Tag Archives: Stoicism

Stoicism: Anticipating misfortune

“Rehearse death. To say this is to tell a person to rehearse his freedom. A person who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.”

(Seneca)

In the previous post I suggested that there’s no point in becoming distressed today because we think something might distress us later. That just increases the misfortune. Indeed, once we realise that most of the things people worry about never actually happen it becomes clear that it’s possible to ruin the quality of an entire life with pointless and unnecessary anxiety. If we expect next Friday afternoon to be distressing that’s one thing. But let’s not destroy today as well.

In the Christian tradition this seems to be what Jesus meant when he said

“….. do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

(Matthew 6:34)

I have long believed that Jesus (or whoever wrote the Gospels after his death) must have been familiar with the earlier works of stoic philosophers, there are just too many such coincidences for it to be otherwise in my opinion.

But it’s important to be clear. Freedom from distress by avoiding the emotional content of anticipation (avoiding worry, in other words) isn’t the same as avoiding anticipation altogether. On the contrary, we must anticipate. In fact the stoics advised us to go further than most worriers do in our anticipation – but we do so without distress. We do it as an intellectual exercise. We visualise loss and misfortune and we imagine how we might cope with the worst. On the one hand his can prepare us for what tragedies may befall us. On the other it helps us to understand and appreciate what we already have.

“Take full account of what Excellencies you possess, and in gratitude remember how you would hanker after them, if you had them not.”

(Marcus Aurelius, meditations)

This is one of the ways that stoics are able to maintain emotional equilibrium when things go wrong for them. They understand that all things in life are transient and they prepare for the changes in advance – they are always prepared to ‘give back’, to ‘return’.

  1. Never say of anything, “I have lost it”; but “I have returned it”…….

“But he who took it away is a bad man.” What difference is it to you who the giver assigns to take it back? While he gives it to you to possess, take care of it; but don’t view it as your own, just as travellers view a hotel.

  1. If you want to improve, reject such reasonings as these: “If I neglect my affairs, I’ll have no income; if I don’t correct my servant, he will be bad.” For it is better to die with hunger, exempt from grief and fear, than to live in affluence with perturbation; and it is better your servant should be bad, than you unhappy.

Begin therefore from little things. Is a little oil spilt? A little wine stolen? Say to yourself, “This is the price paid for apathy, for tranquility, and nothing is to be had for nothing.” When you call your servant, it is possible that he may not come; or, if he does, he may not do what you want. But he is by no means of such importance that it should be in his power to give you any disturbance.

(Epictetus, The Enchiridion)

Stoics visualise the loss of the things they hold dear. They make a point of contemplating death, material losses, homelessness, hunger, injury and illness, unemployment, grief – all the unfortunate things that might happen for them. And then they imagine how they might deal with them. There are several advantages to this:

  1. Increased contentment with the things we have;
  2. Increased awareness of the things we need to od to maintain and improve our circumstances;
  3. Significant reduction in distress if the worst does happen because we’re prepared;
  4. Clear direction to deal with misfortune if it does occur;
  5. Freedom from anticipatory anxiety (worrying about what might happen).

Of course that doesn’t mean stoics need to go around reflecting upon miserable possibilities all the time. That wouldn’t do at all. But every so often, once or twice a week perhaps it’s a good idea to stop and think about what we have (health, possessions, abilities, relationships, status etc) and how it might be taken away. I promise you – make this a habit and you’ll enjoy life a great deal more. You’ll also be much more resourceful and better prepared to deal with tragedy.

In a different, less obviously philosophical context I talk to anxious, worried people about the ‘three stage plan’ for dealing with anxiety. I’ve used it for years with good effect. Once again it’s an idea stolen from the stoics. This is how I described it in one of my mental health Ebooks:

“We can also help people to plan, both should the worst happen and also how to prevent it. This becomes a fairly straightforward three-point process:

  1. What’s the worst that could happen?
  2. If it does happen how can you survive it?
  3. Now we know you can survive the worst what can you (or we) do to make sure it doesn’t happen?

3 point plan

Whatever else we do we must be honest, rational and realistic. Only then can we understand whether or not the anxiety, the perception of threat is justified. If it is then we can begin to work on making the situation safe with all the facts that we need. If it isn’t justified (if it’s what Freud called inappropriate anxiety) then we can have the confidence to work on activities designed to help the person to face the thing they fear.”

(Stuart Sorensen – Mental health and social care p.20)

When we take gratitude, negative visualisation and awareness of the eternal now (see yesterday’s post) together we have a powerful blueprint for dealing with anxiety and enhancing enjoyment of life as a whole. But don’t just take my word for it. Give it a go and see what happens.

Dealing with anxiety – the 3 stage process

  • What’s the worst that could happen?
  • If it happened how would you/we cope with it?
  • How can you/we prevent it from happening?

 

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

(Marcus Aurelius)

 

Stoicism: The eternal now

In a previous post (Irvine’s summary) I made the point that…

“People generally confuse the things they can control with the things they cannot. The result is frustration and wasted effort as we invest (waste) our emotional and practical energies in futile attempts to make changes that are beyond our ability.”

In therapy sessions with my patients and clients I often encourage people to distinguish between…

  1. The things that they can control,
  2. The things that they can influence but not control, and
  3. The things that interest them but that they can neither influence or control.

I describe these different categories as ‘spheres of influence’.

The basic idea is to help people to understand the difference between a problem and a fact…

Problems are things that can be solved.

Facts simply are – they cannot be changed.

One of the biggest sources of frustration and distress comes from the attempt to treat facts as though they were problems: from the attempt to ‘solve’ facts; from the attempt to do the impossible.

The past is always a fact – but so is the present and, very often, the immediate future. Some people lament the fact that the past cannot be solved, that it cannot be altered but that’s not really very helpful. If the goal is to be effective now there’s no benefit in obsessing about ‘water under the bridge’, no matter how difficult or unpleasant things might have been at the time. In the task of living we are always precisely where we are at this moment.

Accepting that, accepting the fact that the past is no longer ours to change means that we can also begin to see it as no longer our concern. It’s true that there may be issues arising from past events or mistakes that we need to deal with but any actions we need to take will be taken in the present or the future – not the past. We can learn from the past but we need never be concerned about it because it’s gone.

That brings us to the present – the only thing we ever really have to call our own. And it’s fleeting. In fact, by the time you notice the present moment it’s already gone into the past and is no longer your concern. Yes – I know that sounds a bit weird but please, give it some thought – it’s important, especially when dealing with long-term hardship. Understand the concept now and you’ll find it much easier to bear life’s misfortunes later. You’ll be much more effective as you work to change and overcome them too.

Life is a series of moments, most of which are actually pretty neutral. It’s anxiety and anticipation that spoils our days, not the enduring event because most events don’t actually endure all that long. People endure hours of misery when they don’t need to because they’re forever focussing upon either the past (which is no longer their affair) or the future (which may be theirs to plan for but is not yet theirs to experience).

Even at times of hardship the eternal now is relevant. How bad is your situation at this very instant? Why let your mind focus on experiencing hardship before it needs to? Why experience the thing you dread before it happens?

It’s far more constructive to plan for the future than to imagine it negatively and suffer all the emotional distress that such imaginings bring. Make it a habit never to allow yourself to experience misfortune in your mind before it actually happens but to plan to deal with potential future problems instead. And understand that if you expect pain – there’s no need to be distressed by it until you actually feel it. Even then stoicism advises us not to worry about pain but that’s for another post. We need to cover some more basic stuff first.

Remember ‘the eternal now’. Do you have physical comfort and freedom from abuse right now, at this precise moment? Then you have all that you could possibly need. This moment in life is a success. Use the current success to plan with a clear head how to solve the problems of the future. Don’t squander it trying to solve the past (which is a fact, not a problem). Be glad of your immediate situation. The only alternative is to cancel out all those moments of contentment and comfort with futile focus upon the past which you can never change or the future which you have not yet reached.

The life well-lived involves taking time to appreciate the good moments (which generally far outweigh the bad).

Stoicism: No surprises!

“Begin the morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busy-body, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, devious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil.”

Meditations (Marcus Aurelius) Book 2

I’ve used this quote before but it’s a good one so I’m returning to it. In these few words you’ll find the essence of what we mean by ‘No surprises’.

It doesn’t mean ‘No changes’ – that really would be dull.

Nor does it mean control everything so you know what’s coming – that would be both impossible and (even if it were possible) entirely counter-productive.

Rather it means that we can understand the nature of the world and of the people who inhabit it. Understand that people are fickle, that misfortune is a very regular occurrence and that we do not need to be surprised by the things we have foreknowledge of.

We may not know precisely who will treat us poorly today, tomorrow or indeed on any other day but we know that someone will – and that’s enough. We also know the ways in which we may be mistreated, at least in general terms and so we can prepare for them ‘thematically’.

We know that misfortune comes in themes. That there are groups of issues that share the same characteristics and we can prepare ourselves to deal with, to cope with these characteristic annoyances in advance.

Irvine’s summary

Chronic dissatisfation and attempts to achieve that which is beyond our control. These are the two main sticks we use to beat ourselves. Stoic philosophy helps us to overcome both these handicaps and concentrate instead upon striving to achieve what we can and being not just satisfied but actually joyful along the way. We can achieve truly great things when we direct our energies in the right direction.

Stoic joy

Stoicism isn’t only an antidote to anger and emotional distress. It’s a recipe for genuine joy – the kind of joy and wonder that comes from endless discovery and the satisfaction that ensues ‘just because’.

Stoics don’t need a reason to be joyful. It’s enough that we’re alive and able to be joyful.

The advantages of Stoicism

Stoicism is a way of approaching and coping with the world, society and the vagaries of life that brings peace, calm and even joy. It’s a method of being both effective and contented no matter what life throws at us. There’s an awful lot of wisdom in some of those old books, you know. Why not take a lesson or two from ancient stoics like Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius. You’ll be glad you did.

Boring stoics!

Stoics are boring aren’t they?

Oh, no! There’s nothing boring about Stoicism. There’s nothing boring about embracing change, about opposing injustice or about developing self reliance. There’s nothing boring about experiencing life and all it has to offer whilst still maintaining control of your emotions and judgement so you can savour the experience all the more.

Soap operas and small-talk are boring.
Trashy novels and superficial documentaries are boring.
Endless consumerism is boring.

Stoic joy and the wonder of a life well lived is far from boring.

Stoicism isn’t boring – it’s liberating.

Stoics are boring aren’t they?

If you think Stoics are boring, you’re not doing it right!

There’s nothing boring about Stoicism.

There’s nothing boring about embracing change, about opposing injustice or about developing self reliance.

There’s nothing boring about experiencing life and all it has to offer whilst still maintaining control of your emotions and judgement so you can savour the experience all the more.

Soap operas and small-talk are boring. Trashy novels and superficial documentaries are boring. Endless consumerism is boring.

Stoic joy and the wonder of a life well lived is far from boring.

Stoicism isn’t boring – it’s liberating.

Stoicism 4: My ponytail is ridiculous!

Here we build upon two earlier principles. Epictetus made it clear that we can only control our own thoughts, feelings and behaviours – not those of other people.

Marcus Aurelius taught us the 2 point maxim for dealing with abusive people…
1. Be the best me that I can be;
2. Be grateful that I’m not them.

Here we add another perspective from Seneca. Anger is only possible when the world doesn’t meet our expectations. If we adjust our expectations to reality the petty insults of others won’t hurt us at all.

In this, fourth Stoicism video we begin to show how it’s possible to layer Stoic wisdom, one point upon another to create a robust system of thought and attitude that really does defend us against those who seek to hurt, upset, anger or distress us.

 

Stoicism for mental health 3: Abusive people

Stoic philosophers Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus help us to cope with abusive, contemptuous, disrespectful and mean-spirited people by remembering the distinction between what is ours to control and what is theirs. When others treat us badly their actions say more about them and their lack of understanding than about us. In truth, their behaviour has no bearing at all upon us. It’s entirely about them.

Marcus Aurelius’ 2 point maxim helps us to deal graciously with these people without becoming upset or being tempted to sink to their level. They take responsibility for their poor actions – we have a different standard of behaviour to maintain.

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