REBT is Strong Medicine for the Covid-19 Pandemic by Walter J. Matweychuk

I forewarn the reader that this piece will not be easy to read. I intend to address difficult and painful possibilities in a realistic way. Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) is a practical approach to problems of daily living.

With the philosophical attitudes of REBT, you can transcend great adversity such as illness, death to you or a loved one, loss of employment, significant financial loss, or social isolation. REBT has something to offer in the face of life’s most significant hardships.

These are exceptionally challenging times. Every person on the planet is facing a great deal of uncertainty. Serious illness, financial loss, unemployment, social isolation, boredom, and perhaps even death to self or our loved ones are real possibilities. In times like these Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy is the cognitive behavior therapy that is particularly useful when your worst nightmare has or may well come to pass. I have used that last sentence as a tag line on my emails for some time now because I have long been aware of the unique power of REBT philosophy.

In other forms of cognitive behavior therapy, the first line of attack would be to assume distortions in one’s thinking. This approach has its limitations when the reality is grim. From the outset of any crisis REBT encourages you to pivot and look the worst-case scenario squarely in the eye. This pivot is not natural, but in my view, it is a necessary pivot to take when the going gets tough if you wish to transcend it. REBT is capable of helping you to have a healthy emotional reaction to the current state of affairs. It helps you to respond to Covid-19 and its related threats in an emotionally constructive way. REBT will not fail you if you go down its prescribed rational, self-helping, philosophical path. Be forewarned the road is not an easy one to take, but it is a path that leads to resiliency in the face of extreme hardship.

Core Concepts of REBT

Let me review a few essential concepts of REBT theory and philosophy. First, REBT reminds you that rigid attitudes, or what we also call demandingness, lie at the core of emotional disturbance. Often these rigid attitudes will generate extreme secondary attitudes, which also lead to self-impairing emotional and behavioral consequences.

Self-Impairing vs. Self-Helping Negative Emotions During a Crisis

REBT teaches that we can choose between two qualitatively distinct negative emotions. REBT takes the position that emotions are choices. Circumstances do not solely determine our feelings. We construct a good deal of what we feel. During this challenging time, it is not adaptive to feel neutral, and it is not possible to feel joyful about the threats that are looming or the losses that have occurred. Often the unhealthy negative emotions we unwittingly “choose” to feel are anxiety, worry, panic, depression, and despair. These self-impairing negative emotions are choices fallible humans quickly and easily tend to default to in dire circumstances. These unhealthy negative emotions will do you little good. They are self-defeating. They will lead to all sorts of counterproductive behavior in the face of the current public health threat.

You have an alternative. With the healthy philosophical attitudes that REBT teaches, you could strive to adopt and go on to choose self-helping negative feelings of genuine concern, deep sorrow, or disappointment. The great concern you could choose to feel is a particularly useful negative emotion because it acknowledges the threat that looms but facilitates self-helping actions. Your concern will enable you to do what you can to do to keep healthy. It will help you to have the discipline to engage in social distancing and maintain hand hygiene even when there is no immediate reinforcement for doing these things.

For those of you who have already suffered tangible losses and great misfortune, sorrow in proportion to the nature of your loss is an appropriate and healthy negative emotion. Great sorrow acknowledges the significant losses which have occurred. However, concern and sorrow, no matter how deep, also allow you to continue to function to salvage what remains to be rescued and to continue to take whatever steps are possible to prevent further pain and hardship. Strong feelings of concern, intense disappointment, and great sorrow are emotions that allow us to transcend the gravest of misfortunes.

Preparing for Hardship – Premeditatio Malorum

REBT derives from classical philosophy. For over two thousand years, those who have transcended the greatest of hardships have taken a different path. Ancient philosophers like the Stoics and the Buddhists encouraged that we appreciate, daily, the fragility of our lives and to understand that this precious gift could end at any time. The Stoics called the practice of reflecting in advance of the occurrence of misfortune, premeditatio malorum. It was a prescribed philosophical practice. They advocated that we prepare ourselves for hardship long before it occurred by regularly meditating on its eventual occurrence. I consider this ancient practice emotional fitness training for the great difficulties of life. Like physical fitness, this emotional fitness will allow us to be ready for great misfortune when it occurs. The question is – will you be ready?

Focus on What Is Under Your Control

REBT encourages you to focus on what is under your control and direct your efforts to that which you are able to influence. Our attitudes and reactions to adversity always remain within our direct control. Furthermore, REBT encourages you to leverage the benefits of acceptance. In REBT, acceptance is defined by leading practitioners Dr. Windy Dryden and Wayne Foggette in the following way:

To accept something is to (1) acknowledge that it exists, (2) acknowledge that all the conditions are in place for it to exist (3) believe that while it is preferable for this reality not to exist, it does not follow that it must not exist, and (4) resolve to change the existing conditions if they can be changed and adjust constructively and move on if they can’t be changed.

REBT teaches that acceptance is instrumental in creating healthy emotional reactions and adaptation to a painful reality. It is a choice that is more likely to occur when we hold flexible and non-extreme attitudes towards adversity. In times like these, acceptance is a powerful weapon to bring to bear in facing this pandemic. Unfortunately, today, this kind of emotional acknowledgment and adaption which is a foundation of REBT is rarely formally taught to children and adults.

Let us now examine how REBT offers you emotional leverage in these uncertain times. I will list several irrational attitudes which people may easily default to during this pandemic. After each self-impairing attitude, I will present the rational counter attitude that stems from REBT theory and philosophy. It is worth emphasizing that the path REBT encourages is not an easy one to take. However, you can adopt these attitudes with work and practice. If you do adopt these attitudes, you will gain leverage over the hand of fate regardless of what it has in store for you.

Attitudes Related to Possible Illness of a Loved One

Self-defeating rigid attitude: I need to know my loved ones will remain healthy.

Self-Helping flexible attitude: I very much want to know my loved ones will remain healthy, but sadly I cannot know this. I do not have to know if they will remain healthy throughout this pandemic. Such knowledge is impossible to have right now. It would be easier if I knew what fate they will face. However, it is worth acknowledging that knowing this could also be quite burdensome. Either way I will accept I cannot know what the future holds and live well with the uncertainty which exists.

I will have healthy concern that they could contract the virus. I will also encourage and help them to control what they can control to better their odds of remaining healthy. I will comfort them if they are making themselves anxious over the threats that currently exist. Making myself anxious about what could happen will not help me or them in these uncertain times.

Self-defeating extreme attitude: It would be awful if my loved one contracted the Covid-19 virus.

Self-helping non-extreme attitude: It would be very, very bad if my love one contracted the Covid-19 virus, but not awful or the end of the world. Depending on the course and outcome of the illness, it would be bad, very bad, exceptionally bad but not more than 100% bad. Bad events can only lie on a scale from 0% bad to wholly bad, 100% bad. Even their death would not necessarily be 100% bad. As hard as it is to think of this if death ended suffering then it would have an element of good to it. Death adds meaning, context, and urgency to life that would not exist without this hard stop to life.

Keeping the degree of badness in perspective will help me fully appreciate them and to stay calm and concerned about the health of my loved ones. By remaining calm I will more easily call to mind that contracting the disease is not necessarily a death sentence. Many people can fend off the disease. Making myself anxious over the possibility of my loved ones contracting the disease will not help me or them in any way. Extreme thinking, or what REBT refers to as “awfulizing”, is easy to do but very self-defeating. It leads to considerable anxiety in the face of uncertainty in this important matter. Stay concerned, you can make this choice!

Self-defeating extreme attitude: It would be unbearable to have to watch a loved one struggle with the illness.

Self-helping non-extreme attitude: It would be exceedingly difficult to witness a loved one struggle with this illness but not necessarily unbearable. I could stand to support them in their battle until either they prevailed or perished from it. It probably could be the most onerous burden I have had to bear in my life, but I could take it. Many people prevail and survive the illness, and I will encourage my loved one to fight to resist death as vigorously as possible.

This attitude is worth adopting if they became ill. There would not be much of a choice other than to bear witness to their struggle. Would I bear witness calmly and remain a source of strength to my loved one, or would I be an emotional burden to them as this dreadful scenario unfolded? That is the question. My goal would be to remain strong for my loved one, and this attitude would enable me to do just that.

Self-defeating extreme attitude: Life would be completely bad if a loved one contracted the Covid-19 virus.

Self-helping non-extreme attitude: Life would be so very bad if a loved one contracted the Covid-19 virus but not completely bad. Concluding it would be completely bad will lead to paralyzing anxiety now and despair then. If they became ill, I still would have as part of the context all the good times I had with them before their falling sick, and this would be part of the evaluation of life. All those good times I enjoyed with them have been many, and that is undeniable.

I also continue to have other blessings despite this hardship. Life will be very, very, very bad but not wholly bad if they contract the Covid-19 illness. It is important to remind myself that despite it being bad that my loved one contracted the virus it does not necessarily mean they will die. Since my goal is to support my loved one this attitude will help me accomplish my goal.

Attitudes Towards Death of Self

Self-defeating rigid attitude: I must not lose my life to this illness.

Self-Helping flexible attitude: No one, especially me, wants to die and lose their life to this illness, but it does not mean I must not lose my life to this illness. If I lose my life to this illness, it means that all the conditions were in place for my life to end. Sadly, no degree of demanding that these conditions not unfold would change those conditions. I sincerely hope that this perfect storm of circumstances does not come to pass, and I will do everything I can do to prevent these conditions from materializing in order to remain alive and prevail over this illness.

Upsetting myself by demanding I not lose my life will only cause me to feel panicked or depressed. It won’t help me in this struggle. Panic, anxiety or despair will make my existence more unpleasant for me and only facilitate my death. Life is precious until the moment it ends. I do not want to live poorly now through the end if the end occurs due to this illness. I commit to accepting my fate, whatever that may be.

Self-defeating extreme attitude: It would be awful if I lost my life to this illness.

Self-helping non-extreme attitude: It would be very, very, very bad but not awful if I lost my life to this illness. In this case, holding the attitude that it would be awful if I lost my life to this illness implies that my death should not occur which, if I were to die, would be false. My death will be very bad to me and to a few other people who love me, but surely the world will keep spinning. Awfulizing about my death will not allow me to be fully engaged in living and relating to loved ones and other humans until the end. This mindset will serve no useful purpose. It will only reduce my resources to struggle against this illness.

When I die, I will take nothing with me but my state of mind. Awfulizing during the final days of my life will probably not contribute to a peaceful passing. I will strive to accept what I cannot change and enjoy existence until the end in a calm state of mind. Keep fighting and commit to remaining in a healthy state of mind.

Self-defeating extreme attitude: I could not bear the process of losing my life to this illness.

Self-helping non-extreme attitude: It would be tough to bear the process of losing my life to this illness, but it would not be something I could not take. I could endure the process of losing my life to the disease for the length of time I was in the process of living out my final days. It would be worth seeing this time as tolerable if only because it will enable me to have some degree of emotional control while I am dying. This mindset will better enable me to bear the process. It would be worth doing because there is life until the moment of death. Life is so precious that living those final moments of my life well will be especially important to do. I commit to living well until the end.

Self-defeating extreme attitude: Life would be totally bad if I died due to this illness.

Self-helping non-extreme attitude: Life would not be totally bad if I died due to this illness. Life would remain a mix of good, neutral, and bad even if I died due to this illness. My death does not change the nature of life. Despite my death to this illness, there have been many good times that preceded it. They are part of the picture that accounts for a fair and balanced view of life. It is also good to remember life goes on with or without me.

Attitude towards Unemployment or Financial Loss

Self-defeating rigid attitude: I must not lose my job or experience significant financial loss as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Self-Helping flexible attitude: I hope not to lose my job or experience significant financial loss as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, but sadly it could happen. There is no universal law that protects me from losing my job or suffering significant financial loss. I wish I were exempt from this possibility, but I am not a special person that “should” be excluded from this hardship. I do not want this to happen, but millions of other people will likely lose their jobs and experience serious financial hardship.

If this is to occur, it will occur, and I will do better to accept it. I will do everything I can to prevent it from happening or to recover from it once it occurs. Acceptance that unemployment and significant financial loss can happen will help me feel concerned before it and enable me to endure and transcend it after its occurrence. If I hold a rigid attitude towards job loss or financial loss, I will not cope very well with these challenging scenarios.

Self-defeating extreme attitude: It would be the end of the world if I lost my job or experienced significant financial loss as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Self-helping non-extreme attitude: It would be a great misfortune if I lost my job or suffered a significant financial loss. These would not be awful or the end of the world. I can see that beyond job loss or substantial financial loss, there are even worse things that could transpire like losing love ones or losing my own life.

Putting job and economic loss into proper context will help me face this possibility without suffering. I would endure this challenging set of circumstances if they were to occur to me. I will take whatever steps I can to prepare for and prevent these things from happening. However, I will acknowledge they still could happen, and I can accept the existence of this possibility and also accept these things if they were to occur.

Self-defeating extreme attitude: It would be intolerable to lose my job or suffer significant financial loss as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Self-helping non-extreme attitude: It will be tough for me to lose my job or suffer significant financial loss but not unendurable. I hope these challenges do not occur, but if these challenging things were to happen, I would not have a choice but to endure them, and I would be able to withstand these things. This attitude is hard to adopt and maintain, but it will strengthen me for extreme hardship, and so it will empower me. It is worth it to me to choose this stance because I would not want job loss or substantial financial loss to defeat my family and me if they were to occur. I want to provide for my family regardless of how difficult life gets, and I will fight each day until I get back on my feet. I commit to transcending both job loss and substantial financial loss.

Self-defeating extreme attitude: Life would be totally bad if I lost my job or suffered enormous financial loss as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Self-helping non-extreme attitude: Life would be exceptionally bad, but not wholly bad if I lost my job or suffered great financial loss. Losing a valued job or suffering significant financial loss will certainly color much of life but not all of life. It would be good for me to count the remaining blessings in my life if these very bad things were to occur. Having a more balanced attitude will help me before the occurrence of these painful challenges and during their existence, if they materialize. A balanced attitude towards life under these circumstances would be tough to adopt. Still, with careful study and deliberate choice, I could see it as both a valid attitude and an instrumental one for handing such crises.

Attitudes Towards Death of a Loved One

Self-defeating rigid attitude: Covid-19 must not take the life of my loved one.

Self-Helping flexible attitude: I very much hope that Covid-19 will not take the life of my loved one. Still, sadly this could happen, and it is an unfortunate possibility I can come to terms with even though this is hard to accept. Unfortunately, no law of the universe exists to protect the life of my loved one from this disease. Regardless of how badly I want something not to occur, it does not mean it must not happen. This loss may be very hard for me to accept, but the difficulty in accepting this loss does not mean it must not occur. The universe is not cruel, just indifferent to me.

Self-defeating extreme attitude: It would be awful, terrible, and the end of the world if my loved one died due to this illness.

Self-helping non-extreme attitude: It may well be the worst thing that has happened in my life until this time, but it would not be the awful, terrible, or the end of the world if a loved one died due to this illness. It may seem as if it is the end of the world if I lost my loved one, but it would not be so. As difficult as it might be for me to appreciate that it would not be awful, terrible, or the end of the world it just would not be true that it would be the worst thing that could happen. Far worse things could happen.

For example, my loved one could have died younger than they did, or I could have never had this loved one in my life for any length of time. If they died regardless of how much they suffered, they could have suffered more. If I lost a loved one, I would still be alive.

Therefore, I would presumably want to suffer as little as possible as I continued living without this person in my life. Striving to see this significant loss as tremendously bad, not awful, and to accept it will help me to survive it. I will hope I do not need to do this, but if so, this attitude will enable me to endure the great pain that would come from this loss.

Self-defeating extreme attitude: Losing a loved one to Covid-19 would be unendurable.

Self-helping non-extreme attitude: It would be a tremendous burden, one perhaps heavier than I ever have had to bear if my loved one died, but it would not be unendurable. I would be able to endure this tremendous burden. Moving forward with this heavy burden would be worth doing because it would be my burden, and I would have no choice but to bear it. I commit to transcending it even though it is incredibly hard to imagine how I would have the strength to do it. Somehow, someway I would bear it.

Self-defeating extreme attitude: Losing a loved one to Covid-19 would make life totally bad and worthless.

Self-helping non-extreme attitude: Losing a loved one to Covid-19 would make life tremendously bad, not wholly bad, and worthless. This attitude is true because life is too complex to weigh in total. Factoring in all the years and wonderful experiences I have had with my loved one would be impossible to do. I could still see life as a mix of good, very good, neutral, all the way through to tremendously unfortunate events, which makes life itself unmeasurable. The pain I feel would be very deep because there once was great love and joy, but life itself would not be worthless.

As you can see, REBT can address the most difficult existential challenges of life, namely illness, death of self, or the death of a loved one. After the examination of disease and death, it will likely be easier for you to apply REBT to the deprivation of pleasure resulting from social isolation and the associated boredom. Covid-19 will continue to substantially inconvenience people around the world. The fortunate ones are those merely inconvenienced by Covid-19, while others will experience tremendous loss. Keep it all in perspective throughout this ordeal.

I wish to close by underscoring that REBT philosophy is not a cold, compassionless philosophy. In my view, it is just the opposite. REBT is a philosophy of compassion because it shows you how to transcend the most substantial existential burden life can give to you. 

For over 2,000 years, people have used Stoicism, the philosophy REBT derives from, to control what they can control and accept what they cannot. Many people who have gone before you have chosen to adopt this philosophical path to cope with their burdens. Do not assume you, too, cannot move towards and then utilize these flexible, non-extreme philosophical attitudes in the face of your particular hardship.

Bottom line: Assume that you can and then discipline your mind to bear anything life may throw your way, and you will do so.

Dr. Walter J. Matweychuk is a clinical psychologist and practitioner of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). He both practices and trains psychologists in REBT at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine and teaches Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) at New York University. He has been an expert consultant on a project with the US Navy aimed at teaching CBT related coping skills in a classroom setting to sailors. He is co-author on Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy: A Newcomer’s Guide. He disseminates information on REBT through his website, REBTDoctor.com.

A Roundup of Resources on Stoicism and COVID-19

World map showing countries with COVID-19 cases

At this point, confirmed cases of the COVID-19 virus are all over the world. We are in the midst of a pandemic, the responses to which vary considerably from country to country – or even, here in the USA, from state to state – and it places stress not only on health care systems but also economies, political systems, and education. Quite a few people went into panic purchasing mode, buying up the available stocks of commodities ranging from pasta to toilet paper.

Many people are observing social distancing, in self-quarantine or isolation, or “sheltering in place”. Many others are forced into contact with potentially contagious people as a condition of doing and keeping their jobs. Emotional responses such as fear and anxiety, sadness and listlessness, boredom and loneliness, and frustration and anger are common and understandable in these situations.

In times like these, the usefulness of Stoic philosophy comes into play. Not that it’s not always useful for people, but in times of crisis, it may be especially so. So for today’s Saturday post, we’re providing readers a roundup of resources out there right now discussing Stoicism and the COVID-19 crisis.

I won’t be writing down my specific judgements of these resources, each of which I’ve examined. The fact that they’ve made this roundup tokens that I think they might be valuable for readers, but it’s up to each person to determine whether a specific resource is useful or not for them. I’d like to acknowledge the diligence of my colleague and friend, Tim Lebon, who sent many of these resources my way in a nicely compiled list earlier this week.

Articles and Blog Posts

Although it is about a different epidemic, you may also want to check out the piece: Stoicism In The Time of Plague – Donald Robertson

Radio, Podcast, and Video

All of us here at Modern Stoicism hope that these resources prove useful for you readers.

Happy St. Patrick’s (& Marcus Aurelius’) Day! by Kevin Vost

I, Patrick, am a sinner,
the most uncultured and smallest among the faithful,
and indeed, many people consider me to be worthless.
– St. Patrick, Confession

Take care that you turn not into a Caesar…
– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, VI, 30

The pagan Celtic goddess Brigid was associated with the feast of Imbolc on February 1 (the same date Catholics would later celebrate the feast of Saint Brigid of Kildare). Heralding the coming of spring, Imbolc marks the halfway point between the winter solstice and spring equinox in the northern hemisphere. Though the date may sound a little early for spring, according to an old Irish tale, things would just begin to “think about growing” on February 1. On that day one ancient fabled hag who lived underground would begin to push the dormant vegetation up through the earth while two other hags would keep holding it down. By St. Patrick’s Day on March 17, the second hag would join in to push the plants up, and finally, by April 1, all three were pushing things up, signifying that by then spring had definitely sprung!

Well, in the year 2020 spring starts on March 19, but I am going to zoom in on the date that the two hags got busy, that is, on March 17.  On that date, as nature moves so close to spring, my thoughts turn not only to the patron saint of the Irish, but to one of the patron sages of the Stoics. 

St. Patrick died on March 17, most likely sometime around 461 AD.  On March 17, 180, a century before St. Patrick was born, the western world lost its foremost leader, Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Great celebrations mark St. Patrick’s feast to this day (though Patrick himself was not known for wearing gaudy green clothing, drinking great drafts of green beer, sailing down green rivers, or marching in parades.) Though Marcus is becoming increasingly and deservedly well-known in our time, I am not aware of any formal public celebrations of the anniversary of his death. Still, there is no reason we, as modern Stoics, cannot celebrate him in our own ways.

What I hope to do in this brief article is to pay a little homage to both of these great men by providing a few comparisons and contrasts, and by highlighting a few virtuous character traits both men held in common, but expressed in their own ways through actions of their lives according to their unique times, locations, beliefs, and roles.

Humility

Humility is a fitting virtue both for Christians and Stoics. Deriving from the Latin word humus for the earth’s soil, it reminds the Christian (and the Jew) that we are “ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” (cf.  Gen. 3:19, Job 30:19; 42:6). None of us gave ourselves life and all of us are mortal. Cultivating this awareness can help keep us from the kind of pride whereby we come think of ourselves as like God. The Stoic too was well aware both of our rootedness in nature and of our mortality, and like the ancient Greeks, the Stoics warned us against the hubris that would lead us to strive to control things beyond our own powers or to focus on praise and glory rather than on living a good and principled life for its own sake.

If any men might rightfully be tempted toward pride or hubris, both Patrick and Marcus would seem excellent candidates.  Marcus, as Roman Emperor, was the most powerful man on all the earth. Patrick, at the height of his power, converted the chieftains and kings of an entire island nation away from their traditional religion to embrace the Christianity he loved and preached.

Indeed, to see what a legendary figure Patrick would become, one can read the incredible pious legends of St. Patrick’s astonishing miracles which abound in the ancient lives, as was the style for the hagiographical writing of the Middle Ages.  Some of the stories are quite whimsical, like his driving the snakes out of Ireland (though it seems they actually never lived there). Others should seem highly questionable in light of St. Patrick’s saintly character—like praying to God that the citizens of Rome be put asleep so that in their slumber he could make off with a load of their precious relics to take back home to Ireland! Surely, this holy saint was well aware of the demands of  justice summarized in the Commandment: “Thou shalt not steal!” 

Still, we have one extant book, in addition to a brief letter, penned by the real Patrick himself, known as the Confession. Its first sentence appears at the start of this article. How strange to see the conqueror of Druids, converter of a nation, banisher of demons (as well as snakes), raiser of the long dead, worker of sundry miracles, bearer of the very staff of Jesus Christ, not to mention the namesake of countless parades in the centuries to come, declare that he is considered “worthless” by many! The real Patrick was indeed a humble man.

Marcus is too in a sense a “man of one book,” that book being his magnificent Meditations. Marcus was the leader of many nations and a man of many accomplishments. Edward Gibbon, in his classic Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, considered Marcus the last of the five good Roman emperors in the comparatively golden time just before Rome declined and fell.  Of course, there were many Roman emperors (about 70) over the course of the empire’s 500 years of existence, but Marcus is the only one dear to modern Stoics. Indeed, he is also often called “The Last Stoic.” 

In Marcus’s own words too we find both irony and humility. Behold the last great pagan Roman Emperor, official bearer of the titles Augustus and Caesar, and the last great Stoic philosopher as well, in a time when some Roman Emperors were popularly acclaimed or proclaimed themselves gods, exhorting himself, “take care that you do not become a Caesar.” Indeed, he proceeds to advise himself to live a simple, good, free, and pure life, “a friend of justice, a worshipper of the gods, kind, affectionate, strenuous in all right acts.”

May both these men inspire and remind us to strive for great accomplishments while remembering our own limitations, with eyes focused squarely upon noble goals, rather than seeking other’s eyes on ourselves.

Integrity

Modern dictionaries define integrity to mean the possession of a sound moral character; to be complete or whole; or to be unimpaired or perfect. I am using the term in both the first and second senses to refer to Patrick and Marcus, integrity meaning a noble, principled moral character (the first definition) that shows through in one’s thoughts, words, and deeds, in other words, in the person as a whole (second definition). To put it in the terms of modern slang expressions, the person of integrity is the man (or woman) who is “the real deal,” and who “walks his talk.”

Both Patrick and Marcus seem to have been entirely sincere in all they proclaimed, and to have guided their own daily lives, as much as is humanly possible, by their highest moral principles. I believe one key element to each man’s integrity rings out pretty clear in both of their writings, and it is the fact that they both so frequently and fervently absorbed the wisdom of their faith (Patrick) or philosophy (Marcus) that their principles virtually oozed out through their pores. Please allow me to explain and provide a few examples.

To begin with Patrick and give his story in short, this son of a Catholic deacon and grandson of a priest grew up in Bannavem Taberniae (“the field of the tents”) that once had housed the Roman legions somewhere in the western half of the island of Britain in the waning days of its rule by the Romans.  He did not take his Christianity very seriously until after his capture by Irish pirates, along with many others from his village, just before he turned sixteen years old.   While forced to tend pigs and sheep somewhere in Ireland, Patrick grew in his faith, reporting in his own words that he would come to pray to God, “one-hundred times a day and as many times at night.”

During his sixth year of captivity, Patrick, now a young man of about age twenty-two, heard a voice in a dream tell him that he would return to his own country. Soon after, the voice told him that his ship was ready but that it was about 200 miles away in a place he had never been and where he knew not a soul. Patrick, as a runaway Irish slave, could have faced death if he were captured, and so could any who had helped him. Nonetheless, Patrick tells us that with God directing his path, he made the journey without fear, and he did indeed gain passage on a ship that returned him to his home and his freedom.

There is an interesting detail in the summary above from the seventeenth section of Patrick’s Confession. For centuries, scholars had consulted maps of ancient Ireland, trying to deduce from his mention of 200 miles exactly where Patrick had been held and where he met the boat that took him home. Modern Patrick biographer Thomas O’Loughlin notes that a distance of 200 miles equates to the “one thousand and six hundred stadia” referred to in the New Testament Book of Revelation 14:20.  It is used in Scripture to represent a great distance.

Patrick, then, may not have been attempting to give any kind of exact measurement of the actual distance. Rather, by the time Patrick wrote his life story decades later, he had become so immersed in Christian teachings that he practically thought, wrote, and lived, in and through the words of Holy Scripture. Indeed, while Patrick’s Confession is quite brief, divided by modern scholars into 62 passages roughly commensurate in length with the 53 passages of Epictetus’s condensed Enchiridion, it contains more than 100 direct references or allusions to the Bible. This I see as one important key to Patrick’s own integrity. He so imbibed and absorbed the lessons of Scripture into his moral character that he thought, wrote, and lived by them.

A similar phenomenon is readily apparent in Marcus’s Meditations, where the words and the lessons, not of the Christian Bible, but of the teachings of the Stoics, most particularly Epictetus, ring out loud and clear in every page, sometimes through direct references and homage to Epictetus, but by far more often as reformulated in Marcus’s own words. 

In his Discourses, Epictetus reminds his students that sheep don’t vomit up grass to show their shepherds how much they have eaten, but they chew and digest that grass and then produce wool and milk of their own. Marcus had chewed on and digested the rich, verdant grass of Epictetus’s lessons for decades before he produced the wool and the milk of his Meditations, wool and milk that can help shield us from the elements and nourish our souls even to this day.  Moreover, the Stoic lessons that Marcus digested came through not only in his words to himself, but in his acts. The ways in which Marcus “walked his talk,” produced deeds that helped Roman citizens live  flourishing lives in the second century and can help us do so in the twenty-first.

Fortitude

The strength of moral character referred to as the virtue of courage or fortitude rings out boldly again and again in the lives of our saint and our sage. Let’s look at a few examples, borrowing from St. Thomas Aquinas’s analysis of the allied virtues that are essential to the full display of fortitude. He borrowed primarily from Cicero, and a bit from Aristotle, in describing two active virtues of magnanimity and magnificence, and two more passive virtues of patience and perseverance.

Megalopsychia, magnanimity, or greatness of soul, was Aristotle’s contribution to the Thomistic quartet of fortitude. It entails a focus on great things truly worthy or honor for their own sake, regardless of whether or not one’s person is honored for doing them. The magnanimous person focuses on what matters that most and doesn’t get lost in things that are mean and petty. Indeed, in book one of the Meditations, Marcus thanks Diognetus for teaching him not to busy himself about trifling things and Severus for teaching him undeviating devotion to philosophy.  We can see such singled-minded great souledness in Patrick’s zeal to convert an entire nation to Christ, and in Marcus’s zeal to live out the truths of Stoicism in his own life, not merely for his own inner tranquility, but so that he could best play out the role assigned to him to protect and defend the world’s most extensive empire.

Magnificence is the second active allied virtue, and it entails the capacity to make great things through outlays of one’s own efforts and resources. Patrick displayed magnificence in abundance. Not only did he build up “the Church” in Ireland, he and the cadre of literal builders and craftsmen he brought with him would erect hundreds of actual wooden churches to be used as houses of God for the nation of new Christians he helped build as no one had before him. As Patrick helped make a land with many barbarous and brutal practices more civilized, Marcus, through his magnificence, gave an already magnificent empire its last golden moments before its fall, leading through his example as the greatest philosopher-king the world has seen.

Patience is the first of the passive or enduring virtues comprising fortitude. It is the ability to endure suffering or insults in pursuit of noble ends. Patrick was exceedingly patient. Indeed, he had been home in Ireland but for a few short years, when in a dream, he heard “the voice of the Irish” people, calling him to come back to them. From that moment on he experienced a burning desire to go back to the land of his captors and share with them the gospel of Christ. Still, one of the greatest feats of patience in the ancient lives of St. Patrick is told in a story featuring the great saint, but he was not the one who displayed the astonishing patience.

One day, as the story goes, young prince Angus, son of the King of Munster, underwent a  most unusual baptism. At the end of the ceremony, Patrick noticed fresh blood on the ground. He was much aggrieved to see that the sharp pointed end of his crozier had pierced through the young prince’s foot! When he asked the royal warrior why he had endured it without uttering a word, Angus told him he assumed it was part of the ceremony, the price one must pay for such heavenly benefits! The Irish apostle, greatly impressed by the young prince’s heroic fortitude, inscribed a cross on his shield with the same staff, prophesying that the shield would see innumerable physical and spiritual victories.

Patience could just about be Marcus’s middle name.  His Meditations brim over time and again with self-exhortations to patiently bear insults and injuries from others. So many previous emperors, and not only the insane or sociopathic ones like Caligula and Nero, treated real or imagined enemies with subjugation, confiscation, banishment, or execution, while Marcus reminds himself to forgive in advance every day “the busy-body, the thankless, the overbearing, the treacherous, the envious, and the unneighborly,” because they do not know what they do, lacking real understanding of what is good and evil.

We who understand the truth and beauty of the good, he says, must not hate them or let them upset us, but must strive to cooperate with them like the hands, and the feet, they eyelids and the upper and lower rows of teeth, coming as we do from the same divine source. How intriguing, as well, to hear the most powerful man in the world remind himself to patiently bear injuries to his own body too, for example, when he is accidentally wounded by the fingernails of a wrestling partner.

Perseverance is the last virtue related to fortitude that we will consider. It entails staying the course over time despite great and enduring hardships. As for Patrick, due to the years of captivity during his teens, he ever afterwards considered himself woefully uneducated. He had to work and study for decades before he could heed the call of the voice of the Irish and come back to them as a bishop armed with the Christian knowledge, ecclesiastical authority, power, and resources to convert scores of native pagan chieftains and their peoples to the way of Christ.  It was not until his 40s or 50s that Patrick began his great mission of conversion.

Marcus also displayed remarkable perseverance throughout his life. While Patrick reports he did not take life serious until sometime after his capture around age 16, we find Marcus, the recipient of a most excellent education, at age 12, imposing austerities upon himself, desiring to mimic the ancient Cynic philosophers by wearing a simple cloak and sleeping on the ground – in the midst of a palace! It was reported that only at his mother’s insistence did young Marcus agree to sleep on a small bed covered in straw.

A few years later, at age 16, shortly after the age Patrick was abducted by pirates, Marcus’s future as a philosopher, was, so to speak, abducted by an emperor. Marcus once remarked that one’s eyes reveal one’s character. Perhaps it was something in the child Marcus’s eyes that captured the good will of the emperor Hadrian, who nicknamed him “Verissimus,” playing on Marcus’s grandfather’s name, “Verus,” which means true, and amping it up to the max – “verissimus” meaning “truest.” On February 25, 138, months before his death, Hadrian adopted Marcus’s maternal uncle T. Aurelius Antoninus on the condition that Antoninus in turn adopt the 16-year-old Marcus, along with 7-year-old Lucius Verus.     

 Recall, if you will, Patrick’s dream of the voice of the Irish that presaged the role he would undertake decades later as the father of Christian Ireland (his name, Patricius, itself deriving from the Latin pater, for father). Well, on the night of Marcus’s adoption he reported a dream that his shoulders had turned to ivory and had been endowed with great strength. That July 8th, the shoulders of Marcus’s adoptive father would bear the weight of the world as Hadrian died. Antoninus succeeded him and Marcus become co-heir to the empire. Nearly 22 years later on March 7, 161, the good emperor Antoninus passed away and the nearly 40-year-old Marcus would become co-ruler, along with Lucius Verus his adoptive brother. Nine years later, Lucius, though the younger of the two co-emperors, would pass away as well, leaving to Marcus’s ivory shoulders sole responsibility for the administration of the Roman Empire.    

It was during the final years of his life that this man of ideas found himself on the frozen banks of German rivers commanding the legions of Rome. Still, perhaps in the evenings, this reluctant man of war sheathed his sword and drew forth his stylus, with mightier and far farther reaching results. At the day’s end, he became the philosopher he was by nature and self-training, recording the Meditations to cajole himself to virtue, and whether he intended it or not, to provide similar consolation and inspiration to countless generations that have followed him.

Gratitude

Though Seneca literally wrote the book on gratitude (On Benefits), I am hard-pressed to think of other saints or sages who wrote about and displayed in their lives the virtue of gratitude as clearly and as repeatedly as did St. Patrick and Marcus Aurelius. 

In one amusing story form the ancient hagiographies revealing Patrick’s gratitude, a king had delivered to Patrick a fine and valuable massive copper cauldron. When he asked what Patrick had replied in response to his gift, his messenger said that the saint merely said, “Thanks be to God.” Thinking this a meager response to such a magnificent gift, the king bade his messenger to go take it back. When he arrived home the second time, the king asked St. Patrick’s response.  His messenger said the saint said, “Thanks be to God.” Impressed by this man who praised God whether a gift was bestowed or removed, he instructed his messenger to take the cauldron back to Patrick, and the king decided he must go and meet him!  Perhaps this incident will remind some Stoic readers of Epictetus’ counsel to wish that everything happens as it does, and to think of anything that we lose that we have given it back. The small samples we have of Patrick’s own writings are suffused with explicit gratitude to God for everything he has given to such an ordinary and uneducated man.

As for Marcus, readers will recall the first book of his Meditations as a veritable paean of gratitude. He expresses his indebtedness to the gods from giving him the specific family members, friends, teachers, and mentors who helped him in various ways throughout his life, enumerating key lessons he learned from each of them. Among the most notable for our purposes are his words of thanks to the philosopher Rusticus who taught him he needed to train and improve his character, to be forgiving, and to be careful in his opinions. He gives him special thanks as well for providing him with the most treasured book in his library – the Memoirs of Epictetus (most likely the Discourses).  For this reason we owe our gratitude to Rusticus as well, for those Epictetan Memoirs provided the seedsthat would grow into Marcus’s Meditations.

Concluding Thoughts on Virtues, Sages, and Saints

I’ve culled less than a handful of character traits that shine forth in Patrick and Marcus, and there is certainly a good measure of arbitrariness in the virtues of humility, integrity, fortitude, and gratitude that I’ve selected. Both men were so dedicated to living out their understanding of goodness and truth that their writings and lives manifested all manners of virtues. If we were to draw parallels between these virtues and the four classical cardinal virtues of temperance (self-control), fortitude (courage), prudence (practical wisdom), and justice (Stoics like Musonius Rufus referring to them in Greek as sophrosyne, andreia, phronesis, and diakaiosyne),  I would note parallels between humility and temperance, since both can rein in selfish desires; between fortitude, and well, fortitude of course; between gratitude and justice, since justice involves giving all their rightful due, including our benefactors; and between integrity and prudence, since it surely requires practical wisdom to translate the truths that one believes into an art of living well over the course of a lifetime as expressed through the acts of one’s daily life.

 So how might we choose to celebrate this St. Patrick’s (and Marcus Aurelius’) Day? I suppose one could offer a toast or libation of green beer or Falernian wine. Better still would be to dip into Patrick’s brief Confession (only 20 pages or so and readily available free online) and to visit or revisit Marcus’ Meditations.  Perhaps their wisdom can help us become better men or women this spring by growing a little humbler, stronger, more thankful, and more consistent in thinking noble thoughts and doing noble deeds.

Kevin Vost, Psy.D. is the author of twenty books including The Porch and the Cross and Three Irish Saints. He recently provided a talk 40 Years on the Porch: Lessons Ancient Stoics Taught at Stoicon-X MKE 2019.

Claim a Press Pass for Stoicon 2020 Toronto

Are you a blogger, podcaster, social media influencer or a journalist? You may be eligible to claim a press pass for Stoicon 2020 Toronto, the 7th international Modern Stoicism conference, which will take place in Toronto, Canada, on 17 October.

The annual event was held in Athens, Greece last year – the birthplace of ancient Stoicism – and this year it returns to what is widely regarded to be the world hotspot for Stoics, the diverse and vibrant city of Toronto. The full day event on Saturday 17 October will be followed by Stoicon-x the locally focused and organized mini-conference. Both events will take place at at the Sheraton Centre Hotel, which is excellently situated downtown, enabling attendees to make the most of their visit to North America’s 4th largest city.

Both events include a stellar line up of speakers, pulling experts, academics and practitioners alike (and indeed people who are all three) together on stage to deliver a deep-dive/unique immersion into the philosophy of Stoicism, which is experiencing a revival around the world. Speakers include leading names in the Stoic world such as:

  • William B Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life and The Stoic Challenge
  • Massimo Pigliucci, How to be a Stoic and A Handbook for New Stoics
  • John Sellars, Lessons in Stoicism and The Art of Living
  • Chuck Chakrapani, Unshakeable Freedom
  • Donald Robertson, Stoicism and the Art of Happiness and How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

If you can help promote this unique Stoic weekend and have an audience who would be interested then your help in pushing the message out, so that we reach the right people, would be greatly appreciated. We have a limited number of media passes available, and if you would like to be consider for one please contact us with your details. The event is run by a nonprofit, and as such we have to ensure that complimentary passes go to the right people, so when applying please advise how you meet the following criteria.

  • Either you must write for a major print publication or work for a major broadcaster.
  • Or be social influencer, podcaster, or blogger with a large enough social media following, e.g., 20k+ Twitter followers, 50k+ Facebook followers, or 50k+ YouTube subscribers

We also request that you book your accommodation for the event at the Sheraton Centre as part of the block booking for the event in order to benefit from the special rate we’ve negotiated. With a press pass, you will also benefit from perks such as Green Room and podcast recording area access.

Please contact us if you think you meet the criteria for a press pass. Passes are issued at the organizer’s discretion. All decisions are final.

On Taking Responsibility: The Stoics in Exile by Jonas Salzgeber

Background: This is a revised version of my Stoicon speech in Athens, October 2019. For enjoyment purposes, imagine you’re sitting in a comfortable seat in the beautiful Cotsen Hall in Athens. You’re attending Stoicon and are excited for the first speaker, Jonas Salzgeber.

Introduction: Start with yourself

Just like my brother and me, many of you flew here in the last days. And what did they tell you on the plane? To put your oxygen mask on first, in case of emergency. Now, this is crucial advice not only on the plane, but for life in general. We’ll get to the reason why in a moment. But first, let’s go on a short flight together.

“Kh-kh, this is your captain speaking. Fasten your seatbelts and get ready for take-off.”

“So where are we flying,” you’re wondering?

We’re flying to the small and desert-like island of Gyaros. It’s only 96 kilometers away. That’s around half an hour plane ride with our small plane. We’re going there to meet one of the most important Stoic teachers from ancient Rome – Gaius Musonius Rufus. Now, Rufus wasn’t on this desert-like island for holiday purposes. He was the most prominent Stoic teacher and had respectable influence in Rome at the time. Too much influence actually for the tyrannical Emperor Nero, who exiled him to Gyaros in the year 65.

Now imagine this. Imagine you’re at your peak in Rome with a remarkable influence, life is pretty good, and you get kicked out, you’re exiled, you go from Rome at its peak to some desolate island in the middle of nowhere. How would you respond to that?

Well, if you’re a Stoic philosopher you’d respond with taking responsibility and looking after yourself properly. That’s what Rufus did. He took exile as an opportunity to practice courage, justice, and self-control. Exile doesn’t prevent anyone from practicing these virtues, he said.

Even if they take away everything you have, they can’t take the most important thing which is the ability to choose how you respond to the situation.

And nothing outside of you ever dictates your happiness. It doesn’t matter where they put you, you’re still responsible for your own happiness as well as unhappiness. So Musonius Rufus took responsibility for his life, even in exile. He looked after himself properly, even on this desolate Greek island. He didn’t choose to be there, but he chose to take responsibility and make the best given the circumstances.

Now that’s inspiring.

So, Rufus was first exiled in the year 65. This was actually a very challenging year for Stoic philosophers, because it was the same emperor Nero, who ordered Stoic philosopher Seneca to commit suicide, in that same year 65.

And it’s Seneca’s words that help me get back to our flight route. He said, “Our fellowship is very similar to an arch of stones, which would fall apart, if they did not reciprocally support each other.”

Let’s imagine an arch of stones. And all stones are supporting each other. Now, if I’m a stone in the middle of this arch and support one neighbor, and another, and maybe even another one further away, suddenly I’m the stone that breaks apart. And with me the whole arch. Because I’m not looking after myself properly.

If our fellowship is like an arch of stones, then each stone needs to start with itself. That’s its primary responsibility. Otherwise the arch will crumble. And by successfully looking after ourselves, we will support each other naturally.

Therefore, if we want to flourish collectively, as an arch, we need to start with ourselves and look after ourselves properly. We must take responsibility, like Rufus did in exile on Gyaros. So, let’s start with ourselves. In life, as on the plane, let’s put our oxygen masks on first.

Part 1: Basic Stoicism – We Are Response-Able

Now, with that arch of stones in mind, it’s such profound wisdom from the Stoics that brought us here together. That’s what we have in common, we’re interested in Stoic philosophy. So, in a way, and we might don’t want to call ourselves this way, we’re all philosophers. Which translates from the Greek into “lovers of wisdom.” We all want to attain the wisdom necessary to live properly, so that we can collectively flourish, right? And Stoic philosophy can actually help us do that. So let’s look at some basic Stoicism.

The Stoics had an overarching goal of life. It’s called Eudaimonia and comes from the Greek. Eu-daimon-ia – it means being on good terms (eu) with your inner daimon. The ancients believed that we have an inner daimon, a highest self, an inner spirit, or a divine spark within all of us. And if we’re on good terms with our highest self, that is, if we live out our very being, then we will flourish in life.

Eudaimonia often gets translated as happiness, but it’s more like flourishing or thriving in life. The Stoics’ goal of life was living out our inborn being, this highest self, or daimon. So, we’re here for the right reason: we want to learn how to flourish in life together.

The Stoics used another Greek word to show us the way to get there, to flourish in life. Areté is that word. Its most common translation is virtue, but at least for me, virtue is hard to grasp. And luckily, there is a profounder meaning to the word areté, which I learned from modern-day philosopher Brian Johnson. He says areté is “expressing the highest version of yourself moment to moment to moment.”

When undertaking an action, think about what your best self would act. That’s living with areté: expressing our best self… moment to moment to moment.

And the Stoics had a simple strategy to navigate through life and express that best self in every moment. That strategy is: “Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.”

That’s the central teaching of Musonius Rufus’ most prominent student: Epictetus, who studied under Rufus and became a famous Stoic teacher himself. Like his teacher Rufus, Epictetus was exiled from Rome. So he moved to Nicopolis, which was a big city of the Roman Empire, it’s only around 400 km north-west from Athens, here in Greece. In Nicopolis, which by the way means “City of Victory” in Greek, he built his own school and taught Stoic philosophy to students who came all the way from Rome.

Now, if you look at the image of this blog post, you see The Stoic Happiness Triangle. We created this visualization of the Stoic core principles for my book, The Little Book of Stoicism. I mention it because this book is the only reason I’m standing here today. Donald Robertson somehow heard about the book and decided to invite me to Stoicon. Thank you.

Speaking of Donald Robertson… It was in his book Stoicism and the Art of Happiness where I learned about a beautiful metaphor the Stoics used to explain this second corner. The metaphor is from the founder of Stoic philosophy, Zeno, who taught here in Athens more than 2000 years ago. It goes like this: The wise man is like a dog leashed to a cart, running alongside and smoothly keeping pace with it, while a foolish man is like a dog that struggles against the leash but finds himself dragged alongside the cart anyway. Either we accept what happens, run alongside smoothly, and try to make the best with it, or, we complain about the situation, get miserable, and get dragged behind anyway because we cannot change it.

It’s wiser to accept your situation, and try to make the best with it. As in Epictetus’ central teaching: “Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.” The Stoics said that it’s not what happens to you that matters, but what you do with it. How you respond. It doesn’t matter where that cart is going, what matters is how you respond to the situation.

That’s where the word responsibility comes from. It’s our ability to choose how we respond to what happens. Response-ability. And it makes the final corner of the Stoic Happiness Triangle. It doesn’t matter what happens to you, you are asked to respond properly. That’s life.

Viktor Frankl, the famous Nazi death camp survivor and founder of Logotherapy, said that’s where the meaning of life can be found.

Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

And these tasks are unique for each of us. He said that we are all questioned by life with the tasks it constantly sets for us, individually, and we can only respond by being response-able. And that’s classic Stoicism. They taught that happiness and unhappiness lie in how we respond to events. In what we do with the given circumstances.

We must realize that we are not victims to what happens to us, we are challenged. The Stoics didn’t behave like victims when they were exiled. They saw in it the very meaning, and an opportunity for growth, to practice their virtues. They took responsibility when they were exiled. They didn’t complain, but accepted their situation. They ran alongside smoothly and found opportunity in what might have looked like disaster to others.

And you see, such acceptance of the situation has absolutely nothing to do with resignation. It’s the opposite. It’s pure responsibility. Ok. I’m exiled, what now? What can I do with it? How do I respond? And look, we won’t get exiled to Gyaros or some other place. That’s not the kind of challenge we’re facing today. But what else is exile than a situation we don’t like, or that we didn’t choose? In a way, we’re exiled all the time. Many things happen to us that we don’t particularly like, sad things, and either we run along smoothly or we get dragged behind. Miserably.

So how do we respond to such challenging situations? Life is asking you, how do you respond? You can only respond by being responsible, by taking responsibility for yourself.

That’s ultimately what Stoicism is all about. And we don’t need to go over this triangle again, because it just screams out one message, which comes from Epictetus: “If you want anything good, get it from yourself.”

That is, take responsibility for your life. Remember the arch that crumbles when you fail to look after yourself properly. It’s not what happens to us that matters, but how we respond. That’s the key here. And we need to start with ourselves. That’s our primary response-ability.

Part 2: Take Stock and then Aim Up

So, our primary response-ability is to look after ourselves. So that we each stand strong and can flourish together, like an arch of stones. And the Stoics gave us countless strategies on how to do that. We’ll stick to the basics today. Because if we understand the basics properly, that’s enough. Epictetus said it simply: “First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.”

The first part of this quote contains two points. Because before we can tell what we would be, we need to take stock. Where am I now? And only then can we say where we want to go. So, we’ll start here: Where am I now? Or who am I now, at this stage in my life?

To explain this simply, let’s look at a room. Okay, that’s my room. What can I see? I see a bed, not done. The blanket just lies in the middle of the bed. What else? I see a desk and a chair. The desk is full with stuff, letters and books, and clutter. The chair is full with clothes. And then the wardrobe. It doesn’t even close. It’s so stuffed with clothes and shoes.

So, that’s the first thing we do: We take stock. That’s my room right now. Or, that’s me right now. That’s what I spend my time with, and that’s how my relationships look like, or, that’s how a usual day in my life looks like.

Now, second step. Where do I want to go? Who would I like to be, and what would I like to do with my time? And if we look at the room, how would I like the room to look like?

Well, the bed looks nicer when done. And I want to work on the desk, so I need to clean it. Then I want to sit on the chair, so I have to put the clothes away. But the wardrobe is already full… So, let’s start with the wardrobe. It’s full with clothes I haven’t worn in years. What could I do? Clean it up, give some clothes to charity or to friends or throw them away.

The point is that we see where we want to go. With the room, it’s the same thing as with our life. It’s just an example. This isn’t about cleaning up your room, it’s about cleaning up your life. And taking responsibility for yourself. But the room might be the best place to start. Maybe the room is a good mirror of where you are in life. It might reflect well where we are.

So, I’m here now. Where do I want to go? I want to aim up, because I want it better, not worse. That’s why we aim up. That’s the first part of Epictetus’ quote: “First, say to yourself what you would be,” and only then can we do what we have to do.

What we do here, is basically revealing that we’re not where we’d like to be. It reveals inadequacy. That might hurt. But it’s necessary. Because we first need to acknowledge that we could be more. These are the first steps. I’m here now, I want to go there. So we need an aim. That’s why I say, aim up. We need an aim, something to shoot at. We cannot navigate through life without something to aim at. As Seneca said: “If a man knows not which port he sails, no wind is favorable.” We cannot navigate without something to aim at.

And with the room, that’s easy. But with ourselves, that’s much harder, because we are too close. So, what I find helpful, is to ask myself, what would you recommend your friend, or partner, or child, someone important to you. Someone you only wish the best, someone you wish to improve, and be their best.

So, I wouldn’t recommend my friends to watch Netflix every night. I wouldn’t recommend them to eat junk food. I would recommend to clean up their room, read a book or go to the gym instead of watching TV, and eat more vegetables, go to bed earlier, and get up at the same time every day, so they have a better rhythm. All those things.

And what we’d recommend to the people we love, we could also recommend to ourselves. Because what’s good for them might be good for us too.

That’s very simple. To see at least partly where we want to go.

But putting it into practice? That’s much harder. That’s the second part of the Epictetus quote. First say to yourself what you would be, we’ve done that, we have an aim, and then do what you have to do.

How can we do what we have to do? The Stoics say we need to regulate our impulses. So that we’re actually able to respond by choice, instead of reacting automatically. A reaction is reactive. It comes from the outside. Something outside happens, and we react. That’s impulsive, coming from the outside. Our response, however, is coming from us, from the inside. And we can choose it. We need to choose our response. That’s our most precious ability. Our response-ability. As Epictetus said,

Be not swept off your feet by the vividness of the impression, but say: ‘Wait for me little impression: allow me to see who you are, and what you are an impression of; allow me to put you to the test.’

“Wait for me little impression.” If we wait, we do not react. We pause. With awareness in the situation. And from there, we choose our best response. Or what we think is best. This requires awareness. Or mindfulness. Or attention as the Stoics called it. And how can we improve our mindfulness? Meditation is a good start. And personal reflection.

Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations are nothing else than personal reflection. A journal to himself. What did he do well? Where could he improve? Who does he want to be in this world? That is Stoicism. To look at yourself, to take responsibility for your life, to look after yourself so you can be your best version, moment to moment to moment. We need to reflect. And catch ourselves where we went wrong, so we can correct it. And aim up.

We can start small. Ask your emotional brain, what are you willing to do? I know you don’t feel like doing this, but hey, we want to move forward. We’re aiming up. So, what are you willing to do? Ask yourself, what could I do, that I actually would do? And then do it. Start small. Start with the wardrobe. Or start with the t-shirts. Whatever you can bring yourself to do. What could I do, that I would do? And then do it.

And of course it’s hard, we’re aiming up. Going up is hard by definition. If you want to climb a mountain, you don’t think this will be easy. It’s not. You expect it to be hard. You will struggle, and sweat, and fall. That’s part of the climb. And yet you continue. It’s the only way, to go up.

So… First say to yourself what you would be, then do what you have to do. I’m here now, I want to go there, so I have to do this to get there. And this last part is really hard. And it’s supposed to be hard. That’s what we’ll look at right now.

Part 3: Challenges Are Necessary for Growth

What would have become of Hercules, do you think, if there had been no lion, hydra, stag or boar – and no savage criminals to rid the world of? What would he have done in the absence of such challenges?

That’s what Epictetus asked his students, probably when they were complaining about their hard lives.

“Obviously, he would have just rolled over in bed and gone back to sleep. So by snoring his life away in luxury and comfort he never would have developed into the mighty Hercules.”

Now, this story of Hercules is a great example today, not only because it’s Greek mythology, but because it shows us that we need challenges if we want to grow.

Even a demigod, like Hercules, son of Zeus, the king of all Gods, and the son of the mortal woman Alcmene, but still a demigod, needs to face challenges in order to grow into the mighty Hercules, what do you think we need? We’re mere mortals. Of course we need challenges if we want to grow. Hey, we need to be willing to accept what life sets in front of us, and see those situations as challenges, so we might grow strong, and confident, and emotionally resilient. If we dare to aim up, and we need to if we want to grow as a person, then we need to be willing to struggle and persevere when life is demanding and challenging. In fact, these challenges are necessary for growth.

Do you think a person could reach his or her full potential without challenges? Impossible, we need those challenges. I say “challenges” instead of problems or disasters or hardships for a reason. That’s called cognitive reframing. Instead of looking at a situation as a disaster or problem, we can look at it from another angle and suddenly see it as a challenge, a challenge that might even be necessary for us to grow.

The Obstacle IS the Way, as Ryan Holiday wrote so famously. And it stems from Marcus Aurelius’ idea that what stands in the way becomes the way. It’s what we’ve said before, it’s where Viktor Frankl saw the very meaning of life. In seeing what life puts in front of us as our unique tasks. And that we are asked by life, and that we can only respond by being responsible.

Happiness and unhappiness consist in how we respond to events, the Stoics taught. “Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.” Maybe we’d better turn this Epictetus quote the other way around: Take what happens, and make the best use of what is in your power. And suddenly, it becomes a continual process, like a circle.

Like a fridge that wants to stay at 5 degrees Celsius. When someone puts a hot cup of tea in the fridge, it needs to cool down. It takes the new situation, without complaining, and makes the best use of what’s in his power.

It’s like a circle. I want to be here. Oh, and now I’m here, so I need to correct to get back on track. For us, it’s the same in life, except that we’re aiming upwards. We don’t want to be at 5 degrees Celsius all the time, we want to get hotter. We want to move upwards, we’re aiming up.

So, that’s more like an upwards spiral. The fridge is a closed circle, but we’re spiraling upwards. We want to change for the better. We’re aiming up. And sure we struggle. So, it’s more like struggling upwards, but still it’s going upwards. Even if we fall, we continue. It’s zigzag. If we keep aiming up, and accepting the challenges and trying to make the best use of what’s in our power, we will get higher and higher.

If we move from A to B, and we’re at B now, nobody cares how we got from A to B. It was a constant struggle, zigzagging through the challenges. And that’s ok. It’s the norm. Because we’re all flawed. And we’re all struggling. That’s part of the game. Even Hercules was struggling. Just at another level, maybe. And with a bigger biceps.

Life is a process. This spiral will never end. It’s a continual process. And even if we believe we’ve successfully navigated through one obstacle, another will pop up quickly. Life will put another obstacle in our way. Constantly setting new challenges. And we learn as we go.

And here’s one more important point about this continual upwards spiral: We said that we need to aim up. And we need to be willing to face our challenges. Because moving upward and challenges only come as a pair. Many great teachers have taught us the same lesson: there is no pleasure without pain. No success without failure. If we’re willing to succeed, we need to be willing to accept failure as well. If you try to avoid failure, you will have to destroy the very possibility of success. And then you can’t aim up.

Life contains both; it brings great pain, and it brings great pleasure. Pain and pleasure are two sides of the same coin. If you exclude one, you have to exclude the other too. We cannot avoid the negative and only get the positive. The positive and the negative are together, we have to accept both. And sometimes, maybe, we cannot really tell whether something is positive or negative, whether something is good or bad, even if it seems pretty clear.

Let me tell you my favorite story. It’s called the Story of the Chinese Farmer.

So once upon a time there was a Chinese farmer. And he lost his horse, it ran away. So all his neighbors came by and told him, oh that’s too bad. And the farmer said, maybe.

The next day, the horse came back and brought seven wild horses with it. Now all the neighbors came by and told him, oh wow, that’s fantastic, isn’t it?. The farmer said, maybe.

The next day, the farmer’s son tried to tame one of the wild horses, and fell off the horse and broke his leg. Again, all the neighbors came by and told him, oh no, that’s terrible, isn’t it? The farmer said, maybe.

The next day, recruiters from the army came by looking for people for the army. And they rejected the farmer’s son because he had a broken leg. Now all the neighbors came by and said, well, isn’t that wonderful? And he said, maybe.

The whole nature is so complex that it’s really impossible to tell whether something is good or bad. Even if it seems so. It’s impossible to know the consequences of “misfortune.” And you will never know the consequences of “good fortune.”

That’s why the Stoics said that events themselves are neutral. It’s just a question of our perception. And what matters is what we do with the given circumstances. That we accept our response-ability. No matter what happens, whether it seems good or bad, we are asked by life. Now how do you respond?

Conclusion

Let’s wrap this up with where we started: Gaius Musonius Rufus. He was exiled to Gyros in the year 65 by the Emperor Nero. When Nero died three years later, Rufus returned to Rome and taught Stoic philosophy in his school. He became a famous figure in Rome under Emperor Vespasian. So when Vespasian banished all philosophers from Rome, he was allowed to remain. But not for long, in around 75, he was exiled again.

And where? You guessed it, Gyaros. This desolate island not far from here (Athens). After Vespasian’s death four years later, he returned to Rome once again and taught Stoicism. And from his remaining Fragments and Discourses, which are notes taken from two of his students, we know that one of his main message was this: Practice trumps theory. He asked his students:

Suppose there are two doctors. One talks brilliantly about the practice of medicine but has no experience in taking care of the sick. The other is not capable of speaking well but is experienced in treating his patients according to medical theory. Which one would you go to , if you are sick?

I would go to the doctor who is experienced in healing.

Practice trumps theory. And that’s what I’ve tried to help you with today. To put the Stoics’ basic ideas into practice.

First, we need to start with ourselves. Remember the arch of stones that crumbles if you’re not able to look after yourself properly. Start with yourself. We want to express our highest version moment to moment to moment. We take stock and see where we are now, and decide where we want to go.

First, say to yourself what you would be, then do what you have to do. We aim up. And we focus on what we control, that’s how we navigate, we accept our situation, where we are now, and make the best of what’s in our power. What can I do about this mess in my room? Or in my life?

As Epictetus told us before: “If you want anything good, get it from yourself.” And we don’t want to get dragged behind the cart, but we want to run alongside smoothly, and make the best of the journey. And that’s where our most precious ability comes in: our ability to choose how we want to respond to events. This is our response-ability.

You’re exiled. Now, how do you respond? The event, exile, does not matter. What matters is how you respond to the given situation.

Maybe you need to pause, and tell yourself: “Wait for me, little impression, let me put you to the test.” Bring some awareness into the situation, so you can actually choose your response instead of reacting out of your first impression.

And hey, this is not easy. And it’s not supposed to be easy, because we’re aiming up. And going up is always hard. Remember, even Hercules was struggling with his challenges. And these challenges were necessary for him to grow into the mighty Hercules. We cannot expect to jump from here to where we want to go. This will be a challenge.

Pain and pleasure are two sides of the same coin. They come together. We can’t have the positive without the negative. And sometimes, maybe, we don’t even know what’s good and what’s bad, even if it seems clear. Your horse ran away? Oh, that’s too bad. Or is it? Thank you for reading.

Jonas Salzgeber writes for a small army of remarkable people at NJlifehacks.com and is the author of The Little Book of Stoicism. His practical writing style helps people with the most important step: to put the Stoic wisdom from book page to action.

Modern Stoicism Expert Panel Posts – “What are you saying, Seneca?”

One of the perks for Patreon supporters of the Modern Stoicism organization is access to discussions by our panel of experts on Stoicism on selected topics. We’ve all been extraordinarily busy – as you can well imagine – so we haven’t quite managed yet to get them done on a monthly basis, but we plan to do so going forward.

This month, the passage suggested by one of our Patreon supporters runs:

“You’ll say to me: ‘What are you saying, Seneca? Are you deserting your side? Surely your Stoics say: “We shall remain in active service right up to the very end of life, without ceasing to apply ourselves to the common good, to help the individual, and to give assistance with an aged hand even to our enemies. We Stoics are the ones who grant no exemptions from service at any age, and as that most eloquent of poets puts it, ‘We clamp down the war-helmet on our gray hair.’ We are the ones who hold so strongly that there is no inactive moment before death that, if circumstances allow, death itself is not inactive.”

Seneca, On Leisure, 1.4

You can read all of the answers by Massimo Pigliucci, Christopher Gill, Chuck Chakrapani, Piotr Stankiewicz, and Greg Sadler here on our Patreon site.

Here’s Massimo’s contribution to this discussion:

Seneca here is using some rhetorical flourish, having his interlocutor accusing him of deserting the Stoic camp and walking the Epicurean path instead. This is because Seneca is suggesting that it is perfectly fine to devote oneself to intellectual contemplation, especially in one’s later years, when poor health may get in the way of other pursuits.

But in the paragraphs following this excerpt, Seneca makes clear what he means. He begins by restating something he also wrote in a letter to his friend Lucilius: he considers his Stoic forerunners to be his teachers, not his masters: “I shall go whither they lead me, not wither they send me.” And in order to make the point that what he is suggesting does not contradict Stoic philosophy, he clarifies that he learns just as much from studying the lives of philosophers as by reading their treatises. In other words, we should look at what the Stoics did, not just at what they said. Indeed, this notion of learning practical philosophy from both theoretical books and biographies of actual practitioners was well established in antiquity. After all, Zeno himself, the founder of Stoicism, got interested in philosophy when he read Xenophon’s Memorabilia, a book about the life of Socrates.

As for the charge of Epicureanism, here is how Seneca explains the difference between the two schools, in this respect: “Epicurus says ‘The wise man will not take part in politics, except upon some special occasion;’ Zeno says, ‘The wise man will take part in politics, unless prevented by some special circumstance.'”

One such set of circumstances, Seneca continues, is when the State “is so rotten as to be past helping.” One cannot but wonder whether he was referring directly to his unfortunate tenure as Nero’s advisor. Historians’ best guess is that Seneca wrote On Leisure in 62 or shortly thereafter. He died, by order of Nero, less than three years later.

The STOIC Magazine March 2020

THE STOIC is a free monthly online publication of The Stoic Gym. The Modern Stoicism organization is partnering with the Stoic Gym (and if you look at the teams for both, you’ll see a good bit of overlap in membership).

The theme of this issue is ‘Is This Stoic?’. Contributors include many prominent modern Stoics: Greg Sadler, Donald Robertson, Sharon Lebell, Kai Whiting, Meredith Kunz, Ron Pies, and Chuck Chakrapani. If you’d like to check it out, or to subscribe, click here.

THE STOIC magazine, March 2020 issue contents:

  • GREG SADLER. Is this Stoic? Ask yourself three questions
  • DONALD ROBERTSON. Are Thomas Jefferson’s ten rules for life Stoic?
  • MEREDITH A. KUNZ. Is ignoring violence Stoic?
  • KAI WHITING. Is being political Stoic?
  • SHARON LEBELL. Is getting stuck on channel C Stoic?
  • RON PIES. The Stoic approach to ingratitude. Part I. Izzy’s complaints
  • CHUCK CHAKRAPANI. Are mindless questions Stoic?