Ryan Holiday addresses a common misperception of stoicism in his book, The Obstacle is the Way, when he addresses ideas surrounding our emotions and how we handle our emotions. I think people often associate stoicism with a lack of emotion, and will describe people as being stoic when they respond to emotional situations like reactionless statues. I think there is merit to the idea that people who follow stoicism don’t show emotion, but I think it is often taken to the extreme in people’s mind. Not showing wild emotion swings becomes conflated with not having or feeling any emotion at all, and in Holiday’s writing the curtain is pulled back to give us a new view of how we can react to our inner feelings, and to give us new perspective on the thoughts and minds of those we call stoic in turbulent times.
Holiday writes, “Real strength lies in the control or, as Nassim Taleb put it, the domestication of one’s emotions, not in pretending they don’t exist.” Holiday’s quick quote shows that stoics and people who practice stoicism are not simply stones without emotion. Rather than being voids without feelings, Holiday presents an image of someone who is self-aware and capable of managing and controlling their emotions. Stoics have practiced this ability over time, recognizing their feelings, channeling their passion in productive ways, and choosing how they will use their emotions. Often we don’t see these people as having any emotion because we do not see the visible emotional outbursts that are common on television shows and socially encouraged at sporting events.
Holiday takes the idea of feeling emotion a step further in his book. He does not simply explain that people who follow the teachings of Marcus Aurelius and other stoics feel emotions, he explains that people who practice self-awareness and recognize the ways their emotions drive their behaviors experience better outcomes in life than those who allow themselves to be driven by the impulses of their emotional states. Further, Holiday writes that stoics feel their emotions quite strongly, and that they do not ignore their emotions. He encourages his readers to explore and to feel their emotions, but he does so in a way that is constructive and provides us the opportunity to learn and grow from our current state. By using our emotions and being aware of them we can channel our energy into truly productive directions. The failure to recognize and the failure to understand our emotions leaves us in a place of no direction. When we assume that we should not feel one way or another, and when we strive to be without emotion, we leave a valuable part of ourselves behind.
Marcus Aurelius had a very practical way of looking at the world, and his pragmatism stands out in his book Meditations when he is taking about the ways in which we become frustrated. Rather than allowing himself to be driven by emotions he was able to slow himself down and think about his thoughts and what should be done. This aspect of stoicism helped him see the world in a more wholesome manner, and it can help one reduce stress and overcome points of frustration.
Aurelius wrote, “It is not right to vex ourselves at things, For they care nought about it,” to remind himself that he should not give anything outside of his mind the power to control his mind. In our world of technology I think this idea fits perfectly into our lives. It is not uncommon for a piece of technology (our computers, TVs, wireless routers, headphones, etc…) to frustrate us. When we expect our technology to operate seamlessly, we become very disappointed and sometimes irate when things fail. Allowing ourselves to be overcome with emotion in these situations will not help our devices, and will often lead to worse situations. What Aurelius would argue is that we should never allow an inanimate object to control our life to the point where it can challenge our emotional wellbeing.
When looking at how we should perceive the world around us, Aurelius wrote, “the things which are external to my mind have no relation at all to my mind.” What he is explaining in this quote is that his mind is its own entity and that it cannot be directly affected by anything outside of our heads. We choose how we want to allow our mind to react to the world around us because our mind is in control of itself. When we allow our technology to be the singular thing that brings us joy then we are giving an item control over our brain. When an external event demolishes our emotional state, we are choosing to abandon control of our mind, and we are letting things that do not directly touch our brain to have power over the one thing we absolutely control.
Divorcing ourselves from reliance on things outside ourselves (technology, relationships, activities) helps us to regain control of our faculties of mind. Aurelius would not argue that we should not enjoy the world around us and the point of stoicism is not to avoid any emotional feeling, but we should be able to recognize our thoughts and emotions and adjust our mental framing to be more productive and helpful. We should accept our feelings and understand them, but we should also have the mental control to shape the actions, decisions, and perspectives of our life. When we give things external to the mind the power to direct the mind, we give up our independence and become subordinate to things.
While describing effective altruists, author and philosopher Peter Singer makes a distinction in the philosophy of reason and how we can look at effective altruists. Singer establishes that effective altruists, or those who seek to do the most good that they can possibly do out of a sense of value for all people as opposed to seeking to do the most good they can do out of religious convictions or warm glow sentiments, empathize with all individuals across the globe because they are able to recognize the shared value in all humanity. An effective altruist is drawn to help those who are in the most need and those who can be helped the most efficiently. Singer argues that their actions result from a strong sense of moral reasoning derived from the individual faculties of mind of effective altruists. Moving in a very philosophical direction to examine the views of effective altruists Singer writes,
“The strongest objection to the claim that reason plays a crucial role in the motivation of effective altruists comes from Hume’s influential view that reason can never initiate an action because all action starts with a passion or desire … This is, in modern parlance, an instrumentalist view of reason. Reason helps us to get what we want: it cannot tell us what to want or at least not what to want for its own sake. To argue that reason plays a crucial role in the motivation of effective altruists, we have to reject this instrumentalist view of practical reason.”
At the end of the quote above Singer states that we need a different view of rationalization to be able to understand the actions of effective altruists. The view reflected by Hume would suggest that effective altruists are truly only motivated by the warm glow we receive from helping others. He would argue that we receive an incentive to live altruistically because of the rewards generated by our actions. Singer on the other hand would argue that we would recognize these incentives only as byproducts of a positive lifestyle, and not the underlying goal for our actions.
Ultimately Singer is trying to place reason and rationality above emotions such as passion and desire. For me this has always been a tricky area to disentangle. We are very skilled at rationalizing our behavior to fit the reason we want our actions to be centered around. While Hume is arguing that our passions are what truly drive us at all times, singer is arguing that our passions grow from our reason.
Throughout much of his writing, author Colin Wright tends to focus on our thoughts and the ways in which we react to things. He frequently writes about self awareness and the ways in which our interpretations of our situations affects our thoughts and reactions. By becoming a more aware person and being able to control our thoughts we are able to have more positive reactions to the world around us. In his book Considerations he writes, “Very seldom does failure have permanent repercussions. Unless you allow it to that is. Many of the negative consequences of an action tend to result not from outside forces, but from our own negative thinking.”
I think this quote shows the power of self awareness and the power of controlling our thoughts. When we are able to recognize how we are thinking and feeling about any given event, we are better able to control our thoughts and shift them in a positive direction. When we are able to do this, we are in many ways able to chose our reactions and the ways in which we act.
To me the part that stand out the most from this quote is the last few words about negative thinking. By building self awareness and focusing in on our thoughts we can reduce the amount of negative thinking in our lives in all situations. Recognizing how your are thinking and acting allows us to see when we are over emphasizing small problems. For me, being able to recognize when I am letting something unimportant impact me in a negative way has helped me feel better about myself and my situations on a daily basis.
When it comes to failure, recognizing what Wright is discussing can be huge, especially in our professional careers. We tend to fixate on things we have not done well, and we do not remember the positive parts of our workday. When we dial in on the negative we build self doubt and cling to fears. What Wright is showing when with this quote is that others won’t remember those failures as long as we will, so it is not worth lamenting over those failures. If we do not learn to control our emotions and thoughts then all we gain from failure is a negative self impression and fear. Practicing self awareness can help us shift those thoughts so that we do not hang on to a past failure and allow it to become a roadblock as we move forward.