In this episode, we challenge common misconceptions about Stoicism, exploring its true essence which is far from robotic or emotionless. We delve into the Stoic's approach to dealing with suffering, both personal and that of others, highlighting the importance of maintaining balance, compassion, and a clear perspective.
Listen to this episode to learn more about the Stoic's compassionate approach to dealing with suffering and how you can apply these principles in your life.
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Were the Stoics robotic, hyper-rational, lacking in compassion? Actually, no. Stoicism, because of its over-emphasis on resilience and dealing with negative issues in life and negative thoughts, has been misrepresented as being lacking in compassion. And it makes sense, right? If you're friends with someone who doesn't seem to be distressed when things go wrong, things that would upset you. How could you not see this person as lacking in emotion? How could you not see this person as being somewhat of an alien? Why are they not freaking out about the things that I freak out about? And it's worth emphasizing the point that Stoics feel emotions. We all have the same nervous system. But the difference between someone who uses Stoicism as a philosophy of life and someone who's acting more on autopilot and is running on programs and scripts that they've inherited from society is that a Stoic takes pride in caring about the right things and therefore not getting upset and flustered about things that don't truly matter. If you've ever read Seneca's letters you'll see a chirpy character. He's excited to help his friend Lucilius overcome his issues and in Seneca's letters of consolation, he writes many, many pages out of a deep yearning to help individuals who are suffering in a way that is destroying their lives. And so to claim that the Stoics are lacking in compassion or emotion, I'd flip it back to you. When was the last time you wrote a 30-page letter to someone who had just lost someone they loved? And what would it mean for you to do that? That's not the kind of thing that emotionless people do. People who lack sympathy. Seneca's letters are not the letters of a robot, but rather the letters of someone who has suffered, and Seneca did suffer. He became very ill in his 20s and almost committed suicide. But he found his philosophy and liberated himself from a large portion of his suffering and now yearns for others to do the same, just like the Buddha did. And this brings us into today's topic. What do you do when you encounter other people who are suffering? This is something that I used to struggle with and I've heard my clients talk about it a lot. I think anyone interested in self-improvement may find this to be an issue. So what is the issue that I'm talking about? Well, you're doing all of this work on yourself. Maybe you're implementing stoic principles and tactics and techniques. Maybe you're practicing meditation. And you're really trying to cultivate this attitude of being calm and grounded when you encounter setbacks and obstacles. And then you find that a close friend, a spouse, a child, someone you're close to, they experience some kind of negative event and they don't have the same tools that you do and you have to watch them suffer. And in your mind you're thinking, well, if this happened to me, I'd be able to deal with it pretty well, but they can't. I should tell them how they should handle this situation. Maybe that wouldn't be very empathic. So maybe I won't give them advice, but I'm not going to acknowledge that they're really going through something serious. Because they're not, you know, there are things that are in your control and things that are not in your control, and they're getting worked up about something that's not in their control. I'm not going to give any energy to this problem that they have. But hang on a second, wouldn't that make me look cold? Right? And so this is the problem. What do we do? And as always, things are usually about balance. This is the case with Buddhism as well, the middle way. But Stoicism too, there's a lot of talk about moderation, with Buddhism as well, the middle way, but Stoicism too, there's a lot of talk about moderation and balancing out our approach to different areas of life. So when someone comes to you and they're going through something difficult, you want to walk that tightrope and avoid falling on the one hand into overwhelming empathy where you find yourself lost in the misery of the other side, cold, a cold and callous and an emotional frame of mind. So the stoic principle of what to do when someone you care about is struggling can be summarized as follows. Love your neighbor, wish them well during hard times, but at the same time, do not let their current perceptions of reality distort your judgments. So if someone comes to you and they've crashed their car, feel into the situation, generate warmth and compassion and well wishes towards that person. Want them to be okay, want them to be free of the suffering that they're experiencing. Want them to figure out a path forward, want them to unlock the resources within them to be able to cope. But when they start telling you about how their life is ruined because they've crashed their car and how nothing good ever happens to them, that's when you need to pause and realize that it's not the crashing of their car that is the source of their emotions. It is their judgments about the crashing of the car that is the source. Because there are other people that have crashed their car that saw it as a good sign and used it to change their life. Or people who crashed their car and they didn't let themselves get overly stressed out by it because they had different judgments about the event. So we want to check in and care for the people who are experiencing distress but we don't want to adopt their worldview necessarily. This is very similar to the skill of parenting. If a child comes up to you and they say something like, nobody likes me, everyone hates me, my toy was snatched off me by some other two year old. You recognize that their brain is still developing and they're trying to figure out the social landscape and you're not going to take what they're saying to be psychological facts, but rather you're going to try and empathize and tap into where they're coming from and show them support and love to make it to the other side, to the other side of calmness. So we can comfort our friends, help them through their suffering, and on the outside, we can share in their grief. Just like when our child is struggling with something or is in a bad mood, we console them. It's okay. It's okay. I'm here. Tell me about it. Oh, that wasn't nice, was it? That wasn't nice. We can switch into more of a comforting tone of voice and really just acknowledge that what they're going through is difficult and we can see that. We're not minimizing the fact that it's difficult for them. But as the leader in the situation, we don't get sucked blindly into the emotional vortex. This wouldn't be good for them and it's not good for us either. To expand on this technique, I like the nonviolent communication model and I've done talks about this model in the past. I go into it in quite depth in the Stoic Survival Guide for Navigating Troubled Relationships and Toxic People. And one of the things I like to do now when someone is struggling is I try to, instead of getting caught up in the content of what they're saying, I try to listen between the sentences, and try and locate the individual's feelings and needs. So if someone is coming to me and sharing a problem, they're struggling with something, instead of getting logical and analytical about the specifics of their claim, I'll ask myself, what is this person feeling, and what do I think they really need right now? And this really helps me get to the heart of where they're coming from and I can sympathize outwardly with that part without needing to get into some kind of logical analysis or debate or into this kind of helping and device giving mindset. I find that that can help me walk that balance that we're talking about between being there for someone to be able to console someone that we care about, but to also remain protected by the outward chaos and turmoil of suffering and quote-unquote negative situations.