Ever heard or seen the phrase “Keep Calm Carry On”?
Of course you have. You’re a human doesn’t live under a rock. At least I hope you don’t. Anyway, that phrase is a Stoic idea coming from the ancient philosophy of Stoicism. Believe it or not Stoicism is all over the place. It’s in films, books and it even inspired a great deal of cognitive therapies, which I’m sure some of you will recognize.
Stoicism came about around the time of Plato and Aristotle and attracted admirers as diverse as the statesman Seneca, the ex-slave Epictetus, and the Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
Don’t worry, I’m not here to give you a history lesson. I want to talk to you about applied Stoicism. Using this philosophy to make your life better. Think of it as really practical advice to get you through your life as happy and as virtuous as possible.
Now before I get started, I want to get something out of the way. A lot of definitions regarding the Stoics paint them as repressing their emotions and having an indifference to pleasure or pain. This is simply not true. In fact, the creator of Star Trek intended for the classic character Spock to be a Stoic but did little to no actual research on the subject and thus we’re left with this caricature of someone who’s overtly logical and goes through life with a stiff upper lip.
In reality Stoics knew that emotions were a part of being human and it was impossible to be rid of them. What they valued was being aware and reflective of your emotions and choose how to react to them. Your anger over something doesn’t mean you have to react angrily. There may be, and most likely is, a better way to handle a situation that makes you mad.
And that brings me to another important aspect of Stoicism; Control. Epictetus wrote a handbook for life and the first line of it is, “There are things which are within our control and there are things which are beyond our control.” This one line encapsulates a great deal of what was behind Stoic philosophy.
I know what you’re thinking. “Big deal! So what! Fix my life already!!”
I’m getting there, I promise. Since this is for all you wonderful Stigma Fighters out there, let’s use our beloved Sarah Fader as an example of how Stoic philosophy can help you.
So, let’s say Sarah decides she’s gonna go full Stoic today. Here’s what she might do. She’d wake up in the morning, preferably a bit earlier than anyone else so she has a few minutes of quiet. In the midst of that quiet she’ll sit and think about the day ahead of her. She’ll remind herself that the only thing she has control of is herself and that things will happen during the day that will be out of her control and that’s okay.
She thinks about how she’s going to have to wake her kids in a few moments and they’re going to be a pain in the ass when she tries to get them dressed and fed in time for school. She thinks about that super stinky guy on the subway that always sits way too close to you even though there are plenty of open seats. And she thinks about how she has to go to the Post Office and deal with those idiots who continuously fuck up her mail.
In the face of all this she tells herself the best way to handle all these situations. She’s not going to lose her shit and dump cereal on her kids. Instead, she’s going to be calm and in control. She’s not going to sit next to the stinky guy on the subway. Instead, she’s just going to get up and walk over to the nice, good smelling handsome guy in the corner. And she’s definitely not going to scream and yell at the postal workers and in the process spew molten hot crazy all over their stupid faces. Instead she’s going to go in there with a smile and destroy them with her perky kindness.
She takes a few more breaths, and is resolved to start the day. Does it go the way she planned it in her head? No, probably not. Perhaps she manages the kids well enough but the stinky guy on the subway catches her in the only open seat and there’s no handsome man to head to and then the post office, despite her perkiness, is completely useless in helping her get her mail.
Sarah begins feeling overwhelmed and anxious because she still has so much more to do and she’s beginning to lose her Stoic cool. This is where she uses another tool in Stoic utility belt. She’s self-aware enough to realize how her anxiety is starting to snowball so she takes a step back. Just a few moments of slow breathing as she pictures herself from above. Slowly she imagines the view looking down upon her pulls out. She sees the whole street with her on it. The buildings, cars, other people…. They all begin to get smaller as the view pulls out even farther. She can see the whole block then the whole city. Soon her view is on the state of New York, then on the country and eventually she can see the whole world. She remembers how small she really is and how so many people with so many problems make up this big, wide world and her mail seems almost insignificant.
She’s fully recharged and boosted as she feels the last remnants of her anxiety are transformed to inner peace and calm. She’s ready to face the rest of her day head on. She remembers that you can’t prevent bad things but you can change your thoughts and reactions to them. Throughout the day she runs into rude, asshole people and reminds herself that people aren’t evil, just ignorant and that they need to be taught if they can. And if they can’t be taught, then let them go. There’s no need to focus on how much they suck when she can focus on how awesome she is.
At the end of the day, Sarah puts her kids down to sleep. She spent and exhausted but she takes another important moment of quiet to herself. She pulls out a diary or perhaps just uses her mind to go over her day.
She asks herself what happened during the day and contemplates how she handled those situations. What’d she do right? What’d she do wrong? The things she got right are proof that she can handle whatever comes and how to handle other similar situations in the future. She doesn’t beat herself up for the mistakes she made or the times she lost her cool. She goes back to those moments and thinks about how she could’ve better handled those situations and what to do when they come back around, as life always tends to do.
She finishes her night’s meditation and curls up on her couch with a glass of wine and good book, content with herself for trying to better her life by gaining patience, wisdom and temperance.
Sarah will continue this little scenario for a while and soon she’ll realize that certain things are getting easier to handle. Her anxiety is still there but she’s better able to curtail it when it comes. People are still morons and her kids can still be assholes but she fixes what she can and lets go of the rest.
This is only scratching the surface of Stoic philosophy and all its wisdom. After all Sarah’s not a philosophy junkie and that’s okay. She’s using what she can from it to make her life better and that’s what’s important.
These methods and many, many more have helped a lot of people around the world, no matter their sex, race, age or religion. In fact, every year around November there’s something called Stoic Week. It’s an ongoing experiment where you sign up, you get a packet of info, step by step instructions, guided meditations, etc., then you answer some questions and spend a week applying Stoicism to your life to see if it helps you create a better one. Most people who take part in the experiment find that they’re more positive and have a better view of life. This information is helpful from a psychotherapeutic point of view as well since, as I’ve said, many of these techniques are used in therapy. That’s actually how I first stumbled upon it.
I’ve been using Stoic techniques for a long time to help me maintain and control my schizophrenia and it’s done wonders (This is not the only thing I use, it’s not a miracle worker). I don’t say this to try and turn you into a Stoic or anything. I merely found something that works for me and, knowing there are others who suffer as I suffer, I want to help in any way I can. It’s not easy and it takes practice but becoming a better, happier person is worth the effort.
I’ve spoken with Sarah about having Stigma Fighters possibly do something with Stoic Week, specifically for the purpose of seeing how Stoicism fares when applied to mental illness. But before we could do that we needed an introduction to what Stoicism is and how it could help. And that’s what I’m’ doing here. If you’d like further information I’d recommend checking out the Stoic Week website or you can hop on over here:
https://howtobeastoic.wordpress.com/collections/ and download a short and simple pdf of Stoic Spiritual Exercises as well as many more interesting tidbits about the Stoics, both ancient and modern.
Kevin Nordstrom is a writer and illustrator of children’s books and poems, living happily ever after with his wife, a son on the way, too many cats, and, oh yeah, his schizophrenia. Kevin likes peanut butter