‘Stoicism for Passionate People’ by Lindsay Varnum
I cry when I’m ecstatically happy. I cry when a friend or family member or sometimes even a stranger cries. I cry when I’m angry or when something’s not fair. I cry at orchestra concerts. I occasionally cry at museums if I’m seeing for the first time a work of art that touches me deeply. I admit to having more than once cried in the middle of sex just because I was having such a good time.
It seems I was always like this. My father’s nickname for me was Little Feist. My constant crying as an infant and violent temper tantrums as a young child were scary and overwhelming for my mother, who just wanted to make it all stop. Luckily for her, my more tranquil and easy-going siblings soon came along, providing her with amiable distraction from her first child’s baffling intensity. If my strong feelings were difficult for my mother to deal with, they were much more so for me. Even as a young child I was able to perceive that I was more sensitive than most people. Unfortunately I only saw the negative aspects of this and how it made me a challenge for my family, teachers, and peers. It wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I started to see the positive side of being passionate. As a child I didn’t want to be seen as the difficult, oversensitive one and these strong feelings scared me and made me feel out of control. I spent all of my childhood and young adulthood at best trying to hide my emotions and at worst suppressing them entirely.
In my thirties within a short period of time came a series of life changes that made it impossible for me to continue dealing with my feelings in the same way I always had. My father died young and unexpectedly, I experienced a crisis of faith, divorced, left my religious community, and suffered a large financial loss. I wanted to handle all of this with strength and dignity. I kept getting up in the morning and going through the motions of daily life. I could still laugh and give hugs and dance, so I thought I was doing ok. But then I would find myself in public places like the grocery store with tears streaming down my face for no apparent reason. I was not doing ok.
I discovered Stoicism and started practicing it because I wanted to silence the compulsive negative thoughts that were making me feel increasingly worse about myself. That was the emergency situation that had to be handled immediately. Once that was under control and I was feeling less anxious and depressed, I realized that in Stoicism I had found a methodical way to work on character development and living my values again. As a member of a strict religious faith I had been used to studying the scriptures every day and tracking my personal spiritual growth. Studying Stoicism, self-monitoring, and practicing meditation came easily to me after a lifetime of religious practice and helped somewhat fill the void left when I stopped practicing my religion.
I started learning about Stoicism less than six months ago and by no means do I have an extensive grasp of it. However, I can share my experience with Stoic practice and how it has helped me so far. One of the many positive effects Stoicism has had on my life is that it has helped me become an even more passionate person.
I know, that sounds like crazy talk. But before you dismiss this assertion, let me explain the three ways I believe that Stoicism can help the passionate person flourish. In this context I define the “passionate person” as one who is highly sensitive and experiences intense feelings.
1. Practicing Stoicism frees us of fear of our emotions.
Somehow in my childhood I internalized the belief that my emotions were bad and could be inconvenient to the people I cared about or lead to sinful behavior. Because I feared my emotions, I practiced stoicism with a small “s” by hiding or suppressing them. I needed to discard this belief, then replace it with the belief that my emotions are a positive part of who I am as long as they don’t keep me from living my values. Before discovering Stoicism I felt constant guilt and fear about how my emotions could affect others. All of that melted away once I really believed that I am responsible only for what I control, and that does not include other people’s feelings.
Also, I know that through the Stoic practice of creating distance between my feelings and myself I can moderate extreme emotions that could potentially send me out of control. I can nip unwanted anger in the bud and pull myself out of a paralyzing sadness. I can bring down into reality the unrealistic, over-exuberant flashes of “genius” that come to me in moments of outrageous happiness. It’s one thing to wake up one morning and say to yourself, “Ok, from now on, my feelings do not control me, I control them. Ta-da!” and an entirely different thing to actually have a system in place that makes it possible for you to do that. Stoic practice has provided that system for me. Experiencing intense emotions and expressing them with considerably less fear and guilt is new to me, and for now at least, it feels healthy and liberating.
2. Stoicism makes us more spontaneous.
Spontaneous people are easier to trust and more fun to be around than those who are on the more inhibited or calculating side. However, being spontaneous doesn’t come naturally to people who are extremely sensitive because we are constantly trying to protect ourselves from getting hurt. We tend to be oversensitive to criticism and the opinions of others. When I learned about Stoicism and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, the first damaging belief I tackled was this idea I had that other people’s opinions of me were of vital importance. That belief had to go because it was causing me serious harm. There were many people, including most of my friends and family, who were critical of me when I divorced and left my religious community. With effort, I have been able to stop caring so much what others think. I know this is true because now I so seldom wonder what someone’s opinion of me is. As Coco Chanel put it, “I don’t care what you think of me. I don’t think of you at all.” Once you don’t especially care what people think of you, you have removed a large impediment to being spontaneous.
When I stopped practicing religion I began to doubt some of my values and I didn’t always know where I stood. This made me constantly second guess throughout the day everything I thought, said, and did. Now I have a set time every morning to study and ponder the principles I want to live by, as well as inspire myself to live wisely throughout the day. I reserve judgment on how well I’ve done until nighttime when I review the day’s events. This setting aside of specific times for contemplation has effectively eliminated exhausting and pointless rumination from my life. Now I can just spontaneously live! And being more spontaneous makes me live more fully and in the moment, more passionately.
3. Practicing Stoicism helps us to become more humble and teachable.
Identifying too closely with our emotions and taking them too seriously shrinks our world and makes us more likely to be self-absorbed. It can be extra hard for passionate people to not get caught up in our emotions at the expense of other more important things, like cultivating virtue. When our feelings are stronger than other people’s, we can easily develop the mistaken idea that our feelings are more important than other people’s.
Stoicism trains us to become detached observers of our emotions, and the space that is thereby created between our feelings and who we really are is magical. All kinds of marvelous things can happen there. The Stoics want us to use that space to insert reason first and foremost so that we make wiser choices, but we can also bring in a sense of humor toward ourselves, one of the most attractive of qualities. It is that space that allows us to attain the perspective in which we recognize our place in the cosmos. It is in that space that we can become wise, humble, and open to change if we choose to do so.
Maybe at some point in life I will tire of being oversensitive, impulsive, mercurial, intense, and otherwise passionate. For now I would like to see how life plays out when I am the most sincere and transparent version possible of myself. I like to think that I can maintain these qualities I’ve had since childhood and at the same time cultivate virtue; that the one does not preclude the other. I like to believe that passion and eudemonia are not mutually exclusive. I feel like it is too early in my experiment to draw any definite conclusions, but so far, so good.
Lindsay Varnum is a graduate of Brigham Young University. A Maine native, she now lives in southern Spain, where she dances, laughs, and eats a lot. Lindsay blogs at www.philosofina.com.