What does it mean to be stoic?
For the answer, you may turn to the dictionary definition of the word: “a person who can endure pain or hardship without showing their feelings or complaining.” You may have heard this word used as an everyday adjective, to describe someone who handles a situation without too many emotions.
But there is much more to the word “Stoic.” It’s not just an adjective - it’s a philosophy. Stoicism is a school of thought that has been around for over 2,000 years. Like lighthouses, alarm clocks, and other 3rd Century BC creations, Stoicism still has a place in our lives today. You, in 2020, can use Stoicism as a way to address failures, obstacles, and tragedies in a way that allows you to move forward with courage and confidence.
Ideas of Stoicism
Stoicism was a school of thought created in the 3rd Century BC, but it was viewed as more than just a bunch of ideas about how the world works. The great Stoics, including Seneca the Poet, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, viewed Stoicism as a way of life. The central ideas of Stoicism have given guidance to great leaders throughout world history. As we examine those ideas, you will see why these ideas are so powerful, accessible, and timeless.
Understanding What You Can and Cannot Control
Marcus Aurelius once said, “It’s silly to try to escape other people’s faults. They are inescapable. Just try to escape your own.”
This is a central idea within Stoicism. If you want to think like the Stoics, the first thing you can do is examine what is and is not in your control. You must also accept that the decisions and behaviors of others are very rarely, if ever, in your control.
Let’s look at this idea in the context of dating. You cannot control another person’s emotions, perceptions, or who they find attractive. You could be having a nice conversation with a person, “pull out all the stops,” and look really good. They may still find themselves missing their ex, wanting to focus on themselves, or just not have an interest in going on a date with you.
Is it worth letting yourself become angry or depressed because one person does not want to go on a date for you? Stoicism says no. You cannot control another person’s thoughts. You can only control your own. Take control of what you can do in the situation. Maybe that is being gracious to the person and respecting their boundaries. Maybe that is reminding yourself that there are “plenty of fish in the sea.” You have the ability to remind yourself that one person’s perception of you will not affect your ability to hold down a job, meet new people, or enjoy your life. Despite this one supposed setback or obstacle, you still have the ability to move forward.
It’s like that prayer: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” This prayer was first shared in the 1930s, centuries after the Stoics laid out this idea. We truly see the principles of Stoicism popping up everywhere!
Addressing Negative Emotions in An Objective Way
Stoicism is not about walking around without any emotions. It’s about understanding what is behind those emotions. If you find yourself experiencing negative emotions that are leading you to make negative decisions, Stoicism encourages that you take a step out of your negative emotions and see how you can steer yourself back in a more positive, or at least neutral, direction.
Marcus Aurelius wrote, “Our life is what our thoughts make it.” Are you going to allow negative thoughts to add negativity to your life? Or are you willing to step outside of your negative thoughts, reframe them, and choose to live a more positive life?
Doing the Right Thing
Once you can distinguish between what is and isn’t in your control, and understand how to step outside of your emotions, you can really change the way that you see the world. Ironically, by understanding what you do not have control over, you give yourself more control. So you’ve got the hang of Stoicism - what are you going to do with it?
The Stoics held onto noble virtues that both determined a Stoic’s path and enforced the importance of Stoic practices. Great Stoics like Epictetus believed in having courage. They believed in seeking and using wisdom. Above all, they believed in doing the right thing. Marcus Aurelius said that justice is “the source of all the other virtues.” If you do not know where to go, start with justice. What is just, for you, your family, and all people? How can you seek justice, even if that means admitting your own defeat or making a sacrifice?
This example ties all of the ideas and practices of Stoicism together. You find a lost dog on the street and take him home with you for the night. The dog is adorable, and you immediately want to keep him.
Within a few days, however, you see that the owner of the dog has been posting “Lost Dog” signs around the neighborhood. You’re left with a decision. Do you surrender the dog back to its owner, even though you really love the dog? Or do you keep him?
Seeking justice, and returning the dog to its true owner, is not an easy thing to do. But you can ease the pain of giving up the dog by stepping outside of your negative emotions and viewing the situation objectively. Is this the last dog that you will have the chance to own? No. Can you go to a shelter and find a dog that is just as lovely as the one you found? Yes. Is it right to keep your neighbor, who has cared the dog for its entire life, worrying about their lost pet? No. Even though it intitally hurts, doing the right thing should prevail. You cannot control that your neighbor lost their dog. You can control whether or not you reunite the two. Do the right thing.
Modern Influence of Stoicism
When you hear some quotes from the first Stoics, you are likely to find yourself agreeing. What the Stoics say isn’t radical or even particularly challenging. It’s common sense. We can apply the principles of Stoicism to modern-day situations and decisions.
Stoicism also shows up in modern approaches to psychology and therapy. In the 1970s, Aaron T. Beck began to build the foundation of cognitive therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy. These are techniques that psychiatrists use with patients today to treat symptoms of depression and anxiety. Beck stated that the philosophy of cognitive therapy can be traced back to Stoic philosophy.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is an approach that looks at the way that patients perceive and judge the things that happen to them. Take, for example, a divorce. Divorce is an event. A patient may perceive this event as evidence that they are a failure. They may tell themselves over and over again that they are not a good person and that this event is the end of their world. The more they engage with these thoughts, the more depressed they are going to feel. This “failure” will slowly take over the way they view dating, parenting, making friends, you name it.
But what if there was another way to look at it? What if the patient could learn to step outside of their perceptions and see the event in a different way. There are plenty of people who have walked out of a divorce court and rejoiced. Divorce can be an opportunity to regain your happiness. It’s not a “failure,” but simply a “chapter in your life.” Instead of focusing on what went wrong, you can take what you have learned and use it to be a better partner, parent, friend, you name it.
Doesn’t this second approach feel more positive and productive? Both perceptions are entirely possible - you may even know someone who has viewed a divorce in a positive, or negative, light. These perceptions are also within our control. That’s what CBT, based in Stoic philosophy, teaches us.
As Epictetus once said, “"It's not the events that upset us, but our judgments about the events."
How to Learn More About Stoicism
Of course, these practices are easier said than done. Negative emotions are hard to just abandon. Sometimes, feeling fearful, envious, or angry may even feel comforting. If we spend a lot of our time feeling negatively, the idea of stepping outside our emotions and choosing a more objective path could feel scary in itself.
In the end, these practices can help you live a more positive, courageous, and fulfilling life. So as I wrap up this video, I want to share some other resources that can help you dive deeper into the ideas of both ancient and modern stoicism.
Classic books like Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, Discourses by Epictetus, and Letters from a Stoic by Seneca are three timeless books by the founders of this school of philosophy. The Daily Stoic is a collection of essays from all three.
Another way to dive into the world of Stoicism is actually to go within. All three Stoics practiced and encouraged daily journaling. Studies show that writing down your feelings actually activates a specific part of the brain, separate from the part of the brain that activates when you are simply stewing and thinking about your feelings. Journaling literally allows you to step outside your emotions and reflect on them in a more objective manner. Start journaling for just 10 minutes a day, and you may notice a difference in how you view situations, make decisions, and hold onto emotions.
Stoicism isn’t bland. It isn’t just an ancient practice. Learning from this philosophy can help you in every area of your life, no matter how old you are or what age you live in.