Stoic Resilience & Path to Tranquillity
by Michael Burton
Editor’s Note: Unlike some of our posts, this is an extended essay.
You are going to die. Also, everyone you know and love will also die at some point, some possibly sooner than you. Perhaps worse still, you are going to experience hardships during the course of your life on your way to death. Some may be quite painful. Whether you live for ten years, fifty years, or one hundred, makes no difference. Fate makes no exceptions. Each of us can expect to have things not go our way at several points during our lives and some of us will lead lives that will be completely unpleasant and consistently experience great pain and suffering. Our reality is such that at any moment we could lose our lives or have our loved ones taken away from us; around every corner could be an accident waiting to happen that could irrevocably change us for whatever amount of time we have left; that we will build things and have them unfairly taken from us or watch them be destroyed. The question is not how do we stop these things, because we can’t, the question is, how do we best live in a world where these events are not a possibility, but a reality.
Is it possible to find tranquility and happiness in such a world? Many of us cope with the harsh nature of this life by burying our head in the sand and pretending like the realities of death and hardship don’t exist. We employ this strategy until these events are staring us in the face and we are forced to confront them totally unprepared. I believe that this is the worst possible way to go through life and that even though suffering and tragedy are a given, tranquility and happiness are still possible. I would argue that the ancient practice of stoicism provides us with the tools we need to live a happy and tranquil life, regardless of how much pain and suffering we experience or how long or short our lives end up being.
This paper is written for everyone. Whether you have recently undergone a difficult time of your life, whether you are currently experiencing one, or whether you have been lucky enough to be experiencing a period of prosperity, it makes no difference. I have chosen this topic because I think stoic resilience is something that each of us can use at one time of our lives or another. It matters not if you are a Christian or an Atheist, a Buddhist or a Muslim, or even if you are a practicing stoic. I believe that the teachings of stoic philosophers are of great benefit to everyone because they offer us a way to live our lives with a clarity of perspective that is conducive with both inner tranquility and happiness. In writing this piece, I have unapologetically quoted several passages from influential stoic philosophers at length, whose words I feel cannot be summarized, as there is a power in their speech that deserves not to be broken down or presented in any way other than its original form.
Although the stoic philosophy has much to say on several important aspects of life, I would like to focus specifically on the topic of stoic resilience and look at how the practice of stoicism can guide us through the variety of misfortunes life can and will send our way. In helping us cope with the challenges of the world, I believe stoics have put forward important insights, which when used correctly, can help us go through even the most difficult events of our lives. These insights involve having a precise understanding of control, adopting an appropriate perspective of our lives, and use of the tools stoic teachers advocate to help alleviate suffering and sadness when things don’t go in our favor.
To begin, let us examine the stoic notion of control. Stoics make an important distinction between the things that you can control and those things that you have no control over. I believe that many of us will easily acknowledge that there are things that we experience in our lives that we feel are outside of our control. These kinds of things become immediately apparent when someone hits your car when it’s parked out on the street or when you catch a disease or illness. These types of events readily serve as examples of things that we can experience that lie outside the scope of what we can control.
The stoics however take this deterministic line of thought further by pointing out that; in fact, most of your life is outside of your control. You are no more responsible for catching an illness than you are for the house you live in. Both are a result of something that occurred previously that you have little to no control over. For example, in the one case you are exposed to someone who carries the illness and his or her germs infect you. Whereas in the other, you may have acquired the house with money that you received from a loan you had no control over being granted, someone at the bank could have decided otherwise and then you wouldn’t have had the down payment needed and you’d be forced to consider other alternatives.
It is true that there are times when you may have some control over an event; say for example preparing for a job interview for a position you desire. But even with events like this, the ultimate decision of whether or not you are selected for the position remains outside your control. Likewise, you may feel that you are being prudent and ensuring yourself a long life because of the way you take care of your body through eating right and regularly exercising, yet all this hard work can be taken from you in a moment through an accident or illness.
Likewise, other important factors in determining who you will be such as your gender, race, parents, socio-economic status, country you’re born in, etc. have been decided for you by fate. Some of us will receive fates blessing and be born into good families with disposable incomes in a peaceful part of the world, while others of us will be born into abusive families or families that are struggling with poverty in a war-torn part of the world. Some of us will be born with fantastic genetics and talents that we can nurture into something great, while others of us will struggle with disabilities and achieve very little; most of us will live average lives and attain mediocrity. Epictetus went as far as saying:
‘We are like actors in a play. The divine will has assigned us our roles in life without consulting us. Some of us will act in a short drama, others in a long one. We might be assigned the part of a poor person, a cripple, a distinguished celebrity or public leader, or an ordinary citizen. Although we can’t control which roles are assigned to us, it must be our business to act our given role as best as we possibly can and to refrain from complaining about it. Wherever you find yourself and in whatever circumstances, give an impeccable performance. If you are supposed to be a reader, read; if you are supposed to be a writer, write.’ 
All this considered, you might be wondering, what do we have control over according to the stoics? A stoic would argue that there is one thing that you can control completely, and that is your perception of all the events that are occurring outside of your control. The events themselves are neutral and you make the decision to interpret them as good or bad. Going back to the example of getting a disease or illness, something that you may have tried to prevent, but ultimately, have little control over. A stoic would advise us to recognize that we have very little influence over illness and as hard as we work to prevent illness, sometimes nothing can be done to stop it and so we should waste no time stressing about it and should instead acknowledge that sickness and disease are a natural part of life.
Those events in our lives which present us with some control, such as attending a job interview or trying to avoid illness by living healthily, only require us to give our best effort to achieve the desired result in order to attain tranquility. In other words, in order to attain tranquility we must do our best to get what we want and leave the rest to fate. As an educator, I often tell my students before an assessment that they should not stress out about the test results, as they only have some control over this. As much as they may have studied and prepared, ultimately, they cannot completely control how well they do. Instead, I advise them to study and prepare for the assessment as hard as they possibly can given their circumstances because whether they then pass or fail, they will know that they did everything in their power to get the best result. Tranquility here lies in the knowledge that one did as best as they possibly could in order to show their best ability, irrespective of grades.
This is an important distinction because it hits at one of the key insights surrounding stoic resilience; it is not events themselves that bring us harm, but rather, our perception of these events. Stoics believe that we do ourselves a major disservice by trying to control events that are ultimately outside of our control and that we fail to realize just how many of the things we experience in our lives fall into this category. If an event is outside of your control then why should you stress yourself out about it? Would you stress yourself out because you know that the sun will rise tomorrow? There is nothing you can do to prevent this from happening, so why not interpret it in a positive way. Most of us have trained ourselves not to become upset about particular events such as the weather or time of year because we have recognized that we have no control over such matters. This suggests to me that it is possible with the right frame of mind to do this with other events, in fact, most events, it may just take a reminder and some practice.
The serenity prayer does a great job of expressing the stoic idea of control: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” In order to harden ourselves to negativity and achieve tranquility, we need to realize that most of the events of our lives are outside of our control, that even when we have some control over an event, the most we can do is give it our best effort, and that the only thing we have complete control over is our interpretations of events, so why not interpret them as positively as possible.
The second stoic insight into resilience I would like to look at focuses on our perspective and directly builds off stoic notions of control. Just as we need to acknowledge our limited scope of control, stoics believe we must also do our utmost to ensure that we live in the present. By living this way we limit the amount of grief or pain we can experience by controlling our perception to look only at what is in front of us. As Aurelius explains:
‘Forget everything else. Keep hold of this alone and remember it: Each of us lives only now, this brief instant. The rest has been lived already, or is impossible to see. The span we live is small- small as the corner of the earth in which we live it. Small as even the greatest renown, passed from mouth to mouth by short-lived stick figures, ignorant alike of themselves and those long dead.’ 
This kind of thinking is meant to reduce anxiety for a past that is unalterable and a future that has yet to occur. How many of us cause ourselves grief by remembering events from our past that are upsetting, when we should be reminding ourselves that we cannot change what happened in the past, it is dead and gone, we instead need to ensure that we take away any lessons that can be learned and focus only on the present moment.
Likewise, how many of us emotionally look into the future and become scared or anxious for things that have yet to occur and possibly may never come to be. Our imaginations are incredibly powerful and if left to their own devices can conjure up a million ways to disrupt our tranquility for things that have yet to happen, have already passed, or were never within our control in the first place. We are incredibly good at being seduced by negativity and as Seneca wisely points out: “A man is as unhappy as he has convinced himself he is.”
Here I think it is important to say that the stoics are not advocating that we should completely forget the past or completely ignore the future. Stoics are saying that we must perceive both the past and the future carefully, through a rational lens. We learn by experiencing and remembering, this is how we grow as individuals. What the stoics are advocating is that we should recollect events as learning experiences and not as emotional pitfalls. Any negative event in your past stands as a learning experience and if you can view it dispassionately you will maintain tranquility, while learning from your mistakes. A great way you can do this is to use the control you have over your perceptions to perceive all the events of your life as harboring some good. As Epictetus tells us:
‘As you think, so you become. Avoid superstitiously investing events with power or meanings they don’t have. Keep your head. Our busy minds are forever jumping to conclusions, manufacturing and interpreting signs that aren’t there. Assume, instead, that everything that happens to you does so for some good. That if you decided to be lucky, you are lucky. All events contain an advantage for you- if you look for it!’ 
Instead of looking back on a failed relationship with a loved one that you once cherished and thinking about all the negative emotions you experienced as a result of their loss, why not look back and think about all the things you learned from being with this person. You would have exercised your capacity to love and learned something about yourself, you will have had several life changing moments with this person and you will have changed as a result of their company. Look back and find the positives and make use of what happened. In the words of Epictetus:
‘Every difficulty in life presents us with an opportunity to turn inward and to invoke our own inner resources. The trails we endure can and should introduce us to our strengths. Prudent people look beyond the incident itself and seek to form the habit of putting it to good use. On the occasion of an accidental event, don’t just react in a haphazard fashion: remember to turn inward and ask what resources you have for dealing with it. Dig deeply. You possess strengths you might not realize you have. Find the right one. Use it.’ 
Similarly, when looking into the future we must also avoid doing this through an emotional lens. If you are going to look at every possible thing that could go wrong in the future and let this impact your emotions, then you are not acting sensibly as you have no reason to believe that things won’t work out the way you wish and so are unnecessarily jeopardizing your tranquility. On the other hand, if you are able to look at any given future event and rationally assess possible pitfalls that may occur, then you are acting preventatively in order to harden your mind against possible threats to happiness and tranquility. This is something that the stoics do advise us to do, as we will see below in our examination of the stoic tool of negative visualization.
Another aspect of perception that relates to stoic resilience revolves around the idea of understanding and acknowledging nature. Here the stoics are talking about a variety of things from what we would understand to be human nature, to the environment, to the workings of the universe itself. Stoics believe that the universe is rational and organized and that the best way to achieve tranquility and harmony is for each of us to acknowledge what our nature requires us to do. Unlike other forms of life like plants and animals, humans have the unique ability to use reason to a high level, and so, the stoics believe that this is our ultimate purpose, to lead lives guided by reason. By doing so we will achieve the tranquility and happiness we desire. As Aurelius points out:
‘Nature of any kind thrives on forward progress. And progress for a rational mind means not accepting falsehood or uncertainty in its perceptions, making unselfish actions its only aim, seeking and shunning only the things it has control over, embracing what nature demands of it- the nature in which it participates, as the leaf’s nature does in the tree’s. Except that the nature shared by the leaf is without consciousness or reason, and subject to impediments. Whereas that shared by human beings is without impediments, and rational, and just, since it allots to each and every thing an equal and proportionate share of time, being, purpose, actions, chance.’ 
Many people who don’t understand the finer points of stoicism often believe that stoic thinkers advocate the idea that each of us should act like some kind of emotional zombie, oblivious to any form of extreme emotion and cold and unfeeling towards the world. I think this is the farthest thing from the truth. Stoicism teaches us that we should go out into the world and experience as much of it as we can, that we should appreciate every drop of life from the smell of rain to the calm peaceful feeling that can accompany a good cry after a sad movie. What the stoics ask of us however is to use our reason to keep these emotions in check. If we are experiencing something that is distressing us then we need to change our perception of it, to find the good in it. If we are experiencing great joy over something than we need to enjoy it fully but be careful not to become over-dependent upon it, as fate gives and takes as she pleases.
This leads us into the final aspect of stoic perception I would like to discuss, which is the idea that we should care for what we have while it is ours. Everything in this world is on loan and will eventually return to where it came from in time. The stoics would advise us to appreciate the things that we have, while we have them, and realize that one day they will no longer be ours. This mentality is not just applied to possessions but also to people as well. Perhaps Epictetus says it best:
‘Nothing can truly be taken from us. There is nothing to lose. Inner peace begins when we stop saying of things, “I have lost it” and instead say, “It has been returned to where it came from.” Has your child died? He or she is returned to where they came from. Has your husband or wife died? He or she is returned to where they came from. Have your possessions and property been taken from you? They too have been returned to where they came from. Perhaps you are vexed because a bad person took your belongings. But why should it be any concern of yours who gives your things back to the world that gave them to you? The important thing is to take great care with what you have while the world lets you have it, just as a traveller takes care of a room at an inn.’ 
Anyone who has read the words of stoic thinkers will know that these are not philosophers who are advocating a life consisting of only pure rationality, but instead, individuals who are encouraging us to live our lives and experience the highs and lows accordingly. What they are asking us, however, is to manage our emotions using our rational capacities in order to avoid the pitfalls of falling deeply into a depression because of misfortune or the loss of something pleasurable that we have become overly reliant upon.
This realization of the transience of happiness when placed on things we have no control over is powerful because it tells us to stay rooted in a moment and drink it all in. The next time you are sat around a table surrounded by people you love take a moment to reflect on the fact that eventually these people you love will be gone, harden yourself to the sadness by realizing that this is natural and you will share this fate one day yourself, and then smile and enjoy every second of time you share with them because of this fact.
Ultimately, the stoics are asking us to be responsible for our emotions, not enslaved by them. To use our rational minds to alter our perceptions to see the positives in even the worst situations. They acknowledge that in times of great suffering it is natural to feel sadness and grief and do not discourage these emotions as they serve a purpose. They remind us what we had and what we have lost. However, we cannot live in a perpetual state of grief and at some point we must move on and in order to do this, the stoics advise us to look for the silver linings in every instance of tragedy. I believe Aurelius sums up this idea perfectly in his Meditations:
‘It’s unfortunate that this happened. No. It’s fortunate that this has happened and I’ve remained unharmed by it-not shattered by the present or frightened of the future. It could have happened to anyone. But not everyone could have remained unharmed by it. Why treat the one as a misfortune rather than the other as fortunate? Can you really call something a misfortune that doesn’t violate human nature? Or do you think something that’s not against nature’s will can violate it? But you know what its will is. Does what’s happened keep you from acting with justice, generosity, self-control, sanity, prudence, honesty, humility, straightforwardness, and all the other qualities that allow a person’s nature to fulfil itself? So remember this principle when something threatens to cause you pain: the thing itself was no misfortune at all; to endure it and prevail is great good fortune.’ 
Lastly, I would like to discuss some practical tools we can all use to help us develop our stoic resilience in order to be able to deal with tragedy and misfortune. As we will see, the stoics did not believe we should sit around passively waiting for misfortune to find us, instead, they advocated the use of several techniques that are designed to prepare an individual for the inevitable realities of life.
The first of these tools is what I would call self-denial. Not self-denial in the sense of ignoring obvious facts, but in terms of denying yourself of simple pleasures. You may wonder how denying yourself of pleasure can make you happy. As we’ve just discussed above, the stoics encourage us to enjoy what we have while we have it and a great way to do this it turns out, is to deny ourselves of these things temporarily, so that when we eventually do lose them completely we’ll have better prepared ourselves for this loss as well as enjoy them more while they are part of our lives.
An example of this in practice could be something as simple a spending a week every year sleeping on the floor rather than your comfortable bed. This many seem silly but anyone who has tried this will most likely tell you that after the first night or so your body adapts and you realize how much of an accessory something like a bed is. They will also most likely tell you that when they went back to sleeping in a bed the first few nights were so much more pleasurable after sleeping on a hard floor.
Likewise, things like fasting, dieting or abstinence from sex or drugs could be used to harden your resilience and build up your appreciation for the things that you don’t necessarily need, but enjoy having in your life. The point is that you’ve laid the groundwork for a situation in which you cannot have or afford the things you’ve become accustomed with, but because you’ve practiced living without them, you’ve lessened the impact not having them will have on your tranquility and happiness. During these times, you will perhaps realize how little you need to actually be happy when you have the correct frame of mind. Seneca best emphasizes this belief in one of his letters:
‘Set aside now and then a number of days during which you will be content with the plainest of food, and very little of it, and with rough, course clothing, and will ask yourself, ‘Is this what one used to dread?’ It is in times of security that the spirit should be preparing itself to deal with difficult times; while fortune is bestowing favors on it then is the time for it to be strengthened against her rebuffs. In the midst of peace the soldier carries out maneuvers, throws up earthworks against a non-existent enemy and tires himself out with unnecessary toil in order to be equal to it when it is necessary. If you want a man to keep his head when the crisis comes you must give him some training before it comes.’ 
Very similar to self-denial, a second stoic tool for building resilience is known as negative visualization.  Negative visualization is about actively thinking about any given situation in your future and assessing what could go wrong. If you are in a relationship then you may consider what it would be like if you were to lose your partner; if you are engaging in some kind of risky activity then you may consider possible accidents that could happen, etc. By doing this, the stoics believe that we harden ourselves to possible misfortunes that lie waiting for us in our future. This may seem like it conflicts with the idea we discussed above about living in the moment and not letting a future that has yet to come to be distress you, but we must remember that the stoics discourage looking into the future emotionally, not rationally.
To put this another way, a man who imagines a possible future where he is not selected for a position he desires after an interview using his emotions will likely only cause himself stress and anxiety. He will wait anxiously everyday for bad news that he has not been selected and stress about what he could have done differently. If the man’s visualizations turn out to be correct and he is not chosen, then he only opens up the door for more negative emotional responses to disrupt his mental state. Even if this man is eventually selected for the position he desires, he has spent his time between the interview and the decision in an unnecessarily negative frame of mind. However, a man in the same situation who is basing his projections in reason will consider the fact that he prepared as best as he possibly could for this interview and realize that the decision is out of his hands. He will consider alternative options should he not be selected for the position and be prepared for bad news, but crucially, not necessarily expect it.
Negative visualization is a key concept that is often overlooked because it involves the unpleasant task of thinking things through rationally that may work against you. I don’t believe stoic thinkers are advising us to be pessimists here. We should look to the future positively and hope things will work out in our favor. However, they are pointing out that whether things go our way or not is out of our control, and so, it is therefore prudent to at least consider the possibility that things may go wrong. I would argue that this is not unreasonable as it is far better to be prepared for the worst than blindsided by it. If you go through life assuming that you will get exactly what you want, when you want it, then you are ignoring the harsh reality of the world. Nobody is exempt from misfortune and so you do yourself a great service when you mentally prepare for misfortune by considering how you will react if and when things don’t go your way. Epictetus reminds us:
‘Think about what delights you-the tools on which you depend, the people whom you cherish. But remember that they have their own distinct character, which is quite a separate matter from how we happen to regard them. As an exercise, consider the smallest things to which you are attached. For instance, suppose you have a favorite cup. It is, after all, merely a cup, so if it should break, you could cope. Next build up to things-or people-toward which your clinging feelings and thoughts intensify. Remember for example, when you embrace your child, your husband, your wife, you are embracing a mortal. Thus, if one of them should die, you could bear it with tranquility. When something happens, the only thing in your power is your attitude toward it; you can either accept it or resent it. What really frightens and dismays us is not external events themselves, but the way in which we think about them. It is not things that disturb us, but our interpretation of their significance. Stop scaring yourself with impetuous notions, with your reactive impressions of the way things are! Things and people are not what we wish them to be or what they seem to be. They are what they are.’ 
In closing, I believe that stoicism offers each of us an effective way to deal with the harsh realities of our existence because it asks us to focus not on events outside of our control, but instead on our perceptions towards these events. It may be true that each one of us will cease to exist one day, but this is natural and nothing new. Billions of people, all with lives as rich and complex as our own have come and gone and billions of people yet to be born will also share a similar fate. Fearing the end of your own life, like it is some kind of unnatural evil or something that is being done against you specifically, is foolhardy. Equally foolhardy is to go through life dreading the end of it; consider and expect the end, but don’t let irrational emotions cause you distress. Instead, embrace the moment you currently find yourself in. Likewise, any misfortune that befalls you will have happened hundreds of times to countless people and in the grand scheme of time your situation will not be unique. In this regard, you are not alone. Instead of trying desperately to cling to things that you have little to no control over, focus on your perceptions and view the events of your life as being essentially positive. One man may view the loss of his worldly goods as a tragedy, while another as a chance to start anew, the only difference between them is their perspective.
I think the stoic message of resilience can be summed up simply by saying that we should enjoy what we have while it is ours but understand that these things never belong to us, realize that we have no control over how long these things will last, and that the only difference between happiness and sadness lies in our perception of events and not with the events themselves. If we are able to do this then we will find that happiness and inner tranquillity are possible despite whatever narrative fate has written for us.
Michael Burton is a Canadian secondary school teacher who enjoys writing about philosophy, education, or anything else that catches his eye. Michael’s other works can be found on his blog at https://stoicteacher.wordpress.com/. He can also be reached on twitter @stoicteacher.
Epictetus, and Sharon Lebell. “Always Act Well the Part That Is Given to You.” A Manual for Living. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994. 31-32. Print.
Aurelius, Marcus, and Gregory Hays. Meditations. New York: Modern Library, 2002. 32. Print.
Seneca, Lucius Annaeus, and Robin Campbell. “Letter LXXVIII.” Letters from a Stoic: Epistulae Morales Ad Lucilium. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969. 134. Print.
Epictetus, and Sharon Lebell. “Everything Happens for a Good Reason.” A Manual for Living. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994. 32. Print.
Epictetus, and Sharon Lebell. “Make Full Use of What Happens to You.” A Manual for Living. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994. 23-24. Print.
Aurelius, Marcus, and Gregory Hays. Meditations. New York: Modern Library, 2002. 102. Print.
Epictetus, and Sharon Lebell. “Care for What You Happen to Have – There Is Nothing to Lose.” A Manual for Living. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994. 24-25. Print.
Aurelius, Marcus, and Gregory Hays. Meditations. New York: Modern Library, 2002. 48. Print.
Seneca, Lucius Annaeus, and Robin Campbell. “Letter XVIII.” Letters from a Stoic: Epistulae Morales Ad Lucilium. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969. 67. Print.
Negative Visualization is a term I have encountered in the work of William B. Irvine’s fantastic book on stoicism “A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy” which I feel accurately describes this ancient stoic practice.
Epictetus, and Sharon Lebell. “See Things for What They Really Are.” A Manual for Living. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994. 14-15. Print.
Aurelius, Marcus, and Gregory Hays. Meditations. New York: Modern Library, 2002. 48.
Epictetus, and Sharon Lebell. “See Things for What They Really Are.” A Manual for Living. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994. 14-15. Print.
Irvine, William Braxton. A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.
Seneca, Lucius Annaeus, and Robin Campbell. “Letter XVIII.” Letters from a Stoic: Epistulae Morales Ad Lucilium. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969. 67. Print.