“If you really want to escape the things that harass you, what you’re needing is not to be in a different place, but to be a different person” – Seneca
When I was a kid, my life was filled with chaos. Some people gave in to every whim. People who couldn’t control their fears or negative thoughts. People who decided that they should blame everyone else in the world for their woes. There was a general dislike of anything that was considered a virtue.
Interestingly, I would become so attracted to the philosophy of stoicism that early on. When I was young, I learned about the Greeks, and I appreciated many of their philosophy. “Nothing to excess” was something that stood out to me. All I saw around me was excess anger, booze, blame, and vise. But stoicism taught me to put life back into balance and to fight off all the things that I saw around me. This is a very brief overview of modern stoicism, and it’s built on top of Greek and Roman philosophy. We’re going to cover many different topics when it comes to two different books that talk about stoicism and how it can help us now.
One of my first steps was a fellow named Wayne Dyer. He would take two late-night fundraisers, also called telethons, and he would read parts of his book, answer questions from people in the audience. But he gives some piece of advice that stuck with me, even when I was very young. He talked about how you should not let people push your buttons. When someone pushes your button, you don’t have to automatically react in the way that they hope for you to do that. That’s on them. He gives us an analogy of a person who squeezes an orange, and what comes out of the orange is orange juice because that was inside the orange. The person who did the squeezing did evoke the orange juice coming out of the orange. But the orange juice is what came out. So if someone pushes your buttons, or squeezes you, so to speak, what comes out of you is what was inside of you. They instigated it, but it came out of you. If you’re full of love and forgiveness and positivity, hate and anger and despair doesn’t come out of you, and that’s where you have to reframe this person who is pushing your buttons. It came at one point that my dad was trying to push certain people’s buttons. After reading the Wayne Dyer book and seeing him on television, it struck me that he wants to push your buttons. So why would you allow that to happen? Because then he wins. And if all you do is figure out a way of not letting them push your buttons. He looks like the person who’s hurt, who’s bitter, who’s angry. If they see it doesn’t work, they’ll eventually stop.
Stoicism is something I’ve been following for a long time. I just didn’t know that it was called stoicism, primarily because when you think of stoics, you think of someone telling you, “Quit complaining! Just stand there and take it.” That is not what stoicism is. That’s what we’re going to talk about today is what is stoicism, and how it can make you happy, make you stronger, and make you take on the goals that you want to achieve.
I’m a Christian, and so there are some major differences between Christianity and stoicism. Paul spoke the language of the Romans quite well. He was a Roman citizen himself. And so when he talks, frequently you see him talking in a way that they would understand. In the letter to the Philippians (4:11), Paul said, “I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” That’s a very stoic kind of message coming from Saint Paul.
There was an interesting podcast called Hidden Brain, and the interviewer talked to a fellow named William Irvine. William Irvine wrote two books, The Stoic Challenge: A Philosopher’s Guide to Becoming Tougher, Calmer, More Resilient, and A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. He also has a website and does a lot of public speaking.
During this interview, he talked about if you had a roommate who walked out of their room every so often and told you what a failure you are or you how you should be resentful or told you that you should be afraid because of things that you’re afraid of will happen. You should be prepared for the very worst. We would kick that person out of our house. It is not someone we would want to live with. Yet our brain does this to us all the time, and that’s what we have to take hold of.
The interesting thing they talk about the movie Groundhog Day, which is one of my favorite movies, but as a stoic message. They talk about how Phil, the main character, has to live his life repeatedly until he can capture his bad attitude, emotions, and then take control of the things that he can take control of. That’s stoicism.
During this interview, he says it is the middle way. That it’s not about hedonism or barebone existence, it’s not about optimism or pessimism. He breaks things into two categories. First of all, things that you have control over and things that you don’t have control over. He says that you do have to control over your values, your thoughts, your reactions. And then in those places where you have a little bit of control, you should go after those key things that you can. Then don’t judge yourself based on whether you won, but only based on whether you did your best. Looking at it afterward and trying to analyze what you could have done that was better and what you did that was right, so that the next time you can do even better.
William Irvine suggests putting things into perspective, and he gave some stories about some tough times and people who came back from tough situations. He talks about understanding that the situation you’re in, compared to the situation people have been in throughout history, can give you a little bit of perspective. Then he talks about how we have this immune system in our body, but now we have to train our emotional immune system. That means enduring hardships, small setbacks, and even putting yourself through mild discomfort. He suggests, instead of driving your car someplace, walk there, use your bike. Maybe take a cold shower or stop eating something that you love to eat, just to give yourself a little bit of toughness. The more that we take on some of these tough things and challenges in our life, the better able we will be to take on big challenges when they come our way.
When a pipe breaks in your house, it’s not the broken pipe that’s the problem. It’s the water that comes out of the pipe that becomes the problem. Sometimes we see that too when it comes to allergies. Allergies are just our body fighting off this invading pollen. Our histamine system does it makes us stuffy; it produces all these white blood cells, and we feel terrible. But it’s not the pollen that’s making us feel terrible. It’s the fight against the pollen. He said that’s exactly what’s happening. It’s not so much when we hit adverse times or a bad situation that does the damage. It does damage, and it will do its own set of damage. But it’s the damage that you do yourself in that event. That makes it so much worse.
The other important thing when it comes to stoicism, according to this book, is that you don’t let things or people push your buttons to the same thing, as we were talking about earlier that someone’s trying to push your button, don’t let them figure out some way of dealing with them. He says that if someone says something really rude to him, he will just go on as if that person never even said it, and he can see that that person who said that hurtful thing starts to squirm. They may even say it again, and you say, “Yeah, I heard you the first time.” and then they just get frustrated. They look like a fool. They realize they haven’t hurt you. And they didn’t get a chance to push your buttons.
But stoicism goes into even other things like money. Money can’t make you happy. Money is neither good nor bad. But what it does to your well being can be good or bad. So don’t let money push your buttons. Don’t let food push your buttons. If you are just addicted to some kinds of food, go without that. You try to get to this point where you’re in control of your emotions, and you’re in control of your feelings. And so that you don’t have those things pushing that button that says you must eat this thing right now. You crave this thing right now. You’re in control, not it being in control.
Irvine talks about how what makes us unhappy is not so much that we don’t have this, or we don’t have that situation, or we never achieved a certain thing. It’s about this gap of thinking we want something and not having that thing we want. And so you can reduce that unhappiness in two different ways. The first way is you get what you want. But you’ll find out at some point that it is not the dream you thought it was or that you want something else after that point. Then you realize that the problem is the fact that you have that gap. When you learn to love the things and the place, and the people you’re with now, you’ll never have that extreme gap of I wish I were over there. Certainly, having increased wealth, or a different home, or a different car, or more friends could make you happy. But that yearning that you have inside of you, or that feeling that you have inside of you that those things will solve your life, is wrong. There was a famous quote by Jim Carrey, and he said, “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.” You can understand that we all believe that there’s this magic thing out there that if we only had that, that’s the thing that would make us happy. And what we have to realize is that we are happy. We can be happy with the things that we have right now, with the place we have. That doesn’t mean you don’t fight for the things in your life. And then you don’t fight for those other successes that you want to have. But you don’t put all that emotion on top of them, so that if you don’t get it, you will be upset, or if you do get it and it doesn’t turn out to be what you thought it was that there’s no negative emotion that’s there.
He talks about removing the negative emotion. This is important that you’re not just going, “Oh, well, something horrible happened, I guess I’m just going to have to do better the next time,” and having this fake positive moment. Don’t swallow the issues. Don’t turn them off. That’s impossible. It will lead us to have mental health issues if we constantly bury bad things in us. This is about reframing it. It’s a little bit like that Wayne Dyer story. I told you the beginning. You think about that person and what a horrible life they’re having that they feel like they must push your button, or that person is hurting me because they’re hurting inside, or because of the things that happened in their life. That’s what you have to do to just reframe the situation so that you can take it on in a calm demeanor. Maybe you’ll say, “Okay, I tried something new, it really fell apart. This is not my thing, at least I learned something, or I will do a better job next time.” Whatever it is, but you don’t bury the issue. You reframe it into a way you can deal with it instead of just being negative.
He does another exercise to help us realize that, again, the people and the things around us are on loan to us. What would it mean if the people in our lives didn’t exist? Or if the things that we enjoy about our lives weren’t here, and it’ll help us understand what matters to us, try to think about it, but don’t dwell on it.
Another fellow wrote a book called How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life by Massimo Pigliucci. But he talks about some other concepts and stoicism that I think were valuable when taking a look at this kind of philosophy. In the Serenity Prayer episode, Epictetus is who we talked about that we should always take a moment before reacting. At times you hear people say, go for a walk around the block, and count to 10. But it’s always important that whenever we deal with some issue or provocation that we do so calmly, without emotion.
He also talks about existing in the here and now as being a part of stoicism. That means giving up living in the past. Don’t keep dreaming about the future. It’s fine to have plans, ad time to reflect, but don’t live there. You’ve met people I’m sure in your life who just had this period of their life. They can’t get over either for good or for bad. And they’re stuck there in this time.
He mentioned the beginning of every day, Marcus Aurelius had this strategy, where he reminded himself of the things that he’s probably going to encounter. He realized that there were many angry, stressed out, impatient, ungrateful people during his coming day. He also said that people who are going to come to me who are angry are not their fault. They’re just mistaken, and what they’re thinking, I’m going to try to help and come to a place where we can talk about this and come to some agreement. You always started every day by talking himself through the very hard things that he’s going to have to deal with for the rest of the day.
Seneca talked about at night, looking back at your day and reflecting on you know what went right. What made you irritated? Where did you lose control? Did you get angry at any point? Did someone get a bad emotion from you? And maybe they didn’t deserve it, or maybe they did deserve it. But they shouldn’t have been responded to in that way. By noting his mistakes that he had, he’ll be able to do better the next day at the end of every day. I’ve mentioned this before that at the beginning of work. I like to think about what I need to do and get done and the attitude I have to have. And then, at the end of every day of work, I try to reflect on what went right, what went wrong, what I could have done better, and what I should do tomorrow. I do the same thing at the beginning and end of every day. So those are two concepts that were in this book that I think they’re really helpful.
You can see, there’s a lot of stoicism built into the modern productivity movement. And I’ll tell you too that everybody has a different take on it. We covered a lot of topics that went by very quickly. But this is just to give you a taste of two people’s opinions about modern stoicism.
- Make sure you consider the things you can change, the things you can’t change, and figure out what things you should do about the things you can change.
- Make sure that you build up an immune system of your emotions. That you can fight back anything that tries to make you upset, angry, have negative emotions, and how you can reframe anything negative into something that you can deal with and work with.
- Try to forget about the gaps between what you want and what you don’t have. And instead, look at everything around you as a gift. That doesn’t mean you give up on your goals, but it also means becoming content with the things around you.
- Don’t let anything push your buttons, not money, not food, not people.
- Learn to appreciate the people and the things around you to understand what richness they have brought to your life. Sometimes things can be temporary, and that you should appreciate them right now.
- Come up with a pattern of reflecting at the beginning of the day on the tough things that you’re going to have to face. Then reflect at night and how well you did.
- Find one thing in your life that pushes your buttons, whether it’s a thing or a person, and learn how you can reframe what it is they do to you so that they no longer have the power to change your emotions or make you angry or upset.
Now we have our quote of the day. This comes from Phil in Groundhog Day.
“When Chekhov saw the long winter, he saw a winter bleak and dark and bereft of hope. Yet, we know that winter is just another step in the cycle of life. But standing here among the people of Punxsutawney and basking in the warmth of their hearths and hearts, I couldn’t imagine a better fate than a long and lustrous winter. From Punxsutawney, It’s Phil Connors. So long.”
It’s exciting to see in this movie how he started his day, where he hated everyone. He hated the town. He hated his job. He hated the people around him. He had this bad attitude about everything. But by the end, he gave this speech that even winter would be great with the people and the place around him.