people but also sickness and inclement weather and the passage of time. All of this cannot be changed. This essential distinction of control is the ultimate principle of Stoicism. It grounds all that is to follow.
Nothing outside of your control can be changed directly. But through memory and foresight, humans have a seemingly unique gift to alter the world now to better suit us in the future. While we can’t control the future, we can prepare ourselves, change our own minds and bodies, so that when the future inevitably but unknowingly comes, we are ready. You can ready yourself for the future, rather than wait for it to come.
At every moment, realize that the present – the remarkable ability to think this very thought – has suddenly passed. That thought in the line above is now more distant. And now, even further buried. But the past, regardless of how past it is, is always irrevocable by simple virtue of it having passed. That is, one minute ago may as well be one year ago, it makes no difference.
So at every moment divorce yourself entirely from the past. Free yourself from the responsibility of remembering it, for either: it doesn’t matter, or if it does matter, its use is separate from the negative feelings that accompany it.
Whenever you find yourself in the present moment – a snap of attention or focus or a simple awareness of the fact of life – look forward, for that present that was so clear a moment ago is already as distant as your childhood. Barrel ahead and make your future what you wish it already was.
To be like the rock that the waves keep crashing over. It stands unmoved and the raging of the sea still falls around it. —Marcus Aurelius[viii]
You’re eating lunch with a friend, who refers to you as a stoic kind of person. What, exactly, do they mean? Cold, emotionless, or overly rational is a fair interpretation. (You would be justified in taking offense at this, which would serve the additional purpose of disproving yourself as emotionless. Although, you quickly realize, taking offense solves nothing.)
While commonplace, this use of the word could hardly be further from the truth. The Stoics were intense, but they were not emotionless. Even the English word ‘apathy’ is a mistranslation of a Stoic word (‘apatheia’), which translates literally as ‘without suffering’. If you are truly apathetic, you would be more properly understood as ‘invulnerable’, perhaps even ‘secure’ or ‘free’.
This misunderstanding is telling. In fact, it is illustrative of the true teaching of Stoicism, which feel at times like Buddhism. Mindfulness guru Jon Kabat-Zinn writes, “It is not always the pain per se but the way we see it and react to it that determines the degree of suffering we will experience. And it is the suffering that we fear the most, not the pain.”[ix] Too often, you think that emotions themselves cause problems. (If only you could be less angry, less jealous, more passionate, and so on.) Emotions are natural and cannot be denied or stopped. In themselves, feelings are not bad. It the anticipation and the fear that drives suffering. The mistaken belief that this feeling is bad, or harmful, or permanent. On the contrary, emotions are something to be enjoyed, and embraced, but not let grow out of hand. This is hardly a utilitarian desire to feel less pain – to feel in control is in itself a high form of pleasure. Emotions, both pleasant and unpleasant, follow as a natural extension of life, as natural as the bones and muscles that make up our bodies. And all living things can be trained and strengthened.
This ideal state of apathy is available to all. Aurelius writes, “The mind without passions is a fortress. No place is more secure. Once we take refuge there we are safe forever. Not to see this is ignorance. To see it and not seek safety means misery.”[x] Aurelius is establishing the second key tenant of Stoicism, that of indifference to indifferent things. Together these two principles of control and indifference inform three disciplines, or active practices, integral to a good life. The three disciplines of judgment, of assent, and of action, each concerned with a different scale and focus, each with their own strategies and mental imagery, but each relying on the distinction between what is within and without your control.
Zachary G. Augustineis a student of philosophy and history at the University of Chicago. Besides writing, Zach does contract work and teaches as a graphic designer and is an advocate for open content, tech education, and mental health. Take a look at his work or send him an e-mail at zacharyaugustine.com. Zachary has written an open-source self-help book, based on Stoicism, which you can find at http://philosophyforanylife.com.
[i]Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, trans. Jeremy Collier, 1701, III.9.
[ii]Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, trans. Gregory Hays, Modern Library ed. (New York: Modern Library, 2002), IV.3.
[iii] This is no quote I’m aware of, but I would not be surprised if it exists in some Stoic text. I may have read it and forgotten where, which can be said about many of the maxims written here.
[iv] See: Jean-Paul Sartre. Thanks Bart Van Wassenhove for making this connection explicit.
[v] “Stoicism is about the domestication of emotions, not their elimination.” — Nassim Nicholas Taleb and “To stand up straight – not straightened.” Aurelius, Meditations, 2002, III.5.
[vi] “But it is not complicated. It is just a lot of it. And if you start at the beginning, which nobody wants to do – I mean, you come in to me now for an interview, and you ask me about the latest discoveries that are made. Nobody ever asks about a simple, ordinary phenomenon in the street. What about those colors? We could have a nice interview, and I could explain all about the colors, butterfly wings, the whole big deal. But you don’t care about that. You want the big final result, and it is going to be complicated because I am at the end of 400 years of a very effective method of finding things out about the world.” Richard P. Feynman, Take the world from another point of view, Television, 1973. quoted in Richard P. Feynman, Curiosity, Digital video, The Feynman Series, 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lmTmGLzPVyM.
[vii] These are the teachings of the Stoic school, particularly the primary sources of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. The style of argumentation with your personal demons is a mixture of Aurelius’ Meditations and Socrates in Plato’s dialogues. The deconstruction of Stoic doctrine into three fundamental activities – disciplines of judgment, assent, and action – can be found in Hadot, The Inner Citadel. and the relevant sections on Stoicism in Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life. I have attempted to mirror this theoretical structure throughout this book, drawing on Alan Stedall, Marcus Aurelius: The Dialogues (London: Shepheard-Walwyn Publishers, 2005). and Steven Pressfield, The War of Art: Break through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles (New York: Black Irish Entertainment LLC, 2002) for inspiration in terms of style.
[viii]Aurelius, Meditations, 2002, IV.49.
[ix]Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness, Delta trade pbk. reissue (New York, N.Y: Delta Trade Paperbacks, 2005), 286.
[x]Aurelius, Meditations, 2002, VIII.48.
Interview with Zachary
Stoicism Today: Can you say more about the ‘open-source’ element of this book?
I mean that the text is freely licensed and free to download. Why is a different story.
From the beginning, I wanted to write something that might help someone who may be struggling. When I was going through hard times, I found this relief in Marcus Aurelius. But I’m hardly a Roman Emperor, and getting your book into the hands of readers can be difficult for anyone. By giving it away, I could help more people and get more readers.
This is why I chose to license the book under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license. Such a license promotes what I think are positive uses — sharing, printing, remixing, classroom use, quoting in another work, and, hopefully, republishing — while snubbing any negative uses, such as reselling, unauthorized compilations, and piracy. The key aspect of the license is that it is ‘ShareAlike’, so any works based on mine need be licensed in a similar fashion. If a company wanted to take my book and resell it, they could, but they would need to say where they got it and make theirs This is what prevents commercial or otherwise unfair use.
Production-wise, the cover photo was public domain on Unsplash, and the fonts were all open-source projects, too. The result is that new ideas and technology allowed me to more easily present ancient philosophy to modern readers — at no cost to myself during production, or to my readers during distribution.
A final benefit is compatibility with the growing body of ‘open’ content. Copyright today wants to build each thing its own safe and isolated little pond, separate from everything else. But decades of this practice has dried up the ground between all the ponds, making it difficult for anything else to grow there. Those who are lucky or strong enough to build and maintain their own ponds are happy enough, but everyone else is miserable. So those who were left out got together and, little by little, built a tremendous reservoir with thousands of tributaries. Now, everyone who chooses to be a part of this new system benefits from everyone else. Their participation only improves the whole, too.
Stoicism Today: And what about the content of the book itself?
Augustine: Right–it relates somehow!
Just as the ideals of Creative Commons and open-source software purport an almost utopian vision of society, philosophy, too, idealizes its audience. It’s true that not everyone has access to the education, time, or money necessary to read. Despite this, perhaps because of it, philosophy has a long tradition of accessibility. This may seem a little counterintuitive when one considers ‘philosophy’ today. But the philosophy I know — and the philosophy that Stoicism Today also delivers — is by anyone and for everyone. This is what’s unique about Stoicism compared to other schools of thought: a notion that we are all students learning and practicing, however imperfectly, in an effort to better ourselves.
Like a student, a Stoic may revisit the same simple ideas many times in an effort to internalize them. Different than a student, however, a Stoic puts what they learn into action. What you learn changes you through the act of reflection. The philosopher wants to live a good life. In that sense, we are all already philosophers.
Practice becomes very important. One can always practice more to strengthen that most important of muscles: the mind. Thankfully, many Stoics practice by reading, and then rewriting what they found in their own words. This has led to a rich tradition of themes and images common to Stoic texts, a tradition I hope I have contributed to. The sense of practice, rephrasing, and repetition is lends Stoic texts an intensely personal flavour, and why the best of them — your Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, Letters of Seneca, and Enchiridion of Epictetus — are actually personal writings. When these ancient authors sincerely express their vulnerability, the result is both empowering and humbling.
This is the experience that I wanted to give a modern reader, even if they hadn’t read a single word of philosophy beforehand. And for those who are more well-versed, I hope that the metaphors, quotes, stories, and historical allusions give philosophy that much more of a living character, and lend an impression more colourful than what a more academic text may offer. In my book, I try to make Stoicism come alive through stories, essays, dialogues, and letters in a conversational tone, just like the original Stoic texts that so many people find comfort in. Just as a Stoic sage might talk himself through a feeling anger welling in his gut, I tried to put this thought process down on paper to show philosophy in action, rather than simply talk about it. This kind of thought process was how Stoics used to practice, to cultivate a defence against all the negative emotions that tend to arise in every day life. And this is how many of them still do.
Editor’s Note: Unlike some of our posts, this is an extended essay.
You are going to die. Also, everyone you know and love will also die at some point, some possibly sooner than you. Perhaps worse still, you are going to experience hardships during the course of your life on your way to death. Some may be quite painful. Whether you live for ten years, fifty years, or one hundred, makes no difference. Fate makes no exceptions. Each of us can expect to have things not go our way at several points during our lives and some of us will lead lives that will be completely unpleasant and consistently experience great pain and suffering. Our reality is such that at any moment we could lose our lives or have our loved ones taken away from us; around every corner could be an accident waiting to happen that could irrevocably change us for whatever amount of time we have left; that we will build things and have them unfairly taken from us or watch them be destroyed. The question is not how do we stop these things, because we can’t, the question is, how do we best live in a world where these events are not a possibility, but a reality.
Is it possible to find tranquility and happiness in such a world? Many of us cope with the harsh nature of this life by burying our head in the sand and pretending like the realities of death and hardship don’t exist. We employ this strategy until these events are staring us in the face and we are forced to confront them totally unprepared. I believe that this is the worst possible way to go through life and that even though suffering and tragedy are a given, tranquility and happiness are still possible. I would argue that the ancient practice of stoicism provides us with the tools we need to live a happy and tranquil life, regardless of how much pain and suffering we experience or how long or short our lives end up being.
This paper is written for everyone. Whether you have recently undergone a difficult time of your life, whether you are currently experiencing one, or whether you have been lucky enough to be experiencing a period of prosperity, it makes no difference. I have chosen this topic because I think stoic resilience is something that each of us can use at one time of our lives or another. It matters not if you are a Christian or an Atheist, a Buddhist or a Muslim, or even if you are a practicing stoic. I believe that the teachings of stoic philosophers are of great benefit to everyone because they offer us a way to live our lives with a clarity of perspective that is conducive with both inner tranquility and happiness. In writing this piece, I have unapologetically quoted several passages from influential stoic philosophers at length, whose words I feel cannot be summarized, as there is a power in their speech that deserves not to be broken down or presented in any way other than its original form.
Although the stoic philosophy has much to say on several important aspects of life, I would like to focus specifically on the topic of stoic resilience and look at how the practice of stoicism can guide us through the variety of misfortunes life can and will send our way. In helping us cope with the challenges of the world, I believe stoics have put forward important insights, which when used correctly, can help us go through even the most difficult events of our lives. These insights involve having a precise understanding of control, adopting an appropriate perspective of our lives, and use of the tools stoic teachers advocate to help alleviate suffering and sadness when things don’t go in our favor.
To begin, let us examine the stoic notion of control. Stoics make an important distinction between the things that you can control and those things that you have no control over. I believe that many of us will easily acknowledge that there are things that we experience in our lives that we feel are outside of our control. These kinds of things become immediately apparent when someone hits your car when it’s parked out on the street or when you catch a disease or illness. These types of events readily serve as examples of things that we can experience that lie outside the scope of what we can control.
The stoics however take this deterministic line of thought further by pointing out that; in fact, most of your life is outside of your control. You are no more responsible for catching an illness than you are for the house you live in. Both are a result of something that occurred previously that you have little to no control over. For example, in the one case you are exposed to someone who carries the illness and his or her germs infect you. Whereas in the other, you may have acquired the house with money that you received from a loan you had no control over being granted, someone at the bank could have decided otherwise and then you wouldn’t have had the down payment needed and you’d be forced to consider other alternatives.
It is true that there are times when you may have some control over an event; say for example preparing for a job interview for a position you desire. But even with events like this, the ultimate decision of whether or not you are selected for the position remains outside your control. Likewise, you may feel that you are being prudent and ensuring yourself a long life because of the way you take care of your body through eating right and regularly exercising, yet all this hard work can be taken from you in a moment through an accident or illness.
Likewise, other important factors in determining who you will be such as your gender, race, parents, socio-economic status, country you’re born in, etc. have been decided for you by fate. Some of us will receive fates blessing and be born into good families with disposable incomes in a peaceful part of the world, while others of us will be born into abusive families or families that are struggling with poverty in a war-torn part of the world. Some of us will be born with fantastic genetics and talents that we can nurture into something great, while others of us will struggle with disabilities and achieve very little; most of us will live average lives and attain mediocrity. Epictetus went as far as saying:
‘We are like actors in a play. The divine will has assigned us our roles in life without consulting us. Some of us will act in a short drama, others in a long one. We might be assigned the part of a poor person, a cripple, a distinguished celebrity or public leader, or an ordinary citizen. Although we can’t control which roles are assigned to us, it must be our business to act our given role as best as we possibly can and to refrain from complaining about it. Wherever you find yourself and in whatever circumstances, give an impeccable performance. If you are supposed to be a reader, read; if you are supposed to be a writer, write.’ 
All this considered, you might be wondering, what do we have control over according to the stoics? A stoic would argue that there is one thing that you can control completely, and that is your perception of all the events that are occurring outside of your control. The events themselves are neutral and you make the decision to interpret them as good or bad. Going back to the example of getting a disease or illness, something that you may have tried to prevent, but ultimately, have little control over. A stoic would advise us to recognize that we have very little influence over illness and as hard as we work to prevent illness, sometimes nothing can be done to stop it and so we should waste no time stressing about it and should instead acknowledge that sickness and disease are a natural part of life.
Those events in our lives which present us with some control, such as attending a job interview or trying to avoid illness by living healthily, only require us to give our best effort to achieve the desired result in order to attain tranquility. In other words, in order to attain tranquility we must do our best to get what we want and leave the rest to fate. As an educator, I often tell my students before an assessment that they should not stress out about the test results, as they only have some control over this. As much as they may have studied and prepared, ultimately, they cannot completely control how well they do. Instead, I advise them to study and prepare for the assessment as hard as they possibly can given their circumstances because whether they then pass or fail, they will know that they did everything in their power to get the best result. Tranquility here lies in the knowledge that one did as best as they possibly could in order to show their best ability, irrespective of grades.
This is an important distinction because it hits at one of the key insights surrounding stoic resilience; it is not events themselves that bring us harm, but rather, our perception of these events. Stoics believe that we do ourselves a major disservice by trying to control events that are ultimately outside of our control and that we fail to realize just how many of the things we experience in our lives fall into this category. If an event is outside of your control then why should you stress yourself out about it? Would you stress yourself out because you know that the sun will rise tomorrow? There is nothing you can do to prevent this from happening, so why not interpret it in a positive way. Most of us have trained ourselves not to become upset about particular events such as the weather or time of year because we have recognized that we have no control over such matters. This suggests to me that it is possible with the right frame of mind to do this with other events, in fact, most events, it may just take a reminder and some practice.
The serenity prayer does a great job of expressing the stoic idea of control: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” In order to harden ourselves to negativity and achieve tranquility, we need to realize that most of the events of our lives are outside of our control, that even when we have some control over an event, the most we can do is give it our best effort, and that the only thing we have complete control over is our interpretations of events, so why not interpret them as positively as possible.
The second stoic insight into resilience I would like to look at focuses on our perspective and directly builds off stoic notions of control. Just as we need to acknowledge our limited scope of control, stoics believe we must also do our utmost to ensure that we live in the present. By living this way we limit the amount of grief or pain we can experience by controlling our perception to look only at what is in front of us. As Aurelius explains:
‘Forget everything else. Keep hold of this alone and remember it: Each of us lives only now, this brief instant. The rest has been lived already, or is impossible to see. The span we live is small- small as the corner of the earth in which we live it. Small as even the greatest renown, passed from mouth to mouth by short-lived stick figures, ignorant alike of themselves and those long dead.’ 
This kind of thinking is meant to reduce anxiety for a past that is unalterable and a future that has yet to occur. How many of us cause ourselves grief by remembering events from our past that are upsetting, when we should be reminding ourselves that we cannot change what happened in the past, it is dead and gone, we instead need to ensure that we take away any lessons that can be learned and focus only on the present moment.
Likewise, how many of us emotionally look into the future and become scared or anxious for things that have yet to occur and possibly may never come to be. Our imaginations are incredibly powerful and if left to their own devices can conjure up a million ways to disrupt our tranquility for things that have yet to happen, have already passed, or were never within our control in the first place. We are incredibly good at being seduced by negativity and as Seneca wisely points out: “A man is as unhappy as he has convinced himself he is.”
Here I think it is important to say that the stoics are not advocating that we should completely forget the past or completely ignore the future. Stoics are saying that we must perceive both the past and the future carefully, through a rational lens. We learn by experiencing and remembering, this is how we grow as individuals. What the stoics are advocating is that we should recollect events as learning experiences and not as emotional pitfalls. Any negative event in your past stands as a learning experience and if you can view it dispassionately you will maintain tranquility, while learning from your mistakes. A great way you can do this is to use the control you have over your perceptions to perceive all the events of your life as harboring some good. As Epictetus tells us:
‘As you think, so you become. Avoid superstitiously investing events with power or meanings they don’t have. Keep your head. Our busy minds are forever jumping to conclusions, manufacturing and interpreting signs that aren’t there. Assume, instead, that everything that happens to you does so for some good. That if you decided to be lucky, you are lucky. All events contain an advantage for you- if you look for it!’ 
Instead of looking back on a failed relationship with a loved one that you once cherished and thinking about all the negative emotions you experienced as a result of their loss, why not look back and think about all the things you learned from being with this person. You would have exercised your capacity to love and learned something about yourself, you will have had several life changing moments with this person and you will have changed as a result of their company. Look back and find the positives and make use of what happened. In the words of Epictetus:
‘Every difficulty in life presents us with an opportunity to turn inward and to invoke our own inner resources. The trails we endure can and should introduce us to our strengths. Prudent people look beyond the incident itself and seek to form the habit of putting it to good use. On the occasion of an accidental event, don’t just react in a haphazard fashion: remember to turn inward and ask what resources you have for dealing with it. Dig deeply. You possess strengths you might not realize you have. Find the right one. Use it.’ 
Similarly, when looking into the future we must also avoid doing this through an emotional lens. If you are going to look at every possible thing that could go wrong in the future and let this impact your emotions, then you are not acting sensibly as you have no reason to believe that things won’t work out the way you wish and so are unnecessarily jeopardizing your tranquility. On the other hand, if you are able to look at any given future event and rationally assess possible pitfalls that may occur, then you are acting preventatively in order to harden your mind against possible threats to happiness and tranquility. This is something that the stoics do advise us to do, as we will see below in our examination of the stoic tool of negative visualization.
Another aspect of perception that relates to stoic resilience revolves around the idea of understanding and acknowledging nature. Here the stoics are talking about a variety of things from what we would understand to be human nature, to the environment, to the workings of the universe itself. Stoics believe that the universe is rational and organized and that the best way to achieve tranquility and harmony is for each of us to acknowledge what our nature requires us to do. Unlike other forms of life like plants and animals, humans have the unique ability to use reason to a high level, and so, the stoics believe that this is our ultimate purpose, to lead lives guided by reason. By doing so we will achieve the tranquility and happiness we desire. As Aurelius points out:
‘Nature of any kind thrives on forward progress. And progress for a rational mind means not accepting falsehood or uncertainty in its perceptions, making unselfish actions its only aim, seeking and shunning only the things it has control over, embracing what nature demands of it- the nature in which it participates, as the leaf’s nature does in the tree’s. Except that the nature shared by the leaf is without consciousness or reason, and subject to impediments. Whereas that shared by human beings is without impediments, and rational, and just, since it allots to each and every thing an equal and proportionate share of time, being, purpose, actions, chance.’ 
Many people who don’t understand the finer points of stoicism often believe that stoic thinkers advocate the idea that each of us should act like some kind of emotional zombie, oblivious to any form of extreme emotion and cold and unfeeling towards the world. I think this is the farthest thing from the truth. Stoicism teaches us that we should go out into the world and experience as much of it as we can, that we should appreciate every drop of life from the smell of rain to the calm peaceful feeling that can accompany a good cry after a sad movie. What the stoics ask of us however is to use our reason to keep these emotions in check. If we are experiencing something that is distressing us then we need to change our perception of it, to find the good in it. If we are experiencing great joy over something than we need to enjoy it fully but be careful not to become over-dependent upon it, as fate gives and takes as she pleases.
This leads us into the final aspect of stoic perception I would like to discuss, which is the idea that we should care for what we have while it is ours. Everything in this world is on loan and will eventually return to where it came from in time. The stoics would advise us to appreciate the things that we have, while we have them, and realize that one day they will no longer be ours. This mentality is not just applied to possessions but also to people as well. Perhaps Epictetus says it best:
‘Nothing can truly be taken from us. There is nothing to lose. Inner peace begins when we stop saying of things, “I have lost it” and instead say, “It has been returned to where it came from.” Has your child died? He or she is returned to where they came from. Has your husband or wife died? He or she is returned to where they came from. Have your possessions and property been taken from you? They too have been returned to where they came from. Perhaps you are vexed because a bad person took your belongings. But why should it be any concern of yours who gives your things back to the world that gave them to you? The important thing is to take great care with what you have while the world lets you have it, just as a traveller takes care of a room at an inn.’ 
Anyone who has read the words of stoic thinkers will know that these are not philosophers who are advocating a life consisting of only pure rationality, but instead, individuals who are encouraging us to live our lives and experience the highs and lows accordingly. What they are asking us, however, is to manage our emotions using our rational capacities in order to avoid the pitfalls of falling deeply into a depression because of misfortune or the loss of something pleasurable that we have become overly reliant upon.
This realization of the transience of happiness when placed on things we have no control over is powerful because it tells us to stay rooted in a moment and drink it all in. The next time you are sat around a table surrounded by people you love take a moment to reflect on the fact that eventually these people you love will be gone, harden yourself to the sadness by realizing that this is natural and you will share this fate one day yourself, and then smile and enjoy every second of time you share with them because of this fact.
Ultimately, the stoics are asking us to be responsible for our emotions, not enslaved by them. To use our rational minds to alter our perceptions to see the positives in even the worst situations. They acknowledge that in times of great suffering it is natural to feel sadness and grief and do not discourage these emotions as they serve a purpose. They remind us what we had and what we have lost. However, we cannot live in a perpetual state of grief and at some point we must move on and in order to do this, the stoics advise us to look for the silver linings in every instance of tragedy. I believe Aurelius sums up this idea perfectly in his Meditations:
‘It’s unfortunate that this happened. No. It’s fortunate that this has happened and I’ve remained unharmed by it-not shattered by the present or frightened of the future. It could have happened to anyone. But not everyone could have remained unharmed by it. Why treat the one as a misfortune rather than the other as fortunate? Can you really call something a misfortune that doesn’t violate human nature? Or do you think something that’s not against nature’s will can violate it? But you know what its will is. Does what’s happened keep you from acting with justice, generosity, self-control, sanity, prudence, honesty, humility, straightforwardness, and all the other qualities that allow a person’s nature to fulfil itself? So remember this principle when something threatens to cause you pain: the thing itself was no misfortune at all; to endure it and prevail is great good fortune.’ 
Lastly, I would like to discuss some practical tools we can all use to help us develop our stoic resilience in order to be able to deal with tragedy and misfortune. As we will see, the stoics did not believe we should sit around passively waiting for misfortune to find us, instead, they advocated the use of several techniques that are designed to prepare an individual for the inevitable realities of life.
The first of these tools is what I would call self-denial. Not self-denial in the sense of ignoring obvious facts, but in terms of denying yourself of simple pleasures. You may wonder how denying yourself of pleasure can make you happy. As we’ve just discussed above, the stoics encourage us to enjoy what we have while we have it and a great way to do this it turns out, is to deny ourselves of these things temporarily, so that when we eventually do lose them completely we’ll have better prepared ourselves for this loss as well as enjoy them more while they are part of our lives.
An example of this in practice could be something as simple a spending a week every year sleeping on the floor rather than your comfortable bed. This many seem silly but anyone who has tried this will most likely tell you that after the first night or so your body adapts and you realize how much of an accessory something like a bed is. They will also most likely tell you that when they went back to sleeping in a bed the first few nights were so much more pleasurable after sleeping on a hard floor.
Likewise, things like fasting, dieting or abstinence from sex or drugs could be used to harden your resilience and build up your appreciation for the things that you don’t necessarily need, but enjoy having in your life. The point is that you’ve laid the groundwork for a situation in which you cannot have or afford the things you’ve become accustomed with, but because you’ve practiced living without them, you’ve lessened the impact not having them will have on your tranquility and happiness. During these times, you will perhaps realize how little you need to actually be happy when you have the correct frame of mind. Seneca best emphasizes this belief in one of his letters:
‘Set aside now and then a number of days during which you will be content with the plainest of food, and very little of it, and with rough, course clothing, and will ask yourself, ‘Is this what one used to dread?’ It is in times of security that the spirit should be preparing itself to deal with difficult times; while fortune is bestowing favors on it then is the time for it to be strengthened against her rebuffs. In the midst of peace the soldier carries out maneuvers, throws up earthworks against a non-existent enemy and tires himself out with unnecessary toil in order to be equal to it when it is necessary. If you want a man to keep his head when the crisis comes you must give him some training before it comes.’ 
Very similar to self-denial, a second stoic tool for building resilience is known as negative visualization.  Negative visualization is about actively thinking about any given situation in your future and assessing what could go wrong. If you are in a relationship then you may consider what it would be like if you were to lose your partner; if you are engaging in some kind of risky activity then you may consider possible accidents that could happen, etc. By doing this, the stoics believe that we harden ourselves to possible misfortunes that lie waiting for us in our future. This may seem like it conflicts with the idea we discussed above about living in the moment and not letting a future that has yet to come to be distress you, but we must remember that the stoics discourage looking into the future emotionally, not rationally.
To put this another way, a man who imagines a possible future where he is not selected for a position he desires after an interview using his emotions will likely only cause himself stress and anxiety. He will wait anxiously everyday for bad news that he has not been selected and stress about what he could have done differently. If the man’s visualizations turn out to be correct and he is not chosen, then he only opens up the door for more negative emotional responses to disrupt his mental state. Even if this man is eventually selected for the position he desires, he has spent his time between the interview and the decision in an unnecessarily negative frame of mind. However, a man in the same situation who is basing his projections in reason will consider the fact that he prepared as best as he possibly could for this interview and realize that the decision is out of his hands. He will consider alternative options should he not be selected for the position and be prepared for bad news, but crucially, not necessarily expect it.
Negative visualization is a key concept that is often overlooked because it involves the unpleasant task of thinking things through rationally that may work against you. I don’t believe stoic thinkers are advising us to be pessimists here. We should look to the future positively and hope things will work out in our favor. However, they are pointing out that whether things go our way or not is out of our control, and so, it is therefore prudent to at least consider the possibility that things may go wrong. I would argue that this is not unreasonable as it is far better to be prepared for the worst than blindsided by it. If you go through life assuming that you will get exactly what you want, when you want it, then you are ignoring the harsh reality of the world. Nobody is exempt from misfortune and so you do yourself a great service when you mentally prepare for misfortune by considering how you will react if and when things don’t go your way. Epictetus reminds us:
‘Think about what delights you-the tools on which you depend, the people whom you cherish. But remember that they have their own distinct character, which is quite a separate matter from how we happen to regard them. As an exercise, consider the smallest things to which you are attached. For instance, suppose you have a favorite cup. It is, after all, merely a cup, so if it should break, you could cope. Next build up to things-or people-toward which your clinging feelings and thoughts intensify. Remember for example, when you embrace your child, your husband, your wife, you are embracing a mortal. Thus, if one of them should die, you could bear it with tranquility. When something happens, the only thing in your power is your attitude toward it; you can either accept it or resent it. What really frightens and dismays us is not external events themselves, but the way in which we think about them. It is not things that disturb us, but our interpretation of their significance. Stop scaring yourself with impetuous notions, with your reactive impressions of the way things are! Things and people are not what we wish them to be or what they seem to be. They are what they are.’ 
In closing, I believe that stoicism offers each of us an effective way to deal with the harsh realities of our existence because it asks us to focus not on events outside of our control, but instead on our perceptions towards these events. It may be true that each one of us will cease to exist one day, but this is natural and nothing new. Billions of people, all with lives as rich and complex as our own have come and gone and billions of people yet to be born will also share a similar fate. Fearing the end of your own life, like it is some kind of unnatural evil or something that is being done against you specifically, is foolhardy. Equally foolhardy is to go through life dreading the end of it; consider and expect the end, but don’t let irrational emotions cause you distress. Instead, embrace the moment you currently find yourself in. Likewise, any misfortune that befalls you will have happened hundreds of times to countless people and in the grand scheme of time your situation will not be unique. In this regard, you are not alone. Instead of trying desperately to cling to things that you have little to no control over, focus on your perceptions and view the events of your life as being essentially positive. One man may view the loss of his worldly goods as a tragedy, while another as a chance to start anew, the only difference between them is their perspective.
I think the stoic message of resilience can be summed up simply by saying that we should enjoy what we have while it is ours but understand that these things never belong to us, realize that we have no control over how long these things will last, and that the only difference between happiness and sadness lies in our perception of events and not with the events themselves. If we are able to do this then we will find that happiness and inner tranquillity are possible despite whatever narrative fate has written for us.
Michael Burtonis a Canadian secondary school teacher who enjoys writing about philosophy, education, or anything else that catches his eye. Michael’s other works can be found on his blog athttps://stoicteacher.wordpress.com/. He can also be reached on twitter @stoicteacher.
Epictetus, and Sharon Lebell. “Always Act Well the Part That Is Given to You.” A Manual for Living. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994. 31-32. Print.
Aurelius, Marcus, and Gregory Hays. Meditations. New York: Modern Library, 2002. 32. Print.
Seneca, Lucius Annaeus, and Robin Campbell. “Letter LXXVIII.” Letters from a Stoic: Epistulae Morales Ad Lucilium. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969. 134. Print.
Epictetus, and Sharon Lebell. “Everything Happens for a Good Reason.” A Manual for Living. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994. 32. Print.
Epictetus, and Sharon Lebell. “Make Full Use of What Happens to You.” A Manual for Living. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994. 23-24. Print.
Aurelius, Marcus, and Gregory Hays. Meditations. New York: Modern Library, 2002. 102. Print.
Epictetus, and Sharon Lebell. “Care for What You Happen to Have – There Is Nothing to Lose.” A Manual for Living. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994. 24-25. Print.
Aurelius, Marcus, and Gregory Hays. Meditations. New York: Modern Library, 2002. 48. Print.
Seneca, Lucius Annaeus, and Robin Campbell. “Letter XVIII.” Letters from a Stoic: Epistulae Morales Ad Lucilium. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969. 67. Print.
Negative Visualization is a term I have encountered in the work of William B. Irvine’s fantastic book on stoicism “A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy” which I feel accurately describes this ancient stoic practice.
Epictetus, and Sharon Lebell. “See Things for What They Really Are.” A Manual for Living. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994. 14-15. Print.
Aurelius, Marcus, and Gregory Hays. Meditations. New York: Modern Library, 2002. 48.
Epictetus, and Sharon Lebell. “See Things for What They Really Are.” A Manual for Living. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994. 14-15. Print.
Irvine, William Braxton. A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.
Seneca, Lucius Annaeus, and Robin Campbell. “Letter XVIII.” Letters from a Stoic: Epistulae Morales Ad Lucilium. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969. 67. Print.
Stoic Week 2015 Report Part 2: Impact on well-being
by Tim LeBon
This report forms the second part of the report on Stoic Week 2015, which took place in first week of November. The previously published part 1 reported on the demographics, part 3 will provide an analysis of the association between well-being and Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours (SABS scale analysis) and part 4 will provide an analysis of qualitative feedback.
Over two and a half thousand participants took three established well-being questionnaires as well as the Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours scale. Well-being was measured before and after Stoic Week, allowing us to assess the impact of doing Stoic Week on self-reports on well-being.