Stoicism and Tinnitus
When I retired in 1995 I was looking forward to buying a dog and living near the sea. After a week I woke early one morning with a piercing whine in my head. I consulted my GP who said, “You have tinnitus. It is not life threatening but it is incurable and something you just have to live with. I can prescribe tranquilisers.”
Tinnitus is a deceptively pleasant word that trips from the tongue. However, it can lead to a life of disruption, lack of sleep and despair. I discovered that there was a correlation between severe tinnitus, from which I suffer, and depression and suicide. The future seemed bleak.
The sound was continuous and my sleeplessness was chronic. This left me exhausted during the day. My worst time came a few weeks later at Christmas. Sitting in a happy family group I felt alienated in my misery. How could I live with tinnitus and its effects?
One day I picked up Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic which I had bought when browsing in a bookshop. I had also bought Epictetus’ “Enchiridion” and Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations.” I began reading “Letters from a Stoic” again, this time underlining some passages.
When I came to “Letter LVI” it was about loud, constant and intrusive noise. I read, “For I force my mind to become self-absorbed and not let outside things distract it. There can be absolute bedlam without so long as there is no commotion within.”
Seneca, who suffered severely from ill health, particularly asthma, wrote, “It was my Stoic studies that saved me.” Perhaps they could save me? I began studying the Stoics. Instead of being a passive victim I had an objective and I began feeling more optimistic. I wondered whether, and how, people in far more difficult circumstances than myself had been helped by Stoic thinking.
I read about W. E. Henley, who wrote “Invictus” in response to suffering a life of illness and pain. This poem has inspired many people including long term prisoners such as Nelson Mandela and Admiral James B. Stockdale who said Epictetus had enabled him to survive a harsh prison regime in North Vietnam.
Epictetus, a Roman slave, was described by Simplicius as being weak in body and lame from an early age. His “Enchiridion” said, “Men are disturbed not by the things which happen, but by the opinions about the things.” And, “Illness interferes with the body, not with one’s faculty of choice, unless that faculty of choice wishes it.”
Epictetus’ philosophy about accepting what fate has dealt and turning the bad into good by skilful living appealed to me. “Seek not that the things that happen should happen as you wish; but wish the things which happen be as they are.” Epictetus taught resilience by focussing on our attitudes and judgements which are up to us and which we can control. Those things which are not up to us are externals such as our body, our reputation, our property.
We can use our reason to keep tranquil. Epictetus often used sporting metaphors. “When a difficulty falls upon you, remember that God, like a trainer of wrestlers, has matched you with a rough young man.” The match was intended to lead to added skill. To fail was acceptable because you could immediately try again.
Marcus Aurelius, a Stoic, was influenced by Epictetus’ philosophy. He said that it was pointless to worry about what you could not change and, “There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease to worry about things which are beyond our will.”
But these are words. Can they be used practically? Epictetus said, “Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it.” To the ancient Greeks Stoicism was a method to be lived and practised. When tinnitus hit me I needed the Stoics and I knew that for my condition they were the only game in town. I sought examples of those who had suffered and for whom Stoicism worked in practice.
On 15th November 1993 Admiral James B. Stockdale gave a speech at the Great Hall, King’s College, London. It was later printed as Courage under fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behaviour by the Hoover Institution. Stockdale provided what I wanted because his test was severe and far beyond my own.
Stockdale was a fighter pilot who was shot down over North Vietnam. The villagers who caught him beat him so badly that he was lame for the rest of his life. He was tortured fifteen times, put in leg irons for two years, and put in solitary confinement for four years and in prison for seven years. He wrote that you can be reduced “by men to a helpless sobbing wreck – unable to control your own bowels – in a matter of minutes.”
Stockdale, even under torture, fought to preserve his “agency”: that aspect of the human mind that lay within its control and could be retained and exercised. Whatever his captors did to him, however cruel, he still had some control over his attitude. They could not remove that.
Stockdale remembered Epictetus’ sayings he had memorised while a pilot. At the end of his imprisonment he concluded that having tested Epictetus’ postulates “against demanding real life challenges……..I think he passed with flying colours.” Stockdale said that only Epictetus enabled him to survive the harsh prison regime.
In “Stoic Warriors” Professor Nancy Sherman who interviewed Stockdale said that, “I found it hard to keep track of when he was quoting and when he was speaking in his own voice.”
Lecturing to the USA military Nancy Sherman found that Stoicism had a strong appeal. War results in young men and women who are maimed and survive only as a result of modern medicine. Men return who do not have arms to hug their child. She writes, “When we arrived at Epictetus, many officers and students alike felt they had come home.”
As I read the Stoics again I had a new awareness. I learned that “controlling the emotions is difficult but it can be empowering.” Practice is essential. Seneca wrote, “Difficulty strengthens the mind as labour does the body.” Epictetus viewed difficulties as challenges. Whatever hand fate deals, accept it, and use it with skill.
I discovered that controlling my thinking affected my emotions and thus my attitudes to tinnitus. I discovered that perspective is important and the cosmos is unconcerned about my problems. What happens happens. Accept and deal with it. Focus on what you can affect and ignore the rest. To try to control what you cannot leads to frustration and misery.
I have not removed the problem of my tinnitus. I still have chronic sleep problems and the tiredness that ensues. But for much of the day I don’t notice my tinnitus. What has changed is my attitude. The fear has gone. Tinnitus, instead of dominating my life, has become of minor concern. I learned from Seneca that, “We suffer more often in imagination than reality.” The result is to add to the original problem. I can relax with tinnitus and often ignore it.
The practice of Stoicism means for me keeping track of my thoughts and controlling them. There are also techniques of deflection. Kayaking on a rough sea is a wonderful way to focus the mind. Hill walking with my dog has the same effect.
And I read the Stoics every day.
More about the author: “Apart from two years in the army, I worked in Local Government. I qualified in Social Work and retired as Assistant Director. Shortly after I retired I developed tinnitus. I moved, with my wife, to live near the sea in Pembrokeshire. I have pursued an interest in CBT, Mindfulness and Stoic Philosophy. Stoicism has been essential in helping me deal with tinnitus.”