Fascinating what we find when we dig into the history of a concept. Stoicism isn’t even an idea I found particularly interesting or appealing until two days ago, when Tim Ferris shared a blog post from Aeon about the concept. Aeon’s post Indifference Is A Power discusses why stoicism is “one of the best mind hacks ever devised.” Which is ridiculous according to the current understanding of the philosophy. Ask most Americans, and they’ll tell you that if someone can endure without complaining, well that person is stoic. Many of us have even forgotten this is, in fact, a school of philosophy dating back to Ancient Greece. I certainly didn’t know that.
Really I didn’t even know being stoic was anything more than white-knuckling through a problem. And if you’ve ever stared longingly at that last piece of cake at the birthday party when you weren’t the one throwing the party, you know just how tough white-knuckling is. In fact, most of the time, it doesn’t work.
No, it wasn’t, but Jessi the Birthday Girl didn’t get that last piece either. Chris got it, the dirty rat, and that was their third piece!
So What Is Stoicism, Anyway?
I’ll be the first to admit, this post is a form of catharsis. Life hasn’t been particularly gentle to me in the past year or three, as those who follow this blog well know, and I’ve been searching for a way to cope through bouts of Major Depressive Disorder – you know, the version of depression that causes the ending of one’s own life to look like the only option. In fact, yesterday and this morning, I had a very personal experience that, in the past, may have triggered a severe episode.
So I’m going to try a new approach this time. That new approach involves a heavy dose of Stoicism, because what it ISN’T is white-knuckling through until the problem goes away. It isn’t simply enduring a problem until it’s not a problem.
In Aeon author Larry Wallace’s words, Stoicism offers “lasting transcendence and imperturbable tranquility.”
For someone with both Social Anxiety and Major Depression, that sounds pretty darn good! Except I’ve heard such promises before, from things like yoga, Eastern spiritual practices like Buddhism and Taoism, and other esoteric cultures. Don’t get me wrong, those work for some people. Ever the skeptic, I kept reading. And found that Stoicism, at its core, involves a kind of gratitude so lasting, so durable that it was the source of the tranquility that allowed such seeming indifference towards the turbulence of life. In fact, if you take a glance at Urban Dictionary, it describes the Stoic thus (objectionable content redacted 😉 ):
Someone who does not give a *** about the stupid things in this world that most people care so much about. Stoics do have emotions, but only for the things in this world that really matter. They are the most real people alive.
Group of kids are sitting on a porch. Stoic walks by.
Kid – “Hey man, yur a [REDACTED] an you [REDACTED]!”
Stoic – “Good for you.”
IF ONLY! How many times have I seen a stranger’s comment on the internet, or a political post, or some other manner of tomfoolery or skulduggery, and felt the need to become a web Avenger, slaying idiocy with the stroke of the Post button! How many times has that foolishness sunk into my being and percolated there in the deep recesses that fester and later become episodes of depression?
Do I think this will be a cure? Not at all. It’s simply a piece of the puzzle. It is, however, a philosophy I have, in some ways, already put into practice.
The Power of Gratitude
Most of us were taught as kids that Please and Thank You go a long way. Yet I don’t know how many of us were ever taught that gratitude is a lifestyle. It’s even in the definition, “the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.” I also had another thought. In its own way, it’s a form of sacrifice. And it brings power. Not the obvious kind of power that rules worlds, but the quiet, simple power that shapes them through individual lives and choices.
Why are you looking at me like that? I see your eyebrow. Put it down and hear me out a second.
I’ve seen my mother go through two divorces. I’ve seen my family fall apart. When I was a teenager, I decided I’d do everything in my power to keep that from happening to any relationship I wound up in. One significant pattern I noticed was a lack of genuine gratitude, and so I promised myself that in my future romantic relationships, I would ensure that my partner knew what I was grateful for in them, and knew it often. I don’t just do things to show my husband I love him and appreciate him. I tell him, quite specifically, the qualities in him that I am grateful for. And I do so frequently.
However, until just now, I hadn’t decided to attempt to expand this practice to my friends, my family, or life in a general sense, though somewhere in my pile of notebooks, I have one that is simply a list of things I’m grateful for.
So how, you may be asking, is gratitude a sacrifice? It is, in my eyes, a cultural thing. You see, we aren’t really encouraged to see what we have and recognize it as good or great. We are encouraged – always – to strive for more, better. Yet how can we know where we’re going, if we’re not truly aware of what we are? Gratitude is the sacrificing of falsely positive thinking. Of “if only I had, did, was, then I could have, do, be.” Gratitude is the choice to look at what IS, and look at it AS IT IS, not as it could be or as it “should” be, or as you would like it to be.
The Value of Realistic Thinking
I wanted to find the image, but I can’t off hand. I’ve seen a quote floating around about trees, and the concept is this. Often, we go out into nature and we see trees or plants or rock formations, and we simply accept what they are. We have no need to change them, because they simply are. Yet often we do not apply the same thinking to people, others or ourselves.
In doing so, we begin to create expectations, often without having the full story, and when those expectations aren’t met, we find ourselves trying to change the person in question.
Now, the original quote is dealing with the idea of judgement, however I see this applying to Stoic thinking as well. After all, is it truly realistic to expect anyone to live up to any expectations but their own? Especially if we often fall short of our own expectations? Not really. Much more realistic to do what Marcus Aurelius is said to have done every morning. He was a follower of Stoic thought.
Every morning, he’d tell himself, “I shall meet with meddling, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, and unsociable people.”
He’s not wrong. Plenty of people exist like that in the world. Yes, plenty of kind, loving caring people exist as well, but if we only tell ourselves we’ll encounter the latter, the former have the power to ruin our whole day. Prepare for the former, and be infinitely grateful for the latter.
I’m only beginning to study the concepts of Stoicism, and I’ll keep you updated on how it turns out. I’m hoping it helps, and it seems like it might. If you’ve made it this far, leave your thoughts in the comments. I’d love to hear your ideas about the Aeon article, Stoicism, and what you knew about it before this post.