Along Came a Spider… by Debbie Joffe Ellis

Along Came a Spider…

by Debbie Joffe Ellis

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One of the many things I am grateful for is my love of nature, and the restorative and uplifting effect it has on me.

Whenever I am away from my home in NYC, presenting at conferences, universities or to other populations – I have never, so far, failed to discover either lovely locations close to wherever I am staying, by ocean, lake, river, or by parks or forests, or charming areas in cities – perhaps with pleasant tree lined streets: places where I can walk, reflect, look around and admire the beauty around me.

This happened in May, when I attended and presented at the annual Adlerian conference which was held in Minneapolis.

Though the hotel in which attendees stayed was surrounded by roads and highways, just a 10 minute walk took one to a lovely lake and areas near it with beautiful trees and other plants growing, melodic birds and tranquil calm.

That’s where I took myself on the Sunday afternoon, sunny and mild after previous days of some cool and rainy weather. I felt very warm after about an hour of my walking, so I removed my hoody and rolled my jeans up to below my knees, more comfy in light t-shirt and cooler calves. As I walked around the lake, admiring its shimmer, color, resident ducks, geese, goslings and many ducklings, I saw close to the banks of the lake and very close to the path I walked on, a number of low lying branches and logs on which a good number of tortoises sat, dozed, played, procreated (at least I think that was what they were doing or attempting to do!). So nice to see these tortoises doing that which their inclinations dictated they do in the balmy warmth of the sun. Wanting to get a better look at them and take photos, I moved slowly and quietly, positioning myself closer to them, treading on the tough grass-like plants between me and them.

Snap, snap, snap went my camera as I took some photos of these contented reptiles, until – OUCH – I felt a swift sharp pinching pain on the lower part of my calf. As I looked down I saw a spider scamper away. It was of medium size – shiny black body, and long thin legs.

Allow me please to share some background with you about me, for those readers who know little or nothing about my past, as this writing cannot reveal to you my Aussie accent. Yes, I was born and raised in the remarkable continent down under. You may have read, learned or heard about some of the unique creatures there, for example, the platypus: the only mammal that lays eggs, has webbed feet and a bill like that of a duck, a tail like that of a beaver, and a body shape and fur like that of an otter. The male is venomous. You may have also heard, read or learned that many other Australian creatures are venomous. Particularly some of the spiders.

Given that background, it would not be unusual for any Aussie, former Aussie, and non-Aussie alike, to feel far from apathy following such a nip by a fast moving, shiny, 8-legged creature.

There were at least 4 probable reactions a person might have had in response to such an event:

  1. See the spider waltz away and think something like: “ It is probably poisonous, I might die”, and through ensuing panic, develop symptoms such as increased heart rate, fever, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, trembling, and fall on the path shaking in fear till some kind person finds them and calls 911.

(Though the symptoms described above are those brought on by panic, they can also be symptoms associated with some spider venoms).

Rushed to the ER, one is found, after close examination and blood tests, to be free of spider, or any other, venom in one’s system. One also then realizes that simply as a consequence of thinking fear-inducing thoughts there can be a most dramatic impact on the functioning of the body.

  1. Rushed to the hospital…venom is found, and one survives thanks to the body’s immune system and/or anti-venom treatment.

  2. Rushed to the hospital…venom is identified but too late to remedy and death ensues.

  3. None of the above. (Spoiler Alert – I didn’t die.)

Here is what happened in my case:

I didn’t panic. I breathed deeply, calming myself, and thought about my options. Instead of catastrophizing, I thought along the lines of: “Ok, so I have been bitten, this isn’t Australia, I don’t know whether it is or isn’t poisonous and I have heard that very few spider bites here in the U.S.A. result in deaths of reasonably healthy people. What can I do to find out how safe or not I am? I am not shaking, trembling, fainting or frothing at the mouth, I am steady and the puncture mark is not changing its color from red to plum or black. Encouraging. What now?”

Does that sound too stoic, fantastically far-fetched, fictional and lacking in credibility?

It may come across that way for some of you, but I promise you, it is the truth.

I was able to reason with myself, stay steady, and seek productive action. Which in this case was asking some of the locals who were walking around the lake for their knowledge and suggestions about what to best do. I was indeed fortunate that it was a time of day when others were around and I was able to reach out.

A kind looking woman, a local, Linda, was the first person I saw and reached out to, explaining what had happened, and describing the spider as well as I could. She told me that she that she had lived in the area for decades, didn’t think it was poisonous, and reassured me that few local spiders were so. She shared with me that her understanding was that sometimes local spiders bite, but don’t always inject venom when doing so. Looking at the puncture marks, she said the bite didn’t look too bad, but suggested that if in some hours the area became more inflamed and the area around bite looked black – to go seek treatment.

Listening to her gave me realistic hope that I would recover from the bite, and I felt grateful to her and for the fact that the situation did not seem too dire.

All the while I remained mindful of my breathing, pulse and temperature, attempting to stay alert to any striking changes in any of the above.

As I walked back to the hotel, I noticed that the bite area ached more, and thought it would be good to seek more information if I could. Heading towards me I saw a calm looking man and woman walking their dog, and I spoke to them.They looked at the bite, and said it did not look too bad.

The woman immediately Googled venomous spiders known to inhabit that area – which only revealed the Black Widow spider, and when I saw a picture of it on her Smartphone l felt relief as it didn’t look like the one that had sunken its teeth (do spiders have teeth?), fangs or whatever, into my flesh. Her husband suggested my going back to the hotel, icing the affected area, elevating my leg – and if there was an increase in swelling or redness or the color turned dark and black – to quickly go to an emergency treatment center. We exchanged names, and to my sweet surprise, some hours later they emailed to check on me. Such care and kindness. I found out later that he is a surgeon at the Mayo clinic. I was indeed very fortunate to have met these three kind and knowledgeable people.

But let me get to what I most want to share with you, my readers.

The calm and steadiness that I experienced, which surely prevented any intense fear, panic and panic attack symptoms, was not a result of being born with the stoicism of Epictetus and the courage of lions.

It came as a result of years of ongoing application of the principles of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT).

In other words, it came as a result of practicing healthy thinking, in times of ease and times of challenge.

It came as a result of being mindful, thinking about my thinking on a regular basis, CHOOSING to dispute irrational beliefs and then replace them with healthy rational ones.

It took me making regular and frequent effort to keep things in realistic perspective when challenging things were happening, to zap any awfulizing tendencies, to keep myself largely in the present – and not allow myself to adopt a catastrophizing manner of worrying about “what will or would or could eventuate”.

The result of exercising the brain and thinking process in this way with strong determination, instead of succumbing to panic-inducing thoughts, is not apathy – but healthy motivating concern, and a clarity of mind that encourages life-enhancing actions in just about any given circumstance.

The more we practice mindfulness, thinking about our thinking, and choosing to think in healthy ways which create healthy and non-debilitating emotions, the easier it can be to remain steady, stable and alert during times of concern.

It is possible for most people who are not cognitively impaired to choose to practice watchfulness of thoughts, emotions and behaviors, and to make ongoing effort to eliminate self-defeating and panic-inducing thoughts and attitudes.

This can benefit us in practically any circumstances – even those of extreme brutality such as the mass murder that took place in a club in Orlando. Perhaps I will write about that in a future blog.

My main point here is that the sooner we start practicing healthy thinking, during both times of ease and times of challenge, the better equipped we can find ourselves to handle difficult events of varying degrees, from mild to extremely bad.

The stoic attitude I benefitted from as described here, is not one I am recommending that we aspire to creating in every situation and circumstance.

What I recommend is the embrace of the variety of non-debilitating human emotions, both pleasant and less pleasant. And to realize that it is not circumstances that will create what we feel, but the perspective we choose to take about those circumstances that will do so.

We have the power to create our emotional destinies.

I am not always “stoic” – far from it.

I choose to feel joy, grief, concern – depending on the situation and circumstance. At times I shed tears of joy, and also tears of pain when cruel things happen. That’s healthy. Doing so doesn’t debilitate, and is enriching. And when it can literally save my life and enhance my well-being to be stoic, I can choose to focus my mind and not let catastrophizing thoughts create swirling streams of fear and panic that spiral me down to debilitation or worse.

With discipline, thanks to prior practice, I can focus my mind in such ways that allow practical thinking and productive actions when scary stuff happens. So can you.

Try it!

Start NOW. (And keep jean or trouser pants at ankle length, not knee length, when walking in grassy areas by lakes!)

This essay was originally published in Psychology Today.

Dr. Debbie Joffe Ellis is a licensed Australian psychologist, licensed New York MHC, and adjunct professor at Columbia University TC. She presents and teaches in her home city of New York, throughout the USA and across the globe.  She is also one of the featured speakers at this year’s STOICON.

Growing Up Stoic: Philosophical Education for Character, Persistence and Grit by Leah Goldrick

Growing Up Stoic: Philosophical Education for Character, Persistence and Grit

by Leah Goldrick

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The harsh truth is that many students around the world will never receive any philosophical education whatsoever. Philosophy is often viewed as a useless exercise reserved for scholars in ivory towers. Curricula for primary school aged children is rare, especially in the United States, and some academics question whether pre-adolescents are even capable of philosophical inquiry.

That assertion likely rests on the premise that philosophy is ultimately something more theoretical than practical. It overlooks the potential for discerning parents and caregivers to teach young children how a philosophical outlook can make their lives happy and meaningful.

Where can parents find a curriculum that might help kids to develop a strong character and deal with the challenges that life will inevitably throw at them? What if such a formula is a ready-made for introducing young children to philosophy at home, through hands on activities and dialogue?

The Stoic philosopher Gaius Musonius Rufus (c. AD 30–100) has been called the Roman Socrates. He was well known in antiquity for his integrity, as well as for having been the teacher of the more famous Epictetus. He was viewed as something of a radical for arguing that both girls and boys should receive the same early education:

That there is not one set of virtues for a man and another for a woman is easy to perceive. In the first place, a man must have understanding and so must a woman, or what pray would be the use of a foolish man or woman? Hence I hold it reasonable that the things which have reference to virtue ought to be taught to male and female alike; and furthermore that straight from infancy they ought to be taught that this is right and that is wrong, and that it is the same for both alike; that this is helpful, that is harmful, that one must do this, one must not do that. From this training understanding is developed in those who learn, boys and girls alike, with no difference.

Musonius’ pedagogy is based on Stoic ethical theory, which emphasizes virtue as the natural human state, and happiness the result of becoming good or having an excellent character, which is achieved through habitual preparation. He states:

How could we become prudent if we had come to recognize what things are truly good and what evil, but had never had practice in despising things which only seem good? Therefore upon the learning of the lessons appropriate to each and every excellence, practical training must follow invariably, if indeed from the lessons we have learned we hope to derive any benefit.

Musonius thought that a sense of noble purpose instilled in the young, protects them from mistakes which make life unnecessarily difficult:

Well then, if it is necessary for both [boys and girls] to be proficient in the virtue which is appropriate to a human being, that is for both to be able to have understanding, and self-control, and courage, and justice, the one no less than the other, shall we not teach them both alike the art by which a human being becomes good? Yes, certainly we must do that and nothing else.

I believe that Musonius Rufus’ 2000 year old educational blueprint has a lot to offer astute modern parents and caregivers who wish to guide their young children towards a resilient and philosophical view of life.

One quick word of caution, though, before we delve into the specific lessons that a Stoic parent might teach. We as parents must set a good example. While it’s not about being the perfect parent, there is no use in teaching standards which we don’t at least try to live up to. Children are quick to spot hypocrisy, so don’t be afraid to admit your mistakes to your child. It facilitates the process of learning about virtue.

Drawing on Musonius’ apothegms which survived antiquity, we can derive some character-building exercises useful for laying the groundwork necessary for excellence. Musonius specifically suggests education based on each of the four cardinal Stoic virtues.

 

Justice:

Dikaiosune, meaning justice or integrity in ancient Greek, is a personality trait in Stoic ethics, rather than an external condition which is imposed on us, as in the modern sense. Justice is translated as empathy, fairness, kindness, regard for others, and philanthropy. Musonius has a good deal to say about the virtue which is helpful for guiding young children, including “To shun selfishness and to have high regard for fairness and, being a human being, to wish to help and to be unwilling to harm one’s fellow men is the noblest lesson, and it makes those who learn it just.”

He goes on to say:

Are not all these [material] things superfluous and unnecessary, without which it is possible not only to live but also to be healthy? Are they not the source of constant trouble, and do they not cost great sums of money from which many people might have benefited by public and private charity? How much more commendable than living a life of luxury it is to help many people. How much nobler than spending money for sticks and stones to spend it on men.

Look for creative ways to help children learn to value kindness and generosity over consumerism. Explain to your child that advertisements are designed to get their money. “Those five dollars you have in your pocket – they want that!” Explain that what is truly important is being kind and charitable when you can afford to be, rather than accumulating things you don’t really need. Consider having your child assist an elderly relative, pick out some of their toys to donate to a charity, or perhaps save some of their money to give to a good cause of their own choosing.

 

Determination:

Andreia is often translated into English as courage or determination. This virtue involves confidence, love of work, bearing hardships, and perseverance in things that we would like to avoid. This particular verse illustrates the importance of grit and working actively to provide for yourself:

Speaking generally, if one devotes himself to the life of philosophy and tills the land at the same time, I should not compare any other way of life to his nor prefer any other means of livelihood. For is it not “living more in accord with nature” to draw one’s sustenance directly from the earth, which is the nurse and mother of us all, rather than from some other source? Is it not more like the life of a man to live in the country than to sit idly in the city, like the sophists? Who will say that it is not more healthy to live out of doors than to shun the open air and the heat of the sun? Tell me, do you think it is more fitting for a free man by his own labor to procure for himself the necessities of life or to receive them from others?

You might encourage determination by having your child help with some reasonable activity for his or her age, such as cooking, chores, gardening, or yard work. Children can build confidence by acquiring these life skills. Gardening is especially educational for children since it involves delayed gratification, and occasionally, the lesson that hard work doesn’t always lead to a reward. Determination is required while seeding, watering and cultivating plants, and only later enjoying the food that you have grown. Emphasize the importance of working hard to take care of yourself and your household, and of persevering through any setbacks and disappointments that arise. Children should be praised for success, but also for conscientious efforts that are not successful.

 

Moderation:

Like other Stoics, Musonius Rufus valued moderation, or sophrosyne in ancient Greek. Sophrosyne consists of tempering your emotions, not eating too much, frugality, and carrying yourself with a certain poise and gravitas. Moderation is about knowing the middle in your activities, so to speak. On emotions, Musonius states:

Words of advice and warning administered when a person’s emotions are at their height and boiling over accomplish little or nothing.

Children are little people with big emotions, and they need help dealing with them until they are old enough to exercise self-restraint. Parents should wait until children are calm to offer correction or help navigating strong emotional reactions. Suggest taking some deep breaths or a perhaps time out until the child is able to discuss the situation calmly. Ask your child whether, for example, their angry reaction was particularly helpful. Were their words hurtful to someone else? Did they make a good decision? What can they do differently in the future? If you as the parent overreacted or got angry, apologize and offer to do better next time.

Musonius also advised temperance with regards to food, asking:

What else is gluttony but intemperance in the matter of nourishment, causing men to prefer what is pleasant in food to what is beneficial? Exercising moderation and decorum in eating, demonstrating one’s self-control there first of all, not an easy thing to do, but one which requires much attention and practice.

Teach your children that eating is primarily about nourishing the body rather than enjoyment. You only get one body, and it’s important to keep it in good health. Speak with them about why certain foods are healthy and nutrient dense, and why others, primarily sugary and processed foods, are not. An occasional treat is ok, but we should encourage children to eat a variety of natural, healthy foods rather than habituating them to gorge on junk. You must set a good example of healthy eating yourself.

 

Wisdom:

The final Stoic virtue is Phronesis, prudence or wisdom. Wisdom is often defined as excellent character, good judgment, noble purpose, resourcefulness, and acceptance of things that we can’t control. Musonius suggests that each person’s nature should inform their sense of noble purpose in life and that we should live by method to develop excellence:

The best viaticum for old age…the very one that is best for youth too, namely to live by method   and in accord with nature. You would best understand what this means if you would realize that mankind was not created for pleasure…For the nature of each guides it to its own excellence;  consequently it is not reasonable to suppose that when man lives a life of pleasure that he lives according to nature, but rather when he lives a life of virtue. Then, indeed, it is that he is justly praised and takes pride in himself and is optimistic and courageous, characteristics upon which cheerfulness and serene joy necessarily follow.

The method Musonius refers to may be the Stoic practice of evening review, which involves reflecting on what you did well or poorly each day, and figuring out how to improve your conduct going forward. At the dinner table, or at bedtime, talk with your child about how the day was for both of you, discussing what went well and what went badly. Did you miss any opportunities to do something good for your personal growth? It is helpful for children and parents alike to reflect on their own conduct, comment on their personal shortcomings, and brainstorm solutions for self-improvement. Wisdom is not something we acquire overnight; we are always working towards it.

“For only in this way will philosophy be of profit to anyone, if to sound teaching he adds conduct in harmony with it.” – Musonis Rufus

 

References:

Pritchard, M. (2002). Philosophy for Children. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved August 19, 2016, from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/children/

Lutz, C. (1947) Musonius Rufus, the Roman Socrates. Yale Classical Studies 10 3-147.

King, C. (2011) Musonius Rufus: Lectures and Sayings. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

 

Leah Goldrick recently became a practicing Stoic as a result of her ongoing inquiry into the Western wisdom traditions. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Philosophy and a Masters in Library and Information Science from Rutgers University. She used to be an archivist for the Presbyterian Church, and is now a part-time children’s librarian and blogger. She lives in the United States with her husband and infant son.  Her website is Common Sense Ethics.

'Dealing with One's Own Anger – Resources and Insights From Epictetus' by Greg Sadler

Dealing with One’s Own Anger – Resources and Insights From Epictetus

by Greg Sadler

V0009398 A frontal outline and a profile of faces expressing anger. E Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org A frontal outline and a profile of faces expressing anger. Etching by B. Picart, 1713, after C. Le Brun. 1713 By: Charles Le Brunafter: Bernard PicartPublished: [1713] Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Two months back, I wrote a short piece setting out several insights and resources stemming from Epictetus’ Discourses, focusing specifically on how to understand and deal with anger felt, expressed, and acted upon by other people. I also promised a second piece, following up by setting out the practical wisdom Epictetus has to provide us bearing upon our own anger. Here in this blog post, I will partially make good on that promise, but also kick the proverbial can a bit further down the road by deferring some of the necessary discussion to a third and later post about Epictetus on the emotion of anger. In that piece, I plan to expand on the considerations and techniques for dealing with anger mentioned at the end of this post, and to examine the importance of reworking habits for managing anger.

The choice to confine this post to a manageable length is a deliberate one, and the main reason for it is that this topic (Epictetus, his discussions of anger, and their applications in the present) turns out to be one upon which a great amount can be said. After consideration of the resources for understanding and addressing anger contained in Epictetus’s works (not to mention Seneca, and to a lesser extent, Marcus Aurelius), I’ve embarked upon a new large-scale research and writing project, intended to culminate in what will be a (hopefully short) book on Stoicism and anger. Later on this Fall, I’ll be providing a workshop on that topic, including practical resources for managing anger, at Stoicon in New York City (and likely some additional workshops and talks on the topic during the Stoic Week that follows). For the present, here are some of Epictetus’ contributions to thoughtfully and productively dealing with anger.

 

Some Starting Considerations

There are numerous passages within the Discourses, in which Epictetus makes some reference to anger in one of its various aspects. Piecing these together provides a coherent and fairly systematic approach to understanding, controlling, lessening, and hopefully even ending one’s own anger. We are particularly fortunate, though, in that beyond those scattered discussions, there are actually several chapters of the book devoted specifically to Epictetus’ teachings about anger.

One of these is chapter 18 of book 1, titled “That we ought not to be angry with those who make mistakes.” That sounds like a sentiment that most of us can get behind, at least in principle. But, what sort of mistakes does Epictetus have in mind? Failing to hold the door open for someone laden down with packages, because one assumes they are going past the doorway? Failing to follow a recipe and serving a less than appetizing dish for dinner? Mixing up a coworker’s name with someone else’s in introducing him or her?

The sorts of mistakes or errors (hamartiai) Epictetus cautions us about in that chapter are wider and deeper reaching, reflective of mistaken viewpoints that fundamentally motivate a person. The kinds of people he has in mind are thieves, robbers, and adulterers. It seems natural to get angry at people like that, people who we think are not just making a small or innocent mistake, but actively doing wrong, and choosing to do so, often at considerable risk and despite the illegality, public condemnation, or possible consequences of their actions.

But why do they engage in the sorts of actions that they do? According to Epictetus, it is because they are either totally or at least partly mixed up about some fundamental matters, the sorts of things that Stoic philosophy ought to provide us with a better perspective upon. As a first point, he notes that these people

have gone astray and are mistaken about the most important matters, and in a state of blindness as well, not in the sort of vision that distinguishes between black and white, but in the judgement that distinguishes between good and bad things. (1.18)

Epictetus suggests that we ought to consider showing them how they have things wrong, to allow them an opportunity to get them right, fully understanding that many of the erring will not take that offered opportunity as such. He also notes that it doesn’t make sense for us to get angry with them, if we think matters through, when what would be more appropriate to the situation is to feel pity or compassion towards them (in his Greek, eleein, which could be translated by either term).

Second, he suggests that our own anger represents a failure on our own part to adopt the right perspective when faced with these kinds of situations, and these sorts of troublesome people.

If the loss of the greatest things is the greatest harm that that can happen to a person, and the greatest thing in a person is his or her faculty of choice [prohairesis], and if a person is deprived of this very thing, what ground do you still have for getting angry with that person? If you have to be put into a condition contrary to nature by the misfortunes of another, why don’t you pity that person instead, rather than hate that person? Let go of this readiness to take offense and the spirit of hatred. (1.18)

He asks a hard but necessary question to hear, when one is already angry or getting angry with people who not only one takes to be doing wrong, but who are in fact, doing wrong, and doing so quite often: “How is it that you have been so suddenly converted to wisdom that you get angry at foolish people?” From Epictetus’ Stoic perspective, anger on our own parts indicates to us that we ourselves either have not attained, or are straying from, the wisdom that we view as lacking in the “fools”.

Insofar as we are getting angry with them, we actually share some assumptions in common with the foolish or the morally bad, and this is an important third point Epictetus makes:

We admire the things of which these people rob us. After all, stop admiring your clothes, and then you’re not angry with the person who steals them. Stop marveling at your wife’s beauty, and then you’re not angry at the adulterer. Know that a thief or an adulterer has no place among the things that are your own, but only among those that belong to another, and that are not up to you. (1.18)

To many of us, uncompromising counsels of this sort are admittedly difficult to agree with entirely, despite whatever attraction or affinity we may have with Stoic doctrine as a whole. Notice though, what Epictetus follows this up with:

So long as you admire these things, be angry with yourself, and not with the people I’ve just mentioned. For consider, you have fine clothes and your neighbor does not. You have a window, and want to air them out. That person does not know what the good for human beings consists in, but thinks it resides in having fine clothes, the very same thing that you imagine. (1.18)

In Epictetus’ view, the emotional response of anger is always a sign and symptom of something going wrong on our part, not only within the particular situation, but in the overall structure of our thinking, feeling, valuing, and acting. In this chapter, he points out to us an irrationality involved our own responses and stances of anger towards those who are likewise behaving in fundamentally irrational ways.

We have the capacity to understand the irrationality, the mistakenness, the error involved in choices those people make that lead them to unjust, counter-productive, selfish, harmful, or unseemly actions – and indeed, ways of living and being. And since we have that capacity, it is up to us whether or not we exercise it. If we do, a more appropriate emotional response is pity or compassion (although it seems that from where Epictetus sits, that’s still a second-best response by comparison to not feeling any “contrary to nature” emotion). It may be difficult, but we can head off, lessen, or at least control our own anger by attempting to understand the other, and we are aided considerably in doing so by realizing that their own bad motivations mirror our own, those that lead us into anger at them.

 

Understanding How and Why Anger Arises

Why do we find ourselves getting – or already – angry? For the Stoics, this emotion is not some random, unforeseeable, occurrence that just happens to us. Nor is it merely an automatic response we have no control over, so that when someone does something offensive, harmful, threatening, or just plain wrong, we can’t help but react with anger. There are intelligible and general processes underlying specific situations in which particular people get angry. Understanding what those processes are, and how they work, is essential to managing or addressing anger over time.

Understanding anger as an emotional (and even bodily) response that is not just raw affectivity, but also has underlying thought-processes driving it, allows us to examine those thought processes. And that, in turn, can give us a certain degree of freedom, permitting us to recognize those processes at work, as well as to decide for ourselves whether those thought processes are as reasonable or as necessary as they present themselves to us as being. As Epictetus reminds us at numerous points in our work, our desires and aversions, our choices and denials, our assents, judgments, and assumptions are the sorts of matters that are in our power.

As a general rule, whenever we get angry, Epictetus would say, we have gone wrong not only in our evaluation of what is happening – quite literally in the “use” (khresis)  we make of external appearances or impressions (phantasiai) – but also in our practical reasoning about the matter in relation to other things. Put in other terms, anger arises because of what it is that we think good and bad, how we order and value things, and accordingly what we desire and are averse to.

For each of us, in our own case, if we are to understand, let alone to manage or even master our own emotions – particularly anger – we have to examine what it is that we do value, what it is that we do think to be good, and therefore desire (and correspondingly what we think to be bad, and are averse to). If we’re honest with ourselves, we may find (I know this is the case for me) that there are quite a few externals, matters that fall outside of the scope of our power, things that are strictly speaking neither good nor bad, that we treat as being genuinely good or bad. And we do this precisely because we do think and feel them to be good or bad, making some mistakes in those assessments.

In doing so, in many different ways, we make ourselves vulnerable to the world, and in particular to other people, most of whom one should not expect to be fully rational. In fact, as Epictetus points out, the one thing you can really count on them to do is to follow what seems to them – but likely isn’t in reality – rational.

In another chapter of book 1, he provides multiple examples derived from classical culture of persons who went tragically astray in their excessive anger – Medea, Achilles, and Agamemnon in particular. In each of these cases, the person was deceived about where the genuine good resided, thinking themselves deprived of what they took to be a good, and they responded to admittedly trying circumstances by becoming very angry and following the dictates of that passion. In Medea’s case, “she regards the gratification of her ire and taking vengeance on her husband as more beneficial than saving her children” (1.28), and she in fact kills her own children as a portion of the retribution she imposes upon Jason.

Medea’s is admittedly an extreme case, but whenever we get angry, according to Epictetus, we similarly allow ourselves to be drawn into mistaken lines of reasoning. These bring us to dwell upon certain key matters, getting them wrong in the process – what goods we have been deprived of, what bad things we have had to suffer, and most importantly what good is to be attained through imposing something bad upon someone else, as just retribution or as a merited reciprocal response.

How precisely do we get these matters wrong? The specifics will, of course, depend on particular persons in concrete situations. But there are some broad commonalities that can be picked out. One of the most central of these is the assumption that whatever has been done to, or happened to, us should not have occurred – perhaps, if we go even further, we might add that it should never occur, should not even be imagined, and so on.

What is the basis for this “should not” that we import, in our judgements and desires, to the situation? At bottom, it stems from wanting things to go our way – things that are, strictly speaking, out of our control, not up to us, but rather up to someone else. We want to keep or attain certain things that might be possible for us, but certainly don’t have to be ours. We also want to be treated by people in certain ways and not in other ways, not least because we view their actions and words as indicative of how they think and feel about us. In short, we want a world of people and events over which we have no real or lasting control to conform to our own desires about it – and when this does not occur, we feel ourselves wronged, get angry, and want to strike back.

 

Addressing Anger When It Arises

Developing a solid understanding of  he irrationality, the negative consequences, or the counter-productiveness of our anger certainly proves useful. For some people, those insights may even prove necessary, if they are to control or address their anger. But as many of those of us who research the emotion know all too well from experience, simply grasping certain weak points to one’s character, as well as the processes by which one consistently goes wrong, does not by itself change much.

A person can engage in analysis, self-scrutiny, or reflection interminably without necessarily addressing a problem. In fact, after a certain point, such theoretical or contemplative work can become a substitute for the practical effort required, much like the people Epictetus jokes about and criticizes, who confuse studying books of Stoic philosophy with actually putting it into practice (e.g. in 1.4  or 2.19). It’s also possible to go one step further, and still not address the problem. A person can make all sorts of resolutions, even work out quite complex plans, and still make no real progress with their anger.

Once a person realizes their emotional response of anger to be something bad for them, if they want to work upon their temper, he or she has to choose to do something about it. And there’s two main things to be said about this.  The first is that if the person really recognizes their anger as something bad for them, and truly does want to change it, that person has to choose some effective means towards that end. The Stoics offer a number of those means, but the real measure of their effectiveness is what happens when a person really does put them into practice.

The second is that when one does make that choice not just to examine and to face up to one’s own emotional response of anger, but to actually do something about it in order to improve one’s character, what that person is doing is using his or her faculty of choice, the prohairesis. This is a use of one’s capacity for choice that bears reflexively upon that very faculty, partly undoing and then reweaving the fabric of one’s character. Put in slightly different terms, we are able to use what we possess of freedom and rationality to increase that very freedom and rationality, thereby rendering ourselves more free, more rational through that very work.

At numerous points in the Discourses, Epictetus reminds us of the centrality of bringing and maintaining our prohairesis “in accordance with nature” as the primary good. Over and over, we are faced with making choices between the alternatives of keeping our prohairesis in accordance with nature or pursuing something else that we view as a good (or conversely avoiding something else that we take to be an evil). When we choose that something else, we would like to tell ourselves that the option before us is not an exclusive one, but Epictetus relentlessly stresses that it is, often using mundane examples.

Reminding ourselves what precisely is at stake is something that we can do to stiffen our resolve when we have to deal with our own anger, something that is admittedly difficult to do at first, since it means opposing a portion of oneself that is already pressing upon us, trying to direct our faculty of choice, to hijack our thinking, to dominate our feelings. If we’re making progress along the Stoic path, one recourse we have is to pause and consider that in giving in to anger, we direct our prohairesis away from a state of conformity to (not even to mention harmony with nature). In resisting it, in not allowing it to sweep us away or seduce our reasoning, we maintain our prohaireis in accordance with nature. Good or bad, what’s fundamentally good for us, or damagingly bad for us – that’s our choice.

Now though, that is rather abstract, isn’t it? When we are already agitated by anger, how many of us really find an appeal to the ideal of a prohairesis in accordance with nature all that compelling? Answering this requires a modicum of honesty about one’s own moral condition, because if the Stoics are right – and I think they are about this – such a consideration ought to be more compelling the more progress we have made. And if it isn’t all that helpful for us in actual situations in which we feel anger, then that is an index of the lack of progress we have made.

So, what else might we choose to do in order to manage our anger effectively? Epictetus does offer us a number of more concrete suggestions. Each of these, technically speaking, is a general way in which, whether we realize it or not, we do choose to bring or keep our faculty of choice in accordance with nature. In the aforementioned interests of keeping this post from becoming overly long, I simply list several of these more specific techniques or considerations here, with a brief description of each.

#1: Understanding Reasons Why – As noted earlier, people act the ways they do for reasons that we can understand. While people who engage in actions likely to anger us typically have irrational assumptions, thought-processes, emotional responses, desires, etc., what they do does seem rational to them. If we can see what they do as partly rational and partly irrational, it makes sense to us, and we then are less bothered by it.

#2: Distancing From the Appearance(s) – We are confronted constantly with all sorts of “appearances” (phantasiai) which suggest to us how they ought to be taken, and play into our own matrix of desires and aversions, opinions and assumptions. We don’t have to automatically assent to them, and this goes particularly for those that typically make us feel angry, for instance appearances having to do with whether we are being harmed or insulted, whether other people intend to harm or insult us, and so on.

#3: Reminding Ourselves of Our Humanity – When we fall into various moral failures, we metaphorically resemble certain classes of animals. Those having to do with anger are dangerous beasts of prey, engaging in behavior appropriate to them as animals, but not for us as human beings. Thinking along these lines, we can “bring before our eyes” what it is that we look like when we become angry (a classic anger management technique).  We can also remind ourselves that, as human beings, we possess capacities for choosing how we respond, and for approaching matters rationally.

#4: Removing Ourselves From Competition – If we take what other people view as goods (which are really externals and indifferents) to be genuine goods, we will inevitably be drawn into conflict (makhe) with other people over those goods (and also experience inner conflict as well – though that’s a separate topic). When we find ourselves getting angry – particularly when in contention with other people – we can remind ourselves about what status these externals have, and that we needn’t place ourselves into competition over them.

#5: Fulfilling Our Roles Towards Others – When we get angry with others, and particularly when we act upon that anger towards them, we typically transgress (at least in part) the role and the accompanying duties we have in relation to those people. We do have a choice whether we maintain, or even restore that role (being a friend, a neighbor, a fellow citizen, a family member, etc.) within ourselves, or whether we give in to anger. Conversely, we can also head off anger we might feel towards them when they don’t fulfill their own roles towards us, by realizing that this is their failure, and not up to us.

In a follow-up post here later on this Summer (or early this Fall), I’ll expand on each of these strategies, provide discussion of several additional approaches found in Epictetus’ Discourses, and also examine the role our habits play in addressing anger.

 

Gregory Sadler is the Editor of the Stoicism Today blog.  He is also the president and founder of the ReasonIO, a company established to put philosophy into practice, providing tutoring, coaching, and philosophical counseling services, and producing educational resources.  He also works as an executive coach and ethics trainer for Priority Thinking, produces the Half Hour Hegel series, and is a team member of (Slow) Philosophies.

'Stoicism in the Service Industry' by Christopher Edwards

Stoic Solutions for Practical use in the Service Industry

by Christopher Edwards

Marcus from Christopher

“Be like a duck. Remain calm on the surface and paddle like hell underneath.”
– Michael Caine

A successful server is like the duck in Michael Caine’s quote.  Not everyone in the Service Industry stays calm though. There is a spirited concoction of challenges swarming about, both interpersonal and mental for the Service Industry professional. A Stoic solution exists, though, in practising the principles of this ancient philosophy, helping to effectively navigate the often stressful realities of the restaurant business.

I’ve been working in the restaurant service industry, in a variety of Front of the House (FOH) positions, from casual-high volume to fine dining, for about 14 years now. I’ve been practising Stoicism as a philosophy of life, (off, but mostly on) for a little over two years and have loosely practised it for more than 10. It is my experience that implementing these ancient principles works to keep a cool head in this Industry.

Challenges On A Busy Shift

I will first walk you through the common situations, pace, and challenges a server encounters during a busy shift at a casual high-volume restaurant. Then I will go over a few crucial nuggets from the later Roman Stoics that have not only helped me in life and in the Service Industry, but I believe can be applied successfully by anyone in this business. …but first, a quote from Marcus Aurelius:

“First, do not be upset: all things follow the nature of the Whole, and in a little while you will be no one and nowhere… Next, concentrate on the matter in hand and see it for what it is. Remind yourself of your duty to be a good man and rehearse what man’s nature demands: then do it straight and unswerving, or say what you best think right. Always, though, in kindness, integrity, and sincerity.” (Meditations 8.5)

See if the above passage helps you spot opportunities to practice Stoic principles in the paragraphs ahead.  Keep in mind that servers in North Carolina and many other states aren’t paid minimum wage. It’s $2.15 per hour. They live off their tips. They also have to tip out support staff a percentage of tips and/or sales. If you don’t tip, the server is essentially paying for you to dine out.

What Service Can Be Like

It’s the middle of a dinner rush. You have a 5-table section. You’ve just been “stiffed” (i.e. left no tip) by a table of three guys. A couple sits down and you greet them, “Hi my name’s Chrysippus and I’ll be taking special care of you this evening.” We’ll call this table, table A. You go through the spiel of featured drink and menu specials. The lady at the table sizes you up with a mean look. You give them a moment to glance over the menu.

A second table (table B) has just sat down 30 seconds ago. “Hi folks, I’m Cato the Younger and will be taking care of you tonight….” They let us know immediately that they’re in a hurry and are trying to make the eight o’clock movie. So you, without hesitation, take their drink and food order promptly, then head directly to the Point of Service (POS) workstation to enter the order. As you pass by table A, you check to see if they’re ready to order. They seem okay, still immersed in the menu.

As you’re entering the server station to enter in table B’s order and retrieve their drinks you see the Hostess seating a party of 5 (Table C) in your section. You take a deep breath. After delivering the drinks to table B you figure you have enough time to take take table A’s order. “What are we drinking tonight?” “Well, we’d like a bottle of your Reisling, but we have a question about the chutney on your Salmon special.” “Yes,” you reply?” Could I have it without red peppers?” You’re pretty sure it’s already pre-mixed, so you tell her as much, but to do the right thing, you tell her that you will go ask and return shortly.

Before asking about that, you must greet table C. They are a group of young college kids celebrating a birthday. You introduce yourself and tell them about the drink specials, but don’t take any orders. On your way to enter in the Riesling order for table A, you see there are 2 other Servers in front of you in line at the POS Micros workstation.  While you are waiting you ask Server 1 in front of you if it is possible to get the chutney on the Salmon without red peppers? “How long have you worked here?” she asks sarcastically. You don’t say anything. Server 2 answers your question, as he finishes up entering in his order “No, it’s premixed. They can’t separate it. Offer a different topping.” You thank that Server.

As you’re still waiting to put in your order, Server 2 says, “I’m going to be a minute, I have to cash out a six top. The other Micro at the other end of the restaurant has a line at it with other Servers as well. You run to the bartender, to give him heads up that you’re about to ring in a bottle of Riesling, so it’ll be ready to deliver after you ring it in. You see that Server 1 has about another minute, and you’ve made it known that you’re next in line. So during that minute of downtime you rush to make 5 waters for your college kid party of 5. Okay, finally you enter in the wine order for table A.

You make a decision to drop waters off at the 5 top, telling them that you will be right back to take drink and appetizer orders, but first you think to yourself, you must present this bottle of wine to Table A. While presenting the bottle of wine you see that Table B’s food is arriving. They are pleased. Good! After taking table A’s appetizer and entree order you check on table B to ask if they need anything else? “Extra honey mustard.” You dart “elegantly” as possible back to the Server station to retrieve a ramekin of honey mustard for them.

When you go to squeeze the bottle, nothing comes out. The lunch closing Server didn’t restock the honey mustard. You run downstairs to the kitchen to get some from the Chef expediting. He looks like he could use a valium, or rather a Stoic week or two under his belt. The kitchen’s crazy. Before you get to voice your request for back up honey mustard, he barks at you, “Cleanthes! Run these plates to table 32!” You tell him you need backup honey mustard. He tells you to run that and come back for it. He gives you a ramekin of honey mustard but stresses to have a food runner do that kind of work next time. There was no food runner around at the critical moment when things needed to get done.

Throughout this honey mustard excursion people keep pouring through the door. You see that you just got sat a three top. The place is getting busy and coming alive. You deliver the honey mustard, and refill drinks at Table B then head immediately to table C to take drink orders. They all give you a look that says, we’ve been waiting and are ready to order. To lighten the air of tension between the guest and yourself, you ask whose birthday it is. They all look at this one young lady who blushes with upper middle class entitlement. You charmingly tell her that she gets a free desert and to start thinking about which one she wants. She smiles with all eyes on her. The tension eases.

During that moment you begin taking drink and appetizer orders. They all get beers. After putting in the order, you pause to think what the next thing to do is. During that moment the manager interrupts your train of thought asking you to take a bus tub of dishes to the dishwasher because the Server Assistant is currently clearing a large table. It is while performing this side work that you realize you need to print table B’s check, so they can make their movie, and that you have a new table (Table D) that still has to be greeted.  All this is happening at the pace of 100 ballerinas dancing frantically to 90’s punk rock, dunking and dodging as gracefully as possible, trying to be that calm Duck paddling like Hades.

You drop the check at Table B. Next, you greet your three top (Table D) and apologize about the wait, then take their drink orders. You see that Table A has finished their appetizers, so you clear the plates from the table and head by Table B to pick up their payment. On your way to run their payment, you see that you are getting seated again (Table E). There is a line at the Server station again. You wait in an antagonizing limbo where you’re tortured with the things that have to be done but can’t do them until you do this thing first. You run table B’s card and make change for a 20 they gave you, fix drinks for table D and deliver them, take table B their card and change, wishing them a fantastic evening, then head to table C to take their food orders. It’s getting hairy.

Table E asks if you can turn the music down after you greet them. On your way to the Server Station to put table C’s food order in, you check on Table A as they just got their main course. They want to see a wine list. On your way to retrieve a wine list you stop by table B to pick up your tip. When you make it to the Server Station finally, the manager speaks harshly to you about not pre-bussing table B, i.e. only picking up my check and not clearing the rest of the table. “I don’t expect to have to tell you that again.” He’s clearly stressed. You start to feel like you don’t have any job security. You don’t. While he’s flaring red, you ask if he can turn down the music in the section where Table E is. He gets flustered and does so.

Upon delivering the wine list to Table A, you check on table C. They all request more drinks. Before entering them in though, you go take table D’s order. Two parents and their daughter. The daughter asks a lot of questions about substitutions and has a lot of complicated order modifications. You give them another minute to make a decision and try to keep a smile on your face as you approach table E. You take their drink order. On your way to put in Table E’s drink order and to pick up the 2nd round of drinks for table C, table D calls out to you, “we’re ready to order now.” To be a good and fair Server, you have to tell them, “just one moment, please. I’ll be right back with you.”

So you go put in table E’s drink order. While doing that, Server 1 is impatiently tapping her foot behind you, hovering. You have to focus. You take Table C their 2nd round of drinks before heading to table D to take their order. They ask for a lot of modifications and you can see Table A growing impatient, ready to order more wine. you also see that Table C is getting their entrees. You get table A more wine. Table C is beckoning for attention.

So much to do. Several things at once. Must keep composed. You have to pee. You’re beating yourself up for being such a Cyrenaic in college and not finishing your degree. You’re thinking if the tips are worth the acting anymore. What else can I do for you folks at the moment, you ask? ” “Can I have extra honey mustard?” “Of course.” “Another beer?” “Certainly.” “Yes.” “Absolutely.” “My pleasure.” “HEEEELLLLLPPP!!!!!!”

Okay, hopefully with all that, you get a sense of the oftentimes, difficult and chaotic pace of a high volume restaurant shift. It’s not always exactly like that. But usually, the money comes from these high stress shifts. So, how on earth is one supposed to keep it together during all that? When customers are demanding and running you around; when you have to endure the cattiness and mean tempers of co-workers, and take crap from your superiors. When you’re doing everything you can to be as efficient as possible with your time, but you still get stiffed from that one table that couldn’t be pleased. What about the pace? …accelerated heart beat, people engaging in substance-less conversations loudly; feeling the hectic rush that a fast paced shift entails… knowing that you’re not able to give the service you want to give because so many things have to be done, seemingly at once. Thank goodness for the Stoics.

Stoic Solutions

Let’s get right to it! One thing that works for me is to meditate on what my day may consist of, upon awakening. Then I do it again, as a quick pre-shift meditation, before walking in the door of the restaurant. This could also be paired with a similar technique called Negative Visualization, where one visualizes potential adversities befalling them, without dwelling on them, throughout the day, so when and if it does happen, you’ve allowed yourself the capacity to foresee it, and hopefully prepare for it.

Marcus Aurelius gives us an account of how to do this in Book 2.1 of his Mediations:

Say to yourself first thing in the morning: today I shall meet people who are meddling, ungrateful, aggressive, treacherous, malicious, unsocial. All this has afflicted them through their ignorance of true good and evil. But I have seen that the nature of good is what is right, and the nature of evil what is wrong; and I have reflected that the nature of the offender himself is akin to my own – not a kinship of blood or seed, but a sharing in the same mind, the same fragment of divinity. Therefore I cannot be harmed by any of them, as none will infect me with their wrong. Nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him. We were born for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of upper and lower teeth. So to work in opposition to one another is against nature: and anger or rejection is opposition.

Another late Stoic, slave turned philosopher, Epictetus, has something useful to say about preparing oneself for the reality of certain places, events, etc. Try applying Chapter 4 from the Enchiridion to the Service Industry, specifically, before going into a serving shift, and see if it helps you better map out the potentialities therein:

Whenever planning an action, mentally rehearse what the plan entails. If you are heading out to bathe, picture to yourself the typical scene at the bathhouse – people splashing, pushing, yelling and pinching your clothes. You will complete the act with more composure if you say at the outset, ‘I want a bath, but at the same time I want to keep my will aligned with nature.’ Do it with every act. That way if something occurs to spoil your bath, you will have ready the thought, ‘Well, this was not my only intention, I also meant to keep my will in line with nature – which is impossible if I go all to pieces whenever anything bad happens.’

Holy cow Epictetus! You said it. Reading, meditating on, and practising this stuff can make the difference between staying cool during a shift or having a swarming stress box of a head, wearing the face of a very uncalm duck. Speaking for myself, the practice of doing this on a regular basis helps me anticipate difficulties, and curves my reaction to these difficulties. When people start acting nuts and catty, I pause, and say, “…that is the nature of this industry.” I don’t have to take it personally. When the pace gets out of control, I smile to myself and say, “I will carry on the best I can, and will not be taken away to high levels of stress by these impressions… just do what’s in front of me.”

One of the most helpful key elements to use in the Service Industry from the Stoics, for me, is the dichotomy of control as Epictetus lays out in Enchiridion 1.1 – 5:

[1] We are responsible for some things, while there are others for which we cannot be held responsible. The former include our judgement, our impulse, our desire, aversion and our mental faculties in general; the latter include the body, material possessions, our reputation, status – in a word, anything not in our power to control…

…[5] So make practice at once of saying to every strong impression: ‘An impression is all you are, not the source of the impression.’ Then test and assess it with your criteria, but one primarily: ask, ‘Is this something that is, or is not, in my control?’ And if it’s not one of the things that you control, be ready with the reaction, ‘Then it’s none of my concern.’

It is a good thing for a restaurant and for me financially, when we get busy, but it can be quite the stressful thing to endure. When it gets crazy, and I am “in the weeds,” I don’t have to freak out. I slow down, focus on what needs to be done, and in what order, and do it to the best of my ability. Again, with practice, you’ll find the calm within this awareness, increases. When a customer is overly perturbed at not getting the perfect service and experience they feel entitled to, you don’t have to take it personally. Stay professional, but keep moving. What is the next right thing to do? They cannot harm your prohairesis (faculty of choice)!

Managing Impressions and dealing with difficult people and situations:

When another blames you or hates you, or people voice similar criticisms, go to their souls, penetrate inside and see what sort of people they are. You will realize that there is no need to be racked with anxiety that they should hold any particular opinion about you. But you should still be kind to them. They are by nature your friends… (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 9.27)

Essentially, practice being indifferent to things that are outside of your control and resolve to press on, kindly, with your duties.

This next one by Marcus should be reserved for when events or people are really begging for permission to get under your skin, or when you’re contemplating the relevance of JUSTICE over social kindness and need to simply avoid interactions with difficult people as much as possible:

What sort of people are they when eating, sleeping, coupling, shitting, etc.? Then what are they like when given power over men? Haughty, quick to anger, punishing to excess. And yet just now they were slaves to all those needs for all those reasons: and shortly they will be slaves again” (Meditations 10.19)

Be careful here not to get onto a Stoic “high horse” though. Some people are fundamentally flawed or conditioned in ways which predispose them to seemingly “mean” behaviors. You still have to work or interact with these people, just keep your prohairesis straight!

Then there’s this:

Remember, it is not enough to be hit or insulted to be harmed, you must believe that you are being harmed. If someone succeeds in provoking you, realize that your mind is complicit in the provocation. Which is why it is essential that we not respond impulsively to impressions; take a moment before reacting, and you will find it is easier to maintain control. (Epictetus, Enchiridion, 20)

This is where I like to pause, breathe, and consciously think first… “What is in my control?”

I ask myself too, “What is said person trying to tell me (if it is a fellow employee or superior) that pertains to my job, rules, correct procedures, etc…. Because oftentimes, co-workers and customers (let’s just call them people) say and intend relevant things, but in a mean way, or with a smothering tone. And I know I’m not alone in having an equally cut-throat reaction to some of the harsh language and stressors a service industry professional endures. The thing with practising these principles though, is that you can learn to assess these emotive-thought reactions against a calm, rational criteria… then, hopefully… Stoic-on!

Dealing with the crazy pace:

These are a few of my favorite principles to implement. Here, I try and keep an expansive philosophical perspective, which has a calming effect, while staying engaged in the grind.

“Keep constantly in your mind an impression of the whole of time and the whole of existence – and the thought that each individual things is, on the scale of existence, a mere fig-seed; on the scale of time, one turn of a drill.” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 10.17)

“You can strip away many unnecessary troubles which lie wholly in your own judgement. And you will immediately make large and wide room for yourself by grasping the whole universe in your thought, contemplating the eternity of time, and reflecting on the rapid change of each thing in every part – how brief the gap from birth to dissolution, how vast the gulf of time before your birth, and an equal infinity after your dissolution.” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 9.32)

This is definite consolation that your shift will be over soon. It will also help you stay right sized (at least you don’t have to stay two hours after closing, like the dishwasher does. Be nice to him or her). If situations or people become increasingly difficult, it might be helpful to pair these last two exercises with a quick view from above which Marcus also advises in Meditations 9.30. I have, on a few occasions, had to go to the bathroom and do this along with some deep breathing and cognitive distancing. Afterwards, I leave the bathroom calm, and carry on without going to pieces.

Now, I want to stress how all of these principles compliment one another. You manage the negative impression of your Manager talking down to you by deconstructing the facts. “He is talking down to me. He obviously feels justified in doing so. Where is he coming from? It is in my power not to take offense from his outbursts. That is within my control. It is my duty to continue to work the best I can, where my integrity allows, given whatever situation arises. And, didn’t I understand that something of this fashion was bound to unfold anyway?”

These are principles that work perfect in theory within the Service Industry, but one will only be able to see the benefits from them by practising it daily! Seneca, a later Stoic, advises us to ask ourselves before retiring at night, what progress we made that day, how did we excel in our character. Well, if you didn’t throw your hands up and curse your boss or a customer out, then you’ve succeeded. If, in spite of a particularly difficult customer, you maintained the standard of good service, then you have conquered an army. So, although the interpersonal and mental challenges within the pace of a busy shift are difficult, practising these Stoic principles creates space for a certain peace and clarity, to see what’s the best way to navigate each situation, maintaining your moral purpose, as a working member of society. Be like the duck.

Do not look around at the directing minds of other people, but keep looking straight ahead to where nature is leading you – both universal nature, in what happens to you, and your own nature, in what you must do yourself. Every creature must do what follows from its own constitution. The rest of creation is constituted to serve rational beings (just as in everything else the lower exists for the higher), but rational beings are here to serve each other. So the main principle in man’s constitution is the social… (Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations 7.55)

Christopher L. Edwards works in the Service Industry in North Carolina. He is also a singer-songwriter who draws on philosophical themes.  He uses Stoicism primarily in recovery from alcoholism and addiction, but finds that practising it as a philosophy of life makes for eudaimonia. For more of Christopher’s experientially-based reflections on practical uses of Stoicism in relation to recovery, the service industry, and living the good life, check out his site, A Stoic Mime’s Blog.

Other People's Anger – Resources and Reflections from Epictetus

Other People’s Anger – Resources and Reflections From Epictetus

by Greg Sadler

Ira_(mosaic,_Basilique_Notre-Dame_de_Fourvière)

One of the more troublesome of human emotions is that of anger.  It was just as much so in antiquity as it remains for us today.  Anger is one of the more complex and paradoxical emotions, seemingly arising from natural drives, desires, and aversions common to human beings, but also interconnected in so many ways with moral notions such as right and wrong, merit and expectations, valuing and disvaluing, and especially with a conception of retribution, setting things right, or making another suffer in return. Playwrights and poets, historians and politicians, philosophers, rhetors, and religious thinkers – even unnamed people passing down proverbial wisdom – concerned themselves with understanding and addressing this difficult and often destructive emotion.

Although we enjoy a number of advantages over ancient people in our late modern present time, on many topics, they still have much to teach us. I think this is particularly so in matters concerning the emotions, rationality, habits, choices, relationships, happiness, and the goods around which we orient our lives. Anger fits solidly within the matrix of those concerns, and the Stoics in particular provide a lot of valuable considerations and advice about that emotion. (In the interests of full disclosure, however, I should mention that although I draw upon Stoics as a resource, I’m not in full agreement with them at every point about anger).

As editor of Stoicism Today, one of the perks of the position is regularly contributing posts that might be of use, value, or interest to the readers of the blog. In a post last month, I set out my intention to write a series in the following months, dealing specifically with the issue of anger and what Stoic philosophers can contribute to understanding and addressing it today. That first post was rather general, and of what you might call a promissory or projective nature. With this post, I intend to start making good, by providing some substantive discussion of what Stoics can tell us that helps in dealing with anger in the present.

I’ve decided to start with Epictetus’ teaching about anger. Although Epictetus did not, as Seneca did, compose a treatise specifically about the emotion of anger, he did delve into the subject, and provide some very useful passages of advice, argument, and explanation in the course of his teaching, a portion of which we still possess thanks to his student Arrian. What he has to tell us from a Stoic perspective can be divided, along very broad strokes, into how we can understand and address our own anger, and how we can understand and approach anger felt and exhibited by others, in some cases towards ourselves. I’ll address his teaching bearing upon our own anger in next month’s post. In this post, I’m going to focus on a portion of what he has to tell us about dealing with everyone else’s anger from a Stoic perspective.

Anger As A Common Human Problem

Within the Discourses, there are a number of interesting examples of people who are in some way upset or affected by the anger felt and displayed by other people. Consider just a few examples:

  • A man comes to Epictetus, asking how he can persuade his brother to stop being angry with him (1.15)
  • People get angry with the many, the masses of humanity, for being fools, greedy thieves, robbers, cheaters, and so on (1.18)
  • Some parents get angry with their children for studying philosophy (1.26)
  • The legendary Medea engages in her terrible revenge because of her anger (1.28)
  • Acting contentiously, injuriously, angrily, and rudely lowers people to the level of wild beasts (2.9)
  • Some people study the works of philosophers, and nevertheless are hypercritical, quick-tempered. . . finding fault with everything, blaming everybody (3.2)
  • An official comes to Epictetus, angry with the common people, who get angry with him for taking sides in a contest, giving the prize to the person he favors rather than to the one they favor (3.4)
  • People get angry when other people get things they don’t, when the other person paid the price and they didn’t pay it (and actually come out better for it) (3.17)
  • Some people are quick-tempered, wrathful, fault-finders. They look for people they can punch or kick (4.5)

Although he doesn’t mention anger directly as a motive in those passages, there are also many places where Epictetus refers to the threats that others, particularly the powerful, may make against others. One can presume that in many cases those sorts of reprisals would stem at least in part from the feeling of anger on the part of the person who threatens to inflict them.

Given a long enough period of time, in any group of people, within any organization or community – and in our own time, especially, given any website, video channel, or blog that draws enough views! – someone is likely sooner or later to get angry with someone else, and probably express it as well. Often anger on one person’s part will arouse anger on another person’s part in response.

That is the reality in which we live, and it isn’t one radically different in its general features from the reality of the culture Epictetus himself inhabited. Quite likely, from a Stoic perspective, that’s also how we can expect human beings to be in any probable future as well.

Responses to the Anger of Others

A person can experience or adopt multiple responses on their own part to other people’s anger – whether it be directed against oneself, directed against yet others, or even anger more generally and globally expressed. Quite often our responses to other people’s anger are not reflective but more reactive.  These usually involving some thought-process or practically reasoning that is implicit rather than explicit. It is quite common, looking across the range of responses for our own emotions to be involved, also at times in ways we are not entirely aware of.

Some people actually ignore or seem oblivious to the feelings of other people, and that is one way to not have to deal with other people’s anger. Although people often use the term “stoic” in a very broad sense for that sort of attitude, that isn’t actually how a Stoic in the strict sense would suggest that we ought to live. And in quite a few cases, what underlies the surface façade of such detachment is rejection of other people, their actions, and their attitudes, indicating some sort of emotional attachment and conflict still present in the person.

Witnessing or bearing the brunt of other people’s anger can cause, contribute to, or intensify a range of emotions on our own part. One of the most common ones is fear, but we can also feel pain, sadness, even despair. Another common emotional response, which can be fed by these others, is to become angry oneself in response. In all of these cases, we can rightly talk about a person being “troubled” or “upset” by the anger of someone else. The classic Stoic view on emotions, which Epictetus accepts as a basis, is that emotional states are not simply affective. They involve judgments or assumptions, and usually some process of practical reasoning, made on the part of the person feeling the emotion.

What should our responses be to the anger that others exhibit? What insight does a Stoic philosopher like Epictetus (who certainly had to deal with this himself) have to offer us? Answering that will involve asking several other questions. Why are we bothered or affected by an emotion someone else feels, expresses, acts upon (or even just might feel, for instance when we worry about making someone angry)? How should we evaluate the reasons why another person’s anger affects us in light of basic Stoic doctrines?

Differentiating What Is From What Isn’t In Our Power

There are several ways that this classic and fundamental distinction made by the Stoics, between what is in our power, what is our business (ep’ humon), and what isn’t (ouk ep’ humon) applies to the issues raised by anger. Three of these are other persons’ emotions as externals, possible consequences of anger felt by others, and our responsibility for the emotions of others.

In Epictetus’ view, we do not, in any real sense of the term, control or determine how other people feel, think, or respond. That, just as much as things like the weather, our possessions, the state of the general economy, what gets published in any given newspaper, and so on is not something that falls within the providence of what is up to us. The feelings and thoughts of others are, to use the technical term, “externals” and “indifferents”. They aren’t the sorts of matters that we ought to allow to affect us. But, of course, we often do, and in the process effectively hand over control over our own psychological condition to other people or to the world more generally.

We may also be bothered or troubled by the anger that other people feel precisely because of how that anger manifests itself, what sorts of choices and actions it leads to, or even the threat of what a person who is angered might do. If we step back and examine why someone else’s feelings affect us in this way, we can then realize that it is because we care about – in Epictetus’ language, we have desire and aversion in relation to, and have assumptions, judgments, and assents about – what can indeed be affected by another person’s anger. If, for example, we are concerned about our possessions, our bodies, our social status, our positions, this makes us vulnerable to the effects of what other people might do or say in anger.

Even for a person who recognizes that, strictly speaking, another person’s feelings and judgements are something lying in his or her control, not within the scope of our own power, and who isn’t overly concerned about the external things that could be affected by another person’s anger, there could be another concern. It does seem up to us whether or not we do things that are liable or likely to make given people angry. So it seems that we then bear a kind of responsibility towards them, especially if these are persons who we are in some way connected with, people towards whom we have some kind of role and corresponding duties.

Two reminders Epictetus provides us can be quite helpful here. The first is that “Nobody is master over another person’s faculty of choice” (4.12), that is, each person ultimately is responsible for their own use or misuse of their prohairesis (their faculty of choice, or “moral purpose”). The second is that Stoicism stresses a choice, or better yet, commitment that needs to be made.

You cannot be continually giving attention to externals and your own governing principle. But if you want the first, let the second go; otherwise you will have neither one, being drawn in both directions. If you want the second, you must let the first one go. (4.10)

Understanding Why Other People Get Angry

The anger that other people feel and show can be very troubling to us, and a common question that people ask is: Why? This unfolds into a host of additional, more specific questions. What made this other person angry? Why did that make them angry? Why do they do the things that they do when they are angry? Why do they have to go so far in their anger? Who are they really angry with? Don’t they realize they are going too far, being destructive, throwing good things away for the chance to impose some kind of retribution?

There is a general answer to this – and many other such questions – that Epictetus supplies. People do what they do – including feeling what they feel – because on some level, in some way, that seems to them to be reasonable. We human beings do share a common stock of general ideas or conceptions (the proleipseis, a topic I’ll write more about at another time), but we vary considerably over how to understand and apply them within the concrete framework of our lives. In fact, the ways in which most people work these out are in some respects incoherent, involving conflicts or contradictions. Epictetus observes:

It so happens that the rational and the irrational are different for different persons, precisely as good and evil, and the profitable and the unprofitable are different for different persons. (1.2)

Although it might seem at first that Epictetus is simply lapsing into a type of relativism about these matters, that isn’t the case. In fact, this variance among human beings about such fundamental issues of value is one reason he advocates education (paideia) and discipline or training (askesis) so strongly and consistently. We don’t start out naturally inclined to get these sorts of matters right, and we inhabit cultures in which most people are getting them at least partly wrong as well, in their concrete application. Stoic philosophy, when actually practiced (rather than just read, talked about, or thought about) helps to get these matters straightened out for people.

So, coming back to anger, when we ask about any given person questions as to why he or she gets angry, does or says these or those sorts of things when angry, holds grudges, takes offense – anything along those lines – the general answer is that, however it happened to be that way, what that person is doing seems reasonable to them. It seems to them, at least in part – since of course they can find themselves conflicted about it – that getting angry, and acting upon their anger is what they ought to do.

“I can’t let that person push me around,” a common line of reasoning closely connected with the feeling of anger runs. “If I do that, they’ll just keep it up. I’ll show them they can’t treat me like that.” That’s a person to whom it seems not only reasonable, but as the most rational thing to do, to get angry and to retaliate. That person may be entirely off-base – and Epictetus (along with the other Stoics) thinks that to be the case – but unless somehow that person’s viewpoint on these matters is changed, we should expect them to do what seems (wrongly, but reasonably) to seem most rational to them.

Addtional Approaches To Dealing With Angry People

We have a number of ways in which we can deal with or address other people’s anger. As noted earlier, we can reframe our own perspectives – though of course, this takes time to be able to do consistently, easily, when we want to – so that we rightly view and then respond to the anger of another person as something that is outside of our control, and only affects other things that are outside of our control. As we just noted, we can also understand the other person’s emotional response, and angry action or expression, as something that does seem reasonable and right to them, even if it isn’t really reasonable or right from a more adequate perspective.

Another thing we see Epictetus stressing is that it is up to us how we ourselves respond in relation to the angry person, particularly with those with whom we have some sort of relationship, a role that we occupy or play, and towards whom we thereby have duties or obligations. Typically the other person similarly has duties or obligations towards us as well. A common sort of case that Epictetus addresses is when one of our family members is angry with us, and for that reason behaving badly, in ways that don’t conduce to being a good sibling, or parent, for example. It is still up to us whether we feel and act as we ought to towards that person on our own part. That is, as Epictetus frames it, a decision about whether or not we want to maintain the good brother or sister, the good child or parent, the friend, the neighbor within us. That is something that does lie within our power when faced with an angry person, who is not fulfilling his or her own roles in relation to ourselves.

This isn’t to say, of course, that Epictetus simply advocates taking or tolerating whatever abuse, recriminations, argument, or other effects that person’s anger produces. It seems entirely consistent with Stoic principles of making good use of, e.g. the body, to remove ourselves from situations in which violence is occurring or being threatened by a person in a rage. Likewise, it might even be an expression of the virtue of courage to intervene in such a situation in which others are threatened, particularly those who are especially vulnerable, like children being bullied or abused by angry adult parents. But, these sorts of legitimate responses to aggression stemming from anger can be done in a variety of manners, which don’t require us becoming angry on our own part.

An important question remains, however, if we get away from those more extreme situations, and consider the people we interact with daily, who may exhibit all sorts of problems with anger. What should our approach or attitude be towards them? Epictetus provides us with three useful bits of advice, each of which sets out one line of behavior and attitude for us.

The first one starts with the following suggestion:

If you have to be affected in a way that is contrary to nature at the misfortunes of another, pity that person instead of hating him; let go of this readiness to take offense and this spirit of hatred. (1.18)

In dealing with the anger of other persons – anger that from a Stoic perspective, will inevitably be unreasonable, but appear quite reasonable to the angry person – we could simply be unaffected emotionally. But if our emotions are going to be engaged, a feeling of “pity” (eleos), or to use the term people prefer in the present “compassion” is a much better response than anger, fear, disgust, or other negative emotions.

If anger is in general not a good thing for the person who feels it – and it certainly does feel bad much of the time (here just speaking from my own experience) – and if we see those who were are attached to, those we care about, those we are close with, shouldn’t we do whatever we can to help wean them away not only from their anger, but from the irrational assumptions, judgements, and thought-processes that help produce that emotion? In short, shouldn’t we guide them into the Stoic path? The second thing Epictetus has to tell us bears directly upon that:

Do you wish to help them? Then show them, by your own example, the kind of people philosophy produces, and stop talking nonsense (3.23) 

If studying and adopting resources from Stoic philosophy does help people deal with, and perhaps even eventually eliminate, the emotional response of anger, then it is up to Stoics who aim to preach about this to others to show those others not just how it works, but that it works. (Full disclosure here – I’m not a good example in this respect, though I’m working on it).

The third passage that strikes me as particularly relevant here is one in which Epictetus notes that sometimes one simply has to recognize that the person isn’t at that time up to grasping what one would like or hope they would, for their own sake. He asks:

Must I say these things to the multitude? For what purpose? Is it not sufficient for a person him or herself to believe them? (1.29)

He likens the “multitude”, or as we might say today, our “general culture”, to children who come up to us, cheerful about a holiday, thinking everything is well. It is better not to bring up that everything isn’t well, not to “rain on their parade”, as our contemporary expression goes, but to be cheerful towards them. He suggests then that if it turns out that you can’t get a person to change their perspective, for example about the anger they feel and express, to either just leave them alone or to exhibit that sort of cheerfulness.

In fact, it is – at least for some of us – enough of a task to figure out how to better deal with our own anger. It isn’t up to us to fundamentally change other human beings. As Epictetus points out:

. . . can we escape from human beings? And, how is that possible? But, can we, if they associate with us, change them? But who gives us that power? (1.12)

And so, in the next post in this series, we will turn to the closely connected topic of what Epictetus has to tell us about our own anger.

 

Gregory Sadler is the Editor of the Stoicism Today blog.  He is also the president and founder of the company ReasonIO. the producer of the Half Hour Hegel series, a team member of (Slow) Philosophies, and a member of the Center for Contemporary Aristotelian Studies in Ethics and Politics.

'The Musonius Rufus Diet' by Kevin Vost

The Musonius Rufus Diet

by Kevin Vost

Roman Food

And indeed at each meal there is not one hazard for going wrong, but many. First of all, the man who eats more than he ought does wrong, and also the man who wallows in the pickles and sauces, and the man who prefers the sweeter foods to the more healthful ones, and the man who does not serve food of the same kind or amount to his guests as to himself. – Musonius Rufus, Lecture XIIIB on Food [1]

Please do not let this title alarm you and perturb your Stoic tranquility!  Musonius Rufus (c. 20-30 AD – 101 AD), Epictetus’ revered teacher and mentor, would not have us counting calories, carbohydrates or any such thing. (Calories and carbohydrates would not be discovered until more than 1,700 years after his death, and even if he knew about them, he surely would have felt we have more important things to do!)  Indeed, I speak here of diet not in the sense of some exotic, time-limited food regimen designed to take off a few pounds, but diet in the sense the usual or habitual food and drink comprising one’s daily sustenance. The Stoics saw philosophy as an art of living that should guide all of our human behaviors and seek to harmonize them with nature. As several of Musonius’s discourses on food, clothing, housing, and even shaving show, Stoicism was (and is) a practical philosophy for living a good life; therefore, even the most mundane and seemingly un-philosophical of topics make fitting grist for the Stoical mill.

What Has Food to Do with Philosophy?

A great deal, according to Musonius, who apparently spoke frequently and fervently on this topic that he considered no small matter for any philosopher. Musonius believed that habits of eating and drinking either build up or tear down the very foundation of the virtue of temperate self-control (sophrosyne, in the Greek). There’s an old adage advising would-be brides that “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” For Musonius, the way to a man’s or a woman’s self-control is through his or her esophagus and stomach! “Indeed the throat was designed to be a passage of food, not an organ of pleasure, and the stomach was made for the same purpose as the root was created in plants. For just as the root nourishes the plant by taking food from without, so the stomach nourishes the plant by taking food and drink which are taken into it.”[2]

Musonius devotes a two-part discourse (Discourses or Lectures 18A & 18B) several pages long to the topic of food, as preserved in a collection of, in essence, his post-lecture Q & A periods consisting of 21 discourses, or lectures, collected by a contemporary of his named Lucius and extracted in the fifth century AD by the Greek Joanne Stobaeus.  He gives several specific dietary recommendations, including a diet based on vegetables and grains and limited in meat (which he considered a heavy food, the digestion of which “darken the soul” and slow down our thinking abilities.  As for a summary in Musonius’ own (translated) words:

To sum up the question of food, I maintain that its purpose should be to produce health and strength, that one should for that purpose eat only that which requires no great outlay, and finally that at table one should have regard for a fitting decorum and moderation, and most of all should be superior to the common vices of filth and greedy haste.[3]

Musonius Rufus Guts Gluttony before the Medieval Church Fathers

Musonius’ sage advice on the proper attitude and behavior toward food presages in many ways the advice of the Christian who five centuries later popularized the famous list of the “seven deadly sins,” Pope St. Gregory the Great (c. 540-604 AD). Gregory, in his Moralia on the Book of Job, listed seven deadly sins: gluttony, lust, greed, envy, sloth, and vainglory.[4] When St. Gregory, and later St. Thomas Aquinas, expounded upon the varieties of the sin of gluttony, they defined gluttony as an inordinate or irrational desire for food and described dangers of eating too much food, too-expensive food, too-daintily-prepared food, and of eating too quickly or eating too often. In the 13th century, St. Thomas cited an old medieval verse that summed up the various forms in which gluttonous behaviors are expressed: “hastily, sumptuously, too much, greedily, daintily.

Well, we find these concerns in Musonius’ back in the first century AD eighteenth lecture as well. He warns of the gluttony of eating more than we should; of eating luxurious, gourmet foods, indeed, of “wallowing in the pickles and sauces”; of being a picky eater; of preferring sweet foods to healthy ones; of eating greedily and at “unseasonable times.” He minces no words, and warns us that gluttony makes us more like pigs or dogs than rational human beings.  He advises us to train ourselves to appreciate simple foods. Indeed, he lauds the example of the Spartan, who, upon seeing some finicky man refuse to eat an expensive bird, declared, “I could eat a vulture or a buzzard.”[5]

And here is where our great Stoic philosopher and our great medieval Catholic theologians share an even more important common ground on gluttony. St. John Cassian (360-435 AD), Eastern desert monk turned abbot in Marseilles, France, wrote in his Conferences about eight vices. Now vices are essentially bad habits, dispositions, or tendencies, the opposite of the good habits that are the virtues. Cassian’s list, echoing an even earlier list of eight “disturbing” or “assailing” thoughts expounded by desert monk Evagrius of Pontus (345-399 AD), would later be adapted a bit by Gregory and Thomas, as noted above, and become widely known as the seven capital vices (and even more widely known as the seven deadly sins – sins being acts of vice, literally vicious acts.) The connection with Musonius here is not so much this list of bad thoughts, vices, or sins, but the way in which they interact.  Hear Cassian on this point:

Although these eight vices, then, have different origins and varying operations, yet the first six — namely, gluttony, fornication, avarice, anger, sadness, and acedia (anxiety, or weariness of the heart) — are connected among themselves by a certain affinity and, so to speak, interlinking, such that the overflow of the previous one serves as the start of the next one. For from an excess of gluttony there inevitably springs fornication; from fornication, avarice; from avarice, anger; from anger, sadness; and from sadness, acedia. Therefore these must be fought against in a similar way and by the same method, and we must always attack the ones that follow by beginning with those that come before. For a tree whose width and height are harmful will more easily wither up if the roots which support it are exposed and cut beforehand, and pestilential waters will dry up when their rising source and rushing streams have been stopped up with skillful labor. [6]

Note then how these vices act in a sense like eight deadly dominoes, each on setting up the man in its thrall to fall into the next one.

Later, Gregory would state in his Moralia that “unless we tame the enemy dwelling within us, namely, our gluttonous appetite, we have not even stood up to engage in the spiritual combat.”

Our Stoic Musonius Rufus, 500 years before Gregory, (and 300 before Cassian) also saw gluttony as a gateway sin of sorts. The temptations of gluttony are before us every day, and if our powers of self-control are eroded through gluttony they will not rise to the challenge in other more important areas of our lives. Musonius warns that,

Although there are many pleasures which persuade human beings to do wrong and compel them to act against their own interests, the pleasure connected with food is undoubtedly the most difficult of all pleasures to combat. We encounter the other sources of pleasure less often, and we can therefore refrain from indulging in some of them for months or even years. But we will necessarily be tempted by gastronomic pleasures daily or even twice daily, inasmuch as it is impossible for a human being to live without eating. Consequently, the more often we are tempted by gastronomic pleasure, the greater the danger it presents. [7]

For the great Catholic theologians, gluttony is a turning-away from the true good of God for the sake of lesser goods that can do our bodies harm; and our foundational Roman Stoic held virtually the same view. He warns that some intemperate men “resemble pregnant women…they cannot tolerate ordinary food; they have ruined their digestive system.”[8]

Citing Socrates before him, who said we should eat to live rather than live to eat, this is why Musonius counseled a moderate intake of simple, inexpensive, natural, healthy foods (No wonder Musonius explained in Discourse 11 that the best job for a philosopher was that of a farmer!).

The Original “Mediterranean Diet”

It is always an interesting thing when modern scientific research “discovers” what ancient philosophers discovered long ago through ordinary experience examined by rigorous reasoning. The modern, so-called “Mediterranean Diet” is patterned after the kinds of foods and drinks traditionally consumed by the peoples of countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea (like Greece and Italy, of course). The base of this diet’s pyramid is formed by a daily predominance of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans, legumes, herbs, spices, and olive oil, with at least a few weekly servings of fish and other seafood, less frequent and moderate portions of eggs and dairy foods including yogurt, a very limited intake of meat and sweets, and the optional consumption of red wine in moderation.

The Mayo Clinic and many other respected medical sources tout this as one of the world’s healthiest diets for maintaining ideal bodyweight and reducing the risk of heart and other diseases. When U.S. World and News Report gathers nutritional experts to rank the world’s best and worst popular diets among dozens of contenders each year, the Mediterranean Diet comes in each year in the very top few.

How fascinating to consider that the Mediterranean Diet and a so-called, “Musonius Rufus Diet” would be just about the same thing!  Indeed, Musonius warns against food imported from distant lands and he notes that people who eat the normal, inexpensive foods of their own region are healthier and stronger than those who crave exotic foods not a part of the standard Mediterranean fare.  He even declares that slaves and country people who eat such simple native foods are healthier, sicker less often, less fatigued by labors, work harder, and become stronger than their masters and people who live in the city.

On Enjoying the Banquet of Life

The Musonius Rufus Diet, then, is a diet of sensible moderation, of asking yourself how much you need rather than how much you desire, of appreciating simple, natural foods, and of gratitude toward God and table manners towards one’s fellows fitting to a being made in God’s image. It is a diet that builds both a temperate soul and a tempered body that will serve as the foundation for acquiring and expressing all of the virtues. As Musonius’ star student Epictetus would later advise us, comparing life itself to a banquet:

Remember, you must behave as you do at a banquet. Something is passed around and comes to you: reach out your hand politely and take some. It goes by; do not hold it back. It has not arrived yet: do no stretch out your desire out toward it, but wait until it comes to you.[9]

Kevin Vost, Psy.D., has taught psychology and gerontology at Aquinas College in Nashville, Tennessee, the University of Illinois at Springfield, MacMurray College, and Lincoln Land Community College. He has served as a research review committee member for American Mensa and as an advisory board memory of the International Association of Resistance Trainers, an organization that certifies personal fitness trainers. Dr. Vost is the author of over a dozen books including The Porch and the Cross: Ancient Stoic Wisdom for Modern Christian Living (Angelico Press, 2016).

[1] Cora Lutz, Musonius Rufus Fragments (New Delhi, India: Isha Books, 2013).

[2] Lutz, 88. I’ll note here as well that while our word gluttony derives from the Latin word “gula” for throat or gullet, the Greek term for it was gastrimargia, literally “gut madness!”

[3] Lutz, 90.

[4] Pride is often included in the list instead of vainglory. Gregory, like St. Thomas Aquinas after him, included vainglory among his seven, identifying pride as a yet more profound sin, one that gives rise to the deadly sin of vainglory and to all the others.

[5] Lutz, 22.

[6] St. John Cassian, The Conferences (New York: Newman Press, 1997), pp. 183-196: http://www.pigizois.net/agglika/on_the_eight_deadly_sins.htm.

[7] Musonius Rufus: Lectures and Sayings, trans. Cynthia King (CreateSpace.com, 2011), 73.

[8] Ibid, 74.

[9] Nicholas B. White, trans. The Handbook (Encheiridion) of Epictetus, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1983), 15.

'Stoicism and Celebration' by Helen Rudd

Stoicism and Celebration

by Helen Rudd

A lady in the village where I live wrote a poem about how we need to celebrate more which I agree with.  So what I do is, every day at 10am I celebrate something.  It could be something major or something small, for example I could be at home on a lovely sunny day and at 10am I could go into the garden and listen to the birds singing and celebrate that.  Or I may have just had a lovely phone call from a friend which is something to celebrate.  I’ve been thinking a lot about Stoicism recently and because my daily celebration has helped me so much I wondered if I could relate it to modern day Stoicism.

I’m certainly no expert, but I’ve found that Stoicism has been a huge help in my recovery from a traumatic brain injury and I’ve become really interested in learning about how it can be applied to modern day life through the excellent ‘Stoicism Today’ website, the people who run it, and the Stoic weeks that are organised.

So this is my own view on the celebration idea. One of the activities in Stoic Week was to take time out in the middle of the day to meditate.  I did find it ever so effective but it didn’t necessarily fit in with my day, so this is a way of reflecting to fit in with what I’m doing.  I’ve come to the conclusion that adapting is a way of being Stoic so by reflecting on something in a way that suits what you’re doing at that moment seems quite appropriate. Celebrating doesn’t have to be done in a big way, it can just be done quietly in your own mind.

In my own way I’ve had to adapt since my accident. One of the things I used to do was running in my local half marathon but because of my balance and spatial awareness problems I can’t do this any more. I’ve discovered though that I can run on the spot indoors so that’s what I do now as cardio vascular exercise. Perhaps I could do it at 10 o’clock one morning and celebrate that! Stoicism is about accepting that there are some things you can’t change; it’s the way you deal with it that matters. I can’t change the fact that part of my brain has been damaged so I have to adapt.

A lot of people see Stoicism as ‘stiff upper lip’ but by celebrating something once a day I don’t see it as that. I think it’s recognising that yes, there are problems, so you go out of your way to just think of something good. I’ll never forget the kindness of one lady who posted a reply to one of my early blogs when I was trying to get my head round what had happened to me and find a way to cope.  She said ‘Be like the headland, with wave after wave breaking against it, which yet stands firm’.  I now read one of the Marcus Aurelius meditations each day and I was really pleased to see that this is one of his meditations. I often find myself thinking of it because it’s such a strong image (and I live round the corner from the sea!). So I got to thinking how the celebration idea could fit in with it, and I see all the problems going on both personally and globally as the breaking waves and the headland as the celebration.

So I’d recommend celebrating something every day at a time to suit yourself, and do something physical or just reflect quietly just as it suits you at the time.  It means that you don’t take things for granted, perhaps it may be something as simple as enjoying a nice cup of coffee.  I know myself that tomorrow morning at 10 o’clock I’ll be able to look back on writing this blog and see how far I’ve come since my accident 10 years ago and how terrible I felt when I was just starting to learn about Stoicism.

About the author: After Helen Rudd’s traumatic brain injury in 2006 she was in a coma for three weeks and was severely depressed when she realised how much her life had changed, mainly because she was no longer able-bodied.  Through stoicism her life has opened up and she now makes the most of every day.

You can read more of Helen’s reflections on living the Stoic Life:

Reflection One;  Reflection TwoReflection Three

'Stoic Parenthood: Fertile Ground for Eudaimonia' by Leah Goldrick

Stoic Parenthood: Fertile Ground for Eudaimonia

by Leah Goldrick

Parenting

As the mother of a baby, I often hear admonitions and complaints from fellow parents about how hard parenting is and how stressful it can be to take care of children, particularly babies and toddlers. Sleep deprivation, constant work, loss of former lifestyle, expense, societal disregard for the importance of parenting, and lack of paid parental leave all top the list of concerns.

Much of what is said about the difficulty of modem parenting certainly has merit, but griping seems to have become endemic among parents, obscuring what should be a predominately joyful experience and a precious gift to family and society. This phenomenon is what Ross Douthat of the New York Times comically terms, “The parental pity party.”

Practising Stoics know that the quality of our thoughts about something dictate how we feel about it. With the right attitude, parenthood need not be a constant struggle; it can be fertile ground for eudaimonia, or a contented state of human flourishing, regardless of inherent hardships. This 2300-year-old philosophy is particularly applicable to common concerns that parents face today.

Concentrate Every Minute like a Roman on Doing What’s in Front of You – Focusing on the Present

Babies and small children require non-stop care. Parents often grumble about the amount of work that is involved in taking care of children, and how it must be accomplished in spite of everything else we have to do during the course of our busy day.  With the responsibility of having a baby in the house, it often happens that an entire day, or even a week will pass without me being able to cross various tasks off of my growing to-do list, which can be very discouraging.

Rather than thinking of childcare as labor, or as an impediment to achieving other goals, perhaps we should focus on present moment, on being with the child. Marcus Aurelius implores us to:

“Concentrate every minute like a Roman on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions. … do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you, stop being hypocritical, self-centered , irritable… If you can manage this, that’s all even the gods can ask of you.” [1]

Focusing on the present moment has helped to prevent me from being overwhelmed by responsibilities and anxieties about the future. Rather than the endless mental chatter of “Will the baby go down for his nap? Will I be able to get anything done today?” I concentrate on doing each thing one at a time. I am able to enjoy what I am doing more and not get bogged down by a pressing list of tasks and concerns.

Think That Being Inferior is Preferable to Being Ambitious – Societal Disregard for Parenting

One dilemma that American parents face is that society doesn’t seem to place as much value on the act of raising children as it does on pursuing a successful career or earning money. This is evidenced by the fact that the United States is the only country in the developed world without any paid parental leave. There is also a common tendency to look down on stay at home parents of both genders.

The later Stoic philosophers, including Seneca and Epictetus, deeply valued parenting as a gift to society. Musonius Rufus, best known for being Epictetus’ tutor, advocated for the philosophical education of women and pointed out that philosophy was particularly applicable to the raising of children and management of the household.

Like Musonius, we must remember that regardless of cultural paradigms, philosophy applies just as much to the domestic aspects of life as it does to our career or financial matters. His comments on the necessity of virtue for raising children and running a household could today apply to either gender:

In the first place a woman must run her household and pick out what is beneficial for her home. In these activities I claim that philosophy is particularly helpful, since each of these activities is an aspect of life, and philosophy is nothing other than the science of living, and the philosopher, as Socrates says, continually contemplates this, ‘what good or evil has been done in his house.[2]

Now, wouldn’t the woman who practises philosophy be just, and a blameless partner in life, and a good worker in common causes, and devoted in her responsibilities towards her husband and her children, and free in every way from greed or ambition? Who could be like this more than the woman who practises philosophy, since she must inevitably think that doing wrong is worse than being wronged, because it is more disgraceful to do wrong, and to think that being inferior is preferable to being ambitious, and in addition, to love her children more than her own life. [3]

Endure and Renounce – Adjusting Your Attitude

A popular parenting book entitled All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, stresses that parents are often less happy than their childless peers because of their expectations about parenting. The author, Jennifer Senior, posits that parents often believe having children will make them happier, but the reality of dirty diapers and 3:00 AM awakenings is vastly more difficult than they had anticipated. Many parents are well into their 30s and financially independent by the time they have children, and are distressed at having to give up the lifestyle, hobbies, freedom and income that they once had.

I can say that I sometimes experienced similar feelings as a new parent, but when I changed my expectations about what life with a baby would be like, my attitude transformed. Rather than ruminating on the fact that I can’t easily go hiking, mountain biking, or out for dinner like I used to, I remember Epictetus’ instruction, “Endure and renounce.” [4]

By bringing our values into accord with the Stoic virtue of sophrosyne, or moderation, we remember that life isn’t about being entertained and having fun; such things are indifferent for our happiness. Since only virtue is necessary for happiness, being good and doing good, our lives shouldn’t be spent in pursuit of indifferent distractions.

I don’t feel that I am missing out on anything; I am able to be of service to my son. Being of service to others is a good, and that is enough. Our lives as parents should be as simple and unstressful as possible.  This may mean living on less money, saying no to unnecessary obligations, or finding satisfaction and joy in small things. According to Seneca “What is good is that I choose well.” [5]

Quickly Return to Yourself – Remembering What You Can Control

Many aspects of parenthood are out of our control. We do not control our child’s temperament, his sleep, his health, and so on. While sleep deprivation is a given, a baby’s sleep, or lack thereof, is not fully within our control. It is easy to feel frustrated after pulling yourself from your warm bed in the middle of the night for the fifth time, and equally hard to be philosophical when operating on very little sleep. Parenting well, indeed living well, relies on being able to keep your emotions in check and your perspective on a situation relatively placid even if the situation is difficult.

According to Marcus Aurelius, “When you have been compelled by circumstances to be disturbed in a manner, quickly return to yourself and do not continue out of tune longer than the compulsion lasts.” [6]

Instead of thinking, “Dear God, why won’t my son sleep?” I try to remind myself that not only is this is phase quite temporary, but it’s in a baby’s nature to wake up at night. I cannot control his nature. I find it helpful to keep my thoughts confined to what I can control; how respond to him.

Since I cannot change my son’s nature, I also don’t worry about comparing his sleep habits to those of other babies, or about trying to “train,” him to sleep. I try not to become frustrated each time the situation changes, because like everything in life, it is transitory.

Rather than worrying about the pressure of culture to produce a perfect child, who always sleeps through the night, remember, “It is in our power to have no opinion about a thing and not to be disturbed in our soul; for things themselves have no natural power to form our judgements.” [7]

It is Difficult to be Good at Helping – Reflecting on Mistakes

Certainly no one can be the perfect parent, always mentally tranquil and perfectly composed, given the inherent frustrations involved with raising children. The best we can do is to be good helpers and role models for our children, continually striving for excellence.

Even Seneca admits that it is difficult to be good at helping others. But if we are to help, he advises that we should do so graciously, rather than complaining about our situation.  “We are evasive and assist only grudgingly. No wonder that our reticence sticks out more in people’s minds than the fact that we eventually relented; no wonder that we are not held in esteem for such ungracious giving.” [8]

It is inevitable that as parents, we will fail to live up to the Stoic ideal, or occasionally gripe about our lives. Fortunately, each day provides a new opportunity to meditate on and improve our conduct, to find joy, and to learn from our mistakes. “How plain does it appear that there is not another condition of life so well suited for philosophizing as this in which you now happen to be.” [9]

Leah Goldrick recently became a practicing Stoic as a result of her ongoing inquiry into the Western wisdom traditions. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Philosophy and a Masters in Library and Information Science from Rutgers University. She used to be an archivist for the Presbyterian Church, and is now a part-time children’s librarian and blogger. She lives in the United States with her husband and infant son.  Her website is Common Sense Ethics.

References

[1] Aurelius, Meditations (1997) 2:5.

[2] Lutz, Musonius Rufus, the Roman Socrates (1947).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Epictetus, Enchiridion (2004).

[5] Seneca, Letter 92. 11-12

[6]  Aurelius, Meditations (1997) 6:11

[7] Ibid., 6:52

[8] Seneca, On Benefits, I.1.8.

[9] Aurelius, Meditations (1997) 11:7

'Dis-ease (Mental Health)' by Zachary G. Augustine

Dis-ease (Mental Health)

from Philosophy for Any Life: an open-source self-help book

Augustine Book Proper

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.

Anxiety

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 real but 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]

Obsession

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 might want 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.

Depression

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.

Chronic conditions

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.

Recovery

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. Augustine is 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.comZachary has written an open-source self-help book, based on Stoicism, which you can find at http://philosophyforanylife.com.

References

[i]Ibid., IX.13.

[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).

[viii]Darren Aronofsky, Pi, Drama, Thriller, (1998).

[ix]Aurelius, Meditations, 2002, VIII.36.

[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.

[xv]Ibid., VII.18.

[xvi]Ibid., VII.33.

[xvii]Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms, 1st Scribner classics ed. (New York: Scribner Classics, 1997).

'Anger and Pre-Emotions' by Leonidas Konstantakos

Anger and Pre-Emotions

by Leonidas Konstantakos

Leonidas Konstantakos

For Seneca, it is by understanding what anger is that we can avoid it or seek the appropriate therapy. This implies that it can in fact be avoided. In De Ira, Seneca proposes a Stoic cognitive view of anger that consists of a series of physical and mental steps, or qualifications, to meet the definition. The cognitive aspects that define the emotion are within our control. Anger, for Seneca (and his view is quite orthodox Stoicism), is a species of desire- a desire to take vengeance for a (perceived) wrong. (1.2.3b) Moreover, anger involves various physical and mental phenomena (phantasiai, impressions in Stoic parlance) and beliefs or judgments about those phenomena. Let’s begin with the formulae for pathe, emotions, as viewed from within Seneca’s philosophical tradition.

The third scholarch of the Stoa, Chrysippus, had systematized the following criteria that must be met for a belief of judgement of this sort to be a pathos: 1) it must assert that something is good or bad; 2) it must be recently formed; 3) it must be false; 4) it incites an excessive impulse. (Gould, 191) The excessive impulse here means that it is irrational- excessive and disobedient to the dictates of reason.[1] By this criterion, in the grips of a passion we first assent to the impression that something is, say, a punch in the face. We may experience psychosomatic responses (a flash of spirited feelings, quickening of the pulse, etc.) due to the initial impression which is involuntary: the sense-perception of being struck, and the supervening bodily responses. What follows in anger is an assent to the impression that this is an undeserved offense[2] and that it is appropriate to seek retribution for the perceived harm. This leads to, but is not yet, anger. Anger manifests when these judgements become disobedient to reason- that is, they incite excessive impulses that are no longer controllable. By Stoic definition anger is always excessive and harmful.

The utility of Seneca’s discussion is that it allows us to be aware of the pre-emotions that lead to our false judgements and to anger if left unchecked. Seneca outlines the steps to anger in Book Two. The first part of the emotion, or pre-emotion, is what later came to be referred to by the Alexandrian Christian authors as propatheiai. These are the involuntary psychosomatic responses that are not under our control. When referring to anger, this initial phantasia is, for Seneca, merely the “first mental jolt produced by the impression of an injury.” (2.3.5) The pre-emotion, the impression (not the judgement) that one has been harmed, is not anger because by itself it does not yet involve the subsequent judgements. Reason cannot overcome them, although Seneca suggests that “perhaps their force can be lessened if we become used to them and constantly keep a watch for them.” (2.4.2) We perhaps cannot help that some things seem terrible (e.g. an assault) or that some things seem good (e.g. revenge), but as rational agents we can decide whether or not we assent or withhold assent to those impressions. In modern terms, Seneca’s discussion allows us to realize that we are experiencing the feeling of anger without necessarily having to experience the emotion of anger. By understanding our involuntary psychosomatic responses, and understanding that it is not necessarily the case that we have been offended, or at least that it is not the case that revenge is now appropriate, we need not experience these negative, destructive emotions.[3] We often confuse these initial responses for emotions and believe we must, or that it is appropriate to, act in a certain manner.

A vivid example can be borrowed from the popular psychological story, James and the Bear, for the sake of understanding Stoic propatheiai. If James were asked what falling in love feels like, he might give a description of his psychosomatic responses: weakening of the legs, shaking of the hands, dizziness, paleness, a sudden loss of mental ability, etc. Yet if James is asked what terror feels like, his list of psychosomatic functions may be identical, or at least overlap significantly. But when James walks through the woods and is suddenly confronted with a snarling bear, there is no question which of these previous emotions he is experiencing despite their similarity in feelings. It is in the judgements about the impressions (that being mauled by a bear is an evil in prospect, and that it is appropriate to be terrified) that lead to the emotion of terror.[4] The initial impression of the snarling bear and the accompanying psychosomatic responses are involuntary, but the judgements that lead to the emotion are not. Similarly, when Seneca is confronted with an irritating impression (a slanderous insult, or to keep with our theme, a punch in the face) he can have the feelings of anger (which are unavoidable) and still understand that these feelings are not yet anger. He can judge that nothing evil is happening (due to his Stoic axiology) and not have to contend with the further belief that retribution is warranted. Also there will be no chance that these judgements will be carried to an excessiveness that is disobedient to reason, and hence Seneca will not experience the pathos of anger. The Stoic model is useful and plausible for anyone threatened with becoming angry, and can provide emotional therapy even for those who do not accept adiaphora- the Stoic axiological doctrine of the indifference of externals.[5]

Bibliography

Gould, J. (1970). The Philosophy of Chrysippus. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Seneca. (2010). Anger, Mercy, Revenge; translated by Robert A. Kaster and Martha Nussbaum. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Footnotes

[1] Despite the focus on the Stoic account of emotion in recent years, it is important to note that the sufferer of the emotion is not healed when the emotion has passed due to time (2) or because it no longer excessive (4). The sufferer may still erroneously believe that there is good or evil present or in prospect, and this is the fundamental error, rather than any damage that the emotion can cause. Moreover, the sufferer may have the false belief that it is appropriate to be elated or angry or grieved. It is these false beliefs, and their extirpation, that are the foundational problems. The Stoics argue that this is the time for their cognitive therapy- after the impulse has downgraded from emotion to merely false beliefs about the presence or prospect of something good or bad, and the further judgment of the appropriateness of the emotion.

[2] By ‘offense’ I mean that we here judge the strike as something bad that has happened. This is the first of the false beliefs in the Stoic view. According to Stoic axiology (that only the agent’s own vice is a present evil), this judgment errs.

[3] Or any of the pathe, which by definition involve a false belief.

[4] The two need not coincide, e.g. the park ranger may have the (false) belief that being mauled by a bear is an evil in prospect, but not have the further (false) belief that it is now appropriate to be terrified.

[5] That is, those who believe that it is not the case that there is no evil present- or more simply, those who believe e.g. being punched is a present evil. They may have this belief but realize that it is not the case that one must act in a certain manner (seek revenge). Moreover, non-Stoics can accept that pre-emotions are not yet anger and can only lead to the pathos of anger if they assent to the impressions.

Leonidas Konstantakos became 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.