Remember the last time someone upset you? Did something that really hurt? Did you stop to ask yourself, Why? What do I believe about this event that caused the pain?
I don’t know if it’s a rare person or not that will ask such a question of themselves. I only know I began asking myself at least a year before I encountered Stoicism, because I was sick and tired of having a few very specific messages regarding various aspects of my identity bombard me constantly. This post is not about those messages, though, it’s about the broader context, about the ability to ask oneself that pivotal question.
What do I believe about X event that caused me pain/discomfort/fear/etc?
And so we move on to the next two part concept in my Stoic Musings:
Events don’t upset you. Beliefs do.
I know. I know. Again with the Eyebrow of Incredulity. But let us examine further.
In the GIF above we have a beautiful flower blooming from a rather spiky cactus. Without an observer, the flower blooms, the cactus continues to live, and no more need be said of the matter. Yet what if…you stepped on the cactus? Somehow?
(I’ve done this, trust me, it does not feel pleasant.)
I’ve seen a range of reactions to a stubbed toe, even in a single person over the course of years. The event never changed. It was always a stubbed toe, usually on the leg of the same table, in the same kitchen. Yet the reaction varied so much.
I see the same concept in broader society. Three people with similar backgrounds encounter the same person, hear the same set of words, and have three totally different reactions. Some of this has to do with personality, absolutely. A large portion of it, though, has to do with beliefs.
First, the stubbed toe. If I believe the world is out to get me – even the table – well, when I stub my toe on that table, I’m probably going to lash out at the table, hit it, push it, do something to express that this event has angered me. Not only am I feeling the physical pain from stubbing my toe, I’m also feeling the rage and anger at having the world lash out at me through the table being in my way and thus my toe getting stubbed.
Yet if I believe that the table is nothing more than an object, incapable of action, and that the human body is a fallible machine which occasionally perceives objects inaccurately in relation to myself, then stubbing my toe is, at some point, inevitable, as is the pain that accompanies it. This belief in no way stops the physical pain from hitting when my toe hits the table. What it does do is allow me to simply grimace, acknowledge that my toe is in momentary pain, and move on.
Belief and Emotional Response
One of the purposes of Stoic philosophy is to learn to transcend over-emotionalism by understanding what is within our control and ignoring the rest. In order to do this, we must learn to examine every belief we hold, both about the physical world, as evidenced in the stubbed toe example, and about our internal emotional world. In modern U.S. society, we cling to a hold-over from rationalism – the idea that opinions and actions should be based on reason and knowledge rather than on religious belief or emotional response – while at the same time encouraging ideas such as the need to always and unequivocally medicate mental disorders – specifically anxiety and depression – in order for the brain to function in a rational manner.
While I, myself, have found medication useful, more useful by far has been finding the tools to challenge the beliefs these disorders encourage in me. Stoicism has been one of those tools, especially because of this idea that it is not the event that upsets me, it is the belief.
During my depressive episodes, for example, my mind has a habit of informing me that I am a horrendous failure because I – slightly – burned dinner. Thus I’m incapable of ever finishing anything, should never start a project, and the list goes on ad infinitum. Event? Dinner slightly burned. Belief? I am useless as a person because I never finish anything and if I do, it’s horrible.
With the cognitive behavioral therapists I’ve worked with, the idea is to find evidence to the contrary to counter this belief. With Stoicism, the idea is to look at the belief itself and ask myself whether holding this belief promotes a virtuous, productive life, or causes me undue discomfort. Well, believing I’m useless – in my estimation – most certainly counts as the latter.
Additionally challenging the belief head on allows me to both develop the critical thinking skills to FIND that belief, and then to ask whether it serves me. If it does not, I can then replace it with a new belief that better serves me. Back to burning dinner, let us replace the belief that I am useless with the belief that I am a fallible human and occasionally make mistakes. Thus, burning dinner becomes one of those occasional mistakes, I make something else, and I move on.
“But That Won’t Work For Me”
I know, it sounds implausible. Especially when plenty of parts of society would have us believe that there’s absolutely NOTHING we can do for our mental disorders, and they will always be exactly as miserable as they are or worse. Yet that too is a belief that we may choose to accept or discard.
It is true that we do not control our body, and in the event of a genuine chemical imbalance, medication can be essential. I’m on two right now, and I’m under no illusions that adopting a Stoic mindset will indefinitely cure my disorders. On the other hand, in just the few short weeks I’ve explored the subject, I’ve experienced a significant improvement in my quality of life by adopting the five core principles I’m discussing this week.
I’ve even curbed a few minor anxiety attacks with it.
Will it help you? Perhaps. If you believe it will.