It has been an eventful, challenging past few months. I have been wondering for a while how Stoicism would help me deal with an actual crisis–but to be honest, I fell short of wishing for a crisis to come so that I could be tested. I’m soft, and it’s the holiday season. Needless to say, crises don’t appear on our preferred schedule.
So, did Stoicism help me? That’s what we all want to know when something bad happens to a self-professed Stoic. Is all this hard work of self-examination and self-control actually worth it? I would say “yes.” It took a little work, but Stoicism is actually less work in the end than endless brooding, wishing things were different, and reining in emotions run amok. Things threatened to go this way for me, but somehow I avoided this path.
Crisis number one, of two, involved a fender-bender in which my family were okay, everyone was okay, except that for me, it aggravated neck pain that has come and gone for years. I had moments in the early days when I felt quite angry at this driver behind us who “only looked down for a second” (at his phone, perhaps? Hmm…) and collided with our car from behind. I had a miniature epiphany when I again realized, as I have so many times before, that anger does not help; I can choose not to be angry; in fact, I will heal more quickly without holding on to negative emotions.
Epictetus naturally has some great ideas on how to overcome anger–which, as he points out, is a bad habit like so many other things.
If you would not be of an angry temper, then, do not feed the habit. Give it nothing to help its increase. Be quiet at first, and reckon the days in which you have not been angry. I used to be angry every day; now every other day; then every third and fourth day: and, if you miss it so long as thirty days, offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving to God. For habit is first weakened, and then entirely destroyed.
I am always fond of parallels between the health of the mind and of the body; before the above passage, Epictetus cautions us to apply the remedy of reasoning when faced with temptations, and to let “the governing faculty of the mind regain[ ] its authority.” For example, when we desire money, we need to reason with our mind as to why that desire is unhealthy; “whereas, if you apply no remedy, it returns no more to its former state” and it is even easier to fall prey to the desire in the future.
For he who hath had a fever, even after it hath left him, is not in the same state of health as before, unless he was perfectly cured: and the same thing happens in distempers of the soul likewise.
This emphasis on caution in taking care of the ruling faculty reminds me of Epictetus in the Enchiridion (38): “When walking, you are careful not to step on a nail or turn your foot; so likewise be careful not to hurt the ruling faculty of your mind.”
What kind of a way is this to live? Being so careful all the time, as if we were afraid to be human, to be alive? Well, it depends on what you mean by being human. “Indeed, what is the storm itself, but appearance? For, do but take away the fear of death, and let there be as many thunders and lightnings as you please, you will find that, in the ruling faculty, all is serenity and calm.” Let’s be honest with ourselves for a moment. Doesn’t that sound lovely? Does it sound inhuman? I think not. It may be rare, but I would think that a human achieving serenity and calm, in spite of everything, has achieved something approaching wisdom.
Much of what some of the more gritty or “passionate” philosophers (I’m thinking of my first love, crazy Nietzsche) call humanity is actually an imbalanced state born of excessive desires and isolation. I have seen glimpses of this state, and it is quite overrated. It does not foster creativity, but is in fact destructive. Assuming you live through it, you may become creative afterwards, but only after you heal, and also perhaps only because you have seen the destructiveness that is so much like death that you are spurred to make something more of your life.
Since I am getting all personal, I should tell you what the second crisis was. I don’t claim that it is a crisis in the grand scheme, but to be succinct, I developed a toothache, tried to manage it for weeks, and eventually had to have a tooth pulled. I did not feel angry about this. Instead, I felt quite sad. I did not want to lose the tooth, but it was explained to me as the only option. I miss the tooth. Your Stoicism will certainly be tested when the surgeon comes at you with those shiny, horrifying instruments. It is humbling when you realize how much is beyond your control.
So, I’ve taken some knocks, but the thing that helped me most through this latest round was focusing on one thing only: maintaining my virtue. I have a houseful of humans and cats who needed my friendship, care, and leftover Thanksgiving turkey. My mood was dark, but I tried not to infect others with it. As to whether I succeeded, you would have to ask them. . . . I tried.
The short passages that helped me the most in my low moods were these:
“Choose not to be harmed–and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed–and you haven’t been.” (Meditations Book 4);
“But for me every omen is favorable for I want it to be so; for whatever may come about, it is within my power to derive benefit from it.” (Enchiridion 18)
Thank you for reading. Best wishes for 2018!