Post No.: 0709
The philosophy of stoicism is related to the everyday meaning of the word ‘stoic’ but there’s more to it than that.
The primary lesson that stoicism teaches us when it comes to our fluffy welfare is that we are in control of our own present thoughts and our own present actions or reactions – what other people do, say or have is not in our control thus the best attitude is to think ‘so what?’ or ‘I’m fine’ about those things.
It therefore helps in this life to, if something brings you down, ask yourself whether something falls under your own control or whether it’s something you should learn to accept and be genuinely fine with. This approach will help you to truly understand what’s important and what’s not worth stressing about.
The same world out there – the same world events happening – can make different people feel differently, which means that it’s not so much those events that make us feel how we feel but how we personally interpret, frame and respond to them. We make us feel and do what we feel and do. So banish phrases like, “Look what you made me do”, “You put pressure on me” or, “You made me feel this way” from your vocabulary. It’s our judgements of others, our appraisals of events, that make us feel how we feel. That’s why our judgements speak more reliably about us than whom or what we’re apparently judging.
Some people are envious or resentful when they see other people succeed, whereas others feel unadulterated ‘sympathetic joy’ or positive empathy when something good happens to someone else; even when they’re having a hard time themselves. So some hate seeing others doing better than them while some try to share in the happiness of others. Some people are fine from heights and with bugs, whereas others aren’t. Thus it really isn’t the heights, bugs or anything else but us who cause the reactions we feel. There’s no objective reaction, only subjective ones, that speak about us at a given time. If others can eat certain foods happily then (unless there’s a medical reason) we could too i.e. it’s not the food but our own reactions towards it. Things don’t themselves dictate our responses, and that should be a good thing to know. And noticing that others can react to the exact same things differently should prove to us that there are multiple different perspectives and impressions, judgements and opinions that one could take, and different possible ways to react.
You’re in command of your own feelings and reactions. You’re in command of you. If you’re treated curtly, you could default assume the worst in others and take it personally, which would speak about your own history of experiences with (or assumptions about) others, about your own default stroppy outlook, and/or about your own self-entitled belief that you ought to be at the centre of everyone else’s universe. (Ego causes us to believe that others or other things are to blame for everything that goes wrong, and that we ‘deserve’ this or that.) Alternatively, you could’ve assumed that the other person has just heard some bad news or they’re otherwise genuinely occupied with other things. Your anger would’ve then turned to sympathy and your own blood pressure and stress levels would’ve been lower.
This suggests that if we have no hard evidence to prove the contrary then it’s best for us to default assume the best in others. Everybody has innocent or at least understandable reasons for the way they behave, and should be considered innocent unless proven guilty – as how we’d like to be treated by others too. Even if they’re categorically proven guilty, it’d speak about them hence you don’t need to take their behaviour personally; unless you know you did something unpleasant towards them first – in which case you’re in command of how you treat others in the future, even though whether they reciprocate your politeness or kindness or not is out of your control hence you shouldn’t worry about what they do.
In real life, one can, due to prejudice, be extremely suspicious of someone who’s done nothing wrong and will do nothing wrong; but one feels that constant dread around them anyway. That’s not their fault but ours. One may even be the one who treats them badly by telling them to go away and spreading conjectures behind their back to get others to shun them from the group or community. (This parallels the police prejudice towards members of certain ethnic minorities who’ve done nothing wrong and will do nothing wrong, and it’s a police officer’s own chauvinism and xenophobia that leads them to treat a citizen unjustly through rougher handling or even shooting someone when they’re just innocently holding a phone.)
Our present mood affects our interpretations of the events that happen around us. “They’re going to say or do this or that…” Well they might not? This is our little voice inside our heads – this voice might be right sometimes but it’s also wrong sometimes. It moreover frequently doesn’t matter whether it’s right or wrong because you can just move on and get on with your day and it makes no difference except if you let a trivial incident ruminate on your mind. History has happened and the event out there has stopped happening but the problems start or prolong because you keep reliving it in the present by personally dwelling on it in the present.
So it’s our internal judgements, assumptions, interpretations and reflections that we react to – not the external events themselves. And our reactions speak about us – our dispositions, histories, hopes, desires, insecurities, over-generalisations, mentally-conjured fears, catastrophising trepidations of the future, etc.. We like to blame others for ‘making us’ feel a certain way but we’re neglecting our own fundamental role in shaping the experiences we experience.
We can work ourselves up as well as down, like when anticipating how others will be impressed if we buy that new car (but read Post No.: 0693), or when bracing for the jump scares in a videogame that’s billed as a horror, that don’t come.
Being ‘stoic’ in stoicism doesn’t have the exact same meaning as our modern definition that’s similar to ‘emotionlessness’ – it’s not so much about having no emotions but choosing our emotions or reactions. We can try to face pains and hardships with more composure. It doesn’t always mean our common modern usage of ‘indifference’. And it also doesn’t mean just ‘putting up with’ injustices. Stoicism doesn’t discourage us from fighting for social change – but we just shouldn’t be attached to the outcome whether it succeeds or fails. We can be far more easygoing.
For the things you don’t enjoy but must still do – take a deep breath and try to consciously decide to enjoy it in the moment. Embrace it. Do it as well as you can.
Stoicism isn’t about being deliberately antagonistic either. Besides, deliberate non-conformity and rebelliousness also depends on reacting to what others say or do hence isn’t the same as independent thought. Thus a cattitude of, “Don’t tell me what to do” and then doing the opposite of what one was told to do would still mean that one’s thoughts and actions are being fashioned by others. Too many people naïvely think that being a leader or being independent-minded is about being antagonistic or rebellious to what others tell them to do – but this shows us that deliberate non-conformity is still a response to external stimuli that mightn’t be in our best interests.
Others do affect us if we have empathy for others, it’s hard to think clearly when there are present environmental distractions for example, and we do have to protect ourselves from potential external dangers – but this is about taking command of our own psychology and of the actions we consciously decide to take or not take in our lives. Our emotions are ultimately our making – from our judgements and the internal narratives we create to explain outside events and the world.
Yes it’d be considered socially incongruous to – if not wrong to – not react with terror to terrible events for example. And our initial reflex responses to external events cannot be consciously controlled. But stoicism teaches us that we don’t have to stay feeling terrified for longer than is necessary to motivate us to do something about a situation if we can, or to learn to accept a situation if we can’t. (It’s in fact neither psychologically healthy nor practically useful for the victim or observer to stay in a protracted state of petrification.) Nasty comments are offensive and do attack the mind – yet we can regain the reins on our own feelings. Cause will lead to effect, and the cause of our emotions includes external events – but we internally have the last say on what we feel and how we choose to respond.
But shouldn’t we authentically express however we feel rather than repress our emotions?
Well taking our anger out is counterproductive. And although our negative emotions, like crying, are fine for a moment – we need to eventually get out of our downward spirals. Things could be worse, so don’t make things worse with your own thoughts (e.g. by dwelling on what’s happened, catastrophising or being incandescent) or with your own actions (e.g. by literally beating yourself up, smashing the room up or seeking revenge). Think ‘it doesn’t matter’ or ‘whatever’ but with equanimity, not bitterness or sarcasm. (Bullies/trolls are usually precisely looking for a reaction too so don’t satisfy them with one.)
A couple of far more critical shortcomings concerning the 3rd century BCE philosophy however are that there’s little mentioned about community and compassion, and making it work in relationships is difficult because there’s too much inward-looking with not enough outward-looking, apart from being a dutiful citizen. There are also times to batten down the hatches with calm detachment and times to welcome some anxiety, pain, challenge and confrontation because that’s how we grow.
But nothing says we cannot take the best lessons from stoicism and refine the rest. Meow.
So to achieve more equanimity or calmness in a world of people that often seems arbitrary, unfair, maddening or aggravating – we need to change ourselves. Namely our present thoughts and present actions because we can govern these, whereas we cannot unilaterally govern the external world.
We need to take charge of our internal perspectives on contentment, more than be concerned about our external possessions, holiday destinations, jobs, the weather, or how next door’s cat or our partner behaves, for example. We can try to improve these external matters – under stoicism, we can try to improve our lot or attempt to tackle abuses or injustices. But stoicism recognises we should understand that we’re not the masters of them. It’d be arrogant to believe we can control how others (or how luck) treat us, and it’ll prove frustrating if we try – others (or the universe) don’t exist to serve our happiness; in exactly the same way that we don’t exist to serve another particular person’s happiness (unless it happens to be our choice).
Stoicism recognises we should understand that no one else is the master of our thoughts, feelings, responses or actions but us. Even in the face of calamities, we can think of the blessings in disguise. Even in the face of failure, we can still respond with our heads held up high. And so on.
Meow! So we cannot fully control our own outcomes for they depend on what others do, world events, whether it rains and other external things, but we can fully direct our own thoughts and behaviours. And since happiness and contentment are states of mind – we are the ultimate masters of how happy and content we feel! And you can feel free to share what you think about this revelation via the Twitter comment button below.