The Stoic Way

stoicI’m a long-time Star Trek fan. I find encouragement in creator Gene Roddenberry’s future (especially these days) and revel in the close connections forged among the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise. I get a kick out of the tension between the highly sensitive Doctor McCoy and the unflappable Mr. Spock. The latter serves as the model for my sense of a “stoic” – one who endures pain or hardship without showing feelings or complaining. Such persons are seemingly indifferent to pain, pleasure, grief, or joy.

To my surprise, this sensibility doesn’t apply to the ancient Stoics (e.g., Zeno of Citium, Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius). They did not seek to banish emotion but rather maximize pleasant sensations (e.g., delight, joy, awe) and minimize negative emotion (e.g., frustration, anger, grief, envy). While the latter may serve a useful purpose momentarily, a needless cycle of misery should be avoided. Professor William B. Irvine lays it all out in The Stoic Challenge: A Philosopher’s Guide to Becoming Tougher, Calmer, and More Resilient.

Like it or not, life presents challenges and setbacks. Thoughtful folks may make plans and take precautions to minimize their occurrence, but there remains much outside our control. A traffic jam precipitated by a roadway accident. Unanticipated expenses. The unnerving medical diagnosis. The unusually long line at the grocery check-out. Stalled deliverables on an important project. Depending on our response, some challenges can prove beneficial. They help us grow and/or heighten appreciation for things that we previously took for granted. (Indeed, life might be less interesting should we experience smooth sailing all the time!) But we must learn to rise quickly and bravely to address whatever shows up… or, even better, create an alternate narrative from which we don’t need to bounce back.

An effective strategy for “rising up” treats the challenge as a test of our resilience and resourcefulness. In a “Stoic Test”, we take up the mantle to exercise creativity in conjuring up options, thoughtfulness in evaluating them, and decisiveness in choosing the best one. We treat it as a puzzle for which the universe has faith in your ability to solve it. To behave otherwise is a waste of time and energy.

Stoics also experimenting with “framing” when facing setbacks. They’d consider all of the things that were going well in their lives and treat the setback as a minor inconvenience. They’d imagine how much worse things could be and took comfort that their circumstances weren’t all that bad. They’d frame news with a positive spin – e.g., a 60% survival rate for a disease versus 40% mortality. They’d consider how they’d feel in an hour, a day, a week, or a month and ask themselves: Will this setback really matter to me then? They’d try to find the humor in their situations and let a smile or giggle come through.

Bottom line, each setback has the potential for a two-fold effect: the challenge itself, and the negative emotions experienced in its wake. Anger and frustration shatter tranquility and cloud thinking. It can spiral into a “blame game” that amplifies negativity, thwarts effective action, and delays resolution. Rather than wallow in them, turn setbacks into vehicles for transformation. Recognize that we can grow stronger through adversity and become all the more adept at dealing with it. Learn to savor every moment of life and extract every drop of joy to be found even in the occasional stormy sea.