I think possibly one of the worst recent developments to happen to the philosophy of stoicism was the word “stoic” becoming such a popular adjective in the English language.
“Stoic” is often first and foremost defined as: “A person who can endure pain or hardship without showing their feelings or complaining.” In popular literature and culture, this idea is often applied to the “stoic male,” showcased in characters like Sherlock Holmes, Spock, House and John Wayne. These fictional characters show little emotion, except interestingly anger.
I have no interest in having no feelings, and I don’t think this is a healthy approach to life. So for many years, I rolled my eyes when people advocated stoicism. But it turns out, the philosophy of stoicism is not accurately reflected in the adjective we are all so familiar with.
So, What is Stoicism?
Stoicism began as an ancient Greek philosophy, a reaction to a different philosophy called Cynicism that advocated simple living, a sort of early version of minimalism and / or the Marie Kondo belief system. (Sidebar: This earlier understanding of cynicism has ALSO fallen victim to a newer take on the word cynicism.) While Cynicism was about denying worldly desires (money, power, possessions) to live a happy life, Stoicism was developed with a different goal: the development of self-control as a method of overcoming destructive emotions. But what does that mean?
Stoicism begins with a strange, and not very aspirational idea. This idea was possibly best expressed by the character of Wesley in The Princess Bride, who told Princess Buttercup that “Life IS pain. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.” In America, and possibly most of the Western World, we believe that we are entitled to the pursuit of happiness. The puritan work ethic is an important plank of this pursuit, as well. We’re taught in many places (school, church, popular culture, advertising) that if we work hard enough, and follow the rules, we should attain a happy life. That happy life roughly consists of the following: good health (no diseases or problems until old age), a good home we can afford and pay off, and 2.5 children. If we are a good person and work hard, we are taught, we can get this life.
The problem with the current “pursuit of happiness” belief system is that there is no calculation of random bad luck in this formula, nor of pre-existing conditions. So when bad things happen, many think there must be a REASON. If you get fired during a recession, it’s because you didn’t work hard enough. If you can’t afford a home in your area, it’s because you didn’t work hard enough in school to get the right degree and / or experience. If you lose a child, you didn’t pray enough / go to church enough / behave well enough in the past. But no one is immune to bad things happening, and eventually bad things will happen to everyone, to different varying degrees. And for some, it’s worse than others. If you need a lesson on why success in life is easier for some rather than others based on socioeconomic factors, here is a brilliant video.
Stoicism begins with one core belief–bad things will happen to you. Whether disease, loss, heartbreak, insults or death, pain is inevitable, and it’s just a matter of time before it reaches your door. This is not a cheery thought, so often people don’t turn to stoicism UNTIL they have had something bad happen.
Stoicism’s Key Component: Perspective
If you know that bad stuff is coming down the path for you, if indeed it already has, what do you do about it? This is the major issue stoicism attempts to provide guidance on. Note: I do not say solve. Stoicism doesn’t advocate that you can solve all your problems or cure pain. Instead, it provides a toolbox, or framework, to help you deal with pain when it arrives.
When you live in a world that denies or makes invisible those who are in pain, it’s difficult to know what to do. You can stay mired in anger or bitterness for years, rightly furious at a culture that only accepts and celebrates the happy and the pain-free. We see the beautiful, perfect, thin, and fit families posing in wildflower fields, or frolicking in the pool of their second homes. And we feel lacking or less than, because we can’t starve ourselves to be that thin, or we can’t afford our first home to begin with, or we can’t have children, or we’ve lost our children, or all of the above. We see these people being celebrated and it feels we have failed in some way.
The stoics say, no, that isn’t true. We haven’t failed. Not at all. We’ve just hit the pain. And it hurts. So what can we do?
What we can do is try to gain perspective. But by that, I don’t mean what I think you think I mean.
When Bad Things Happen to Good People
If we accept that life is pain, that bad things happen to good people–can we shift our thought patterns accordingly so we don’t stay mired in a bad state? And would we want to?
That’s a personal question, and I think the answers probably vary. Personally, I believe that when something bad happens, we should take time to grieve. In Judaism, when someone dies you sit Shiva, and you commemorate the loss over a period of time. Yearly, on the anniversary of a death, you light a memorial candle, called a Yahrzeit candle, to honor the dead. My mother-in-law once told me that these customs are very much for the living, to give them the tools to grieve.
But I also don’t want to live a life primarily defined by sadness, fear, anxiety or depression, either, if that is at all possible. However, if life IS pain, how can this be avoided? Are only those who have a cheerful disposition, those who are optimistic, those who don’t feel much pain–are these lucky few fated to be the only ones who can endure pain with a certain amount of perspective and balance?
Stoicism: The Roots of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Luckily, the answer is no. Anyone who has gone to therapy is probably familiar with cognitive behavioral therapy. Many books have been written, but a succinct description of CBT, for short, is that there are behaviors that can be taught to change damaging thought patterns. I hate to fly, for example. I am afraid of the noises, the pressure changes, and the turbulence. I will never love flying, but I have learned CBT techniques to use when I am on a plane, so I can still go to all the places I want to. I learn to tolerate the strange plane noises and turbulence by tapping into thoughts that help me to understand them.
CBT has one key Stoic concept embedded into its very DNA: logic. That concept can be paraphrased as the following: when our beliefs and expectations align with what is real, we can be well-adjusted to life. If we can control our thoughts with reasonable logic, we can do more in life. When I am on a plane and turbulence happens, I do the following: I remind myself that most likely these are just normal mechanical functions.
But I also accept that I might die in a plane crash, it’s possible. I will die at some point.
Logic, surrender and control. All three of these concepts are crucial to stoicism, yet aren’t they antithetical to each other?
Stoicism suggests that we can take the concept of control too far. If the American concept of happiness is ALL about control–if we do the right things, we will be happy–stoicism says the opposite. We should surrender to the worst case scenarios, yet not worry about them as much as we can. Also, you can prepare yourself to meet disappointment and distress.
Famous stoic Marcus Aurelius used to start his day imagining all the ways he would be slighted and insulted. Instead of thinking that every law he proposed would be met with praise and agreement, he imagined everyone yelling at him about how terrible it was. This allowed him to not be surprised when he actually WAS insulted or when members of his government stabbed him in the back. At the end of the day he would not feel disappointed or angry, but rather equanimous. What he had imagined had come about, or sometimes the day was better.
He changed both his expectations, and his perspective on the day. I’m not a public figure, but like most people, there are times when I am discussed, written about, and confronted by others negatively. It helps to expect that this will happen, and not expect that everyone will cheer my very existence with roses and head pats. People will misunderstand me, and they will have issues with many things about me. That’s life.
Stoicism Doesn’t Mean the End of Agency
I’m not as extreme as Marcus Aurelius. But I do use stoicism to help me control my reactions to news, events, personal happenings and of course, work. For me, I focus on taking one thing at a time, and taking action. If bad news makes me mad, instead of falling into a spiral of downward thinking (really easy to do in 2017), I try to instead take action at some point that day, whether calling my Senator or giving money to a charity. Then it’s easier for me to move on.
Likewise, if something relatively minor or triggering causes me to be sad, I try to honor that feeling, then use it to create some action that day. Sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn’t. But I do find that I have less long-acting sadness and anger when I handle my thoughts in this way.
Stoicism Doesn’t Mean If You’re Sad, You Suck
This is a common misperception. If you read certain quotes on Pinterest or wherever out of context, it is easy to get this impression.
Stoicism has been very helpful to me. When Bad Stuff Went Down, I was so confused and bewildered, both that it happened to me at all (I Worked Hard and was a Good Citizen) then by people’s reactions. (“Everything happens for a REASON!”) Then I was angry and bitter. Eventually though, once I got over the grief (which took time, granted), I was able to frame things differently. I was able to see I was human, and was just experiencing the pain that is inevitable to life.
Interested? Here are two of my favorite resources about Stoicism:
Here’s what I DON’T recommend, as it’s too easy to take single quotes out of context:
Thoughts? Open to Stoicism, or too put-off?