Suffering through perspective

There’s a quote from Epictetus that, as of late, has really made an impression on me — and I’ve heard enough commentary on it that I think is worth extra meditation on and visualizing its application in all areas of my life. Epictetus said,

We suffer not from the events in our lives,
but from our judgement about them.

In other words, when life happens to me — even the worst of whatever comes my way — my suffering is a near direct result of my judgement or opinion of that event.  As I’ve heard pointed out by more than one source, my feeling or response to  what is happening can also be changed by simply changing my opinion.  One simple example is that if someone were to cut me off in traffic, my knee-jerk reaction may be to say fuck you, asshole [if my kids aren’t in the car with me], flip them off, and get all hot and bothered by the injustice that I’ve been served up by someone’s inconsideration and poor driving habits.  In the end, I’m no closer to fixing the issue (of being cut off) by going off on the guy behind his back and fuming out my ears with disdain for him.

But if I changed my opinion of the matter — maybe consider for a moment that maybe he honestly didn’t see me, or perhaps he’s simply distracted, or maybe even suffering in his own way and is in a rush to deal with something.  His behavior isn’t excused — I still think he should drive more carefully, be mindful of other drivers, and drive considerately — but if I be mindful and compassionate towards him (and others) …even if he doesn’t deserve it… and give him the benefit of the doubt, I can reduce my stress, anxiety, and anger level dramatically by shifting my perspective.

One supporting thought taught by Seneca and other classic Stoics is that we treat everyone as equals — we all have the same blood flowing through us, we were all brought into this world, and we all will die.  Show them compassion, uphold justice, be courageous, and show self-restraint from lashing out.  I struggle with this, especially when I think of truly evil people or people that have absolutely no regard for other human beings — I think of the injustice and lack of compassion being shown those seeking asylum at our borders… how does that play out in the mind of a Stoic?

I think there’s a way to navigate this, but it’s complicated — at least to me at my entry-level knowledge of Stoicism, so take it easy on me, OK?  One of the cardinal virtues of Stoicism is justice — I think those seeking asylum deserve justice and we should show the courage to reach out and help our neighbors to the south that so desperately need our help.  Those “caravaners” are our brothers and sisters [probably dozens and dozens of times removed, but share the same blood and the same fate of death] and we ought to be compassionate towards them.

And what of the people that would like to deny them asylum or hurl racial slurs spouting all the reasons they should go back to where they came from? They too, I think deserve both compassion, temperance, courage, and justice — but it might look a little different.  If they’re acting out of fear, it’s because they’re ignorant, they don’t know better, and clearly do not see the difference between right and wrong, or that definition of right and wrong is severely skewed.  They should be held accountable for their lack of courage and justice, but shown compassion because of their ignorance, shown a better way for treating our fellow human beings, and shown self-restraint from lowering ourselves to their level by hurling our own brand of insults and demonstrating our own air of superiority over their neanderthal and tribal-like behavior.

I don’t pretend to have the answers on this subject, but I feel that there’s a high road here to be taken, and that it’s not very popular at that elevation.

img_0514Back to suffering through perspective — I think about how much I let bother me, how many issues I’ve allowed my knee-jerk reaction to dominate my mind and consume me, and how I have basically handed over the reigns to my emotions.  All the times that I’ve allowed petty things between my spouse and I to consume me, all the times my kids have got on my nerves because I expected their behavior to be otherwise, the hundreds of times that I’ve let other motorists determine how I am going to feel on the rest of my drive to and from work, how I’ve let Trump voters get under my skin and ruin my day because of another stupid thing they’ve said or done, or how I’ve let other daily situations run me down because I didn’t take the time to be mindful, show some self-restraint, and have the courage to see the situation differently.

I think that this stoic approach to living is probably my key to overcoming my issues with depression, anxiety, and anger.  It will require me to forcefully stop myself in those situations with an attitude of mindfulness, to consider other possibilities beyond what my knee-jerk feeling or reaction is, and to be willing to change my judgement on the issue at hand.  I have a feeling that if I were to do that, I could probably dramatically change how I feel day-in day-out.

It’s not to say that my initial response is always wrong — sometimes there just might be legitimate reasons why I should react a certain way and feel certain emotions.  But I think that many Stoics might caution me not to stay there in those feelings — to seek out wisdom and knowledge on how to deal with those situations, to show some self-restraint and temperance in how I react and how long I stay there, to treat others fairly and with justice in those situations, and having the courage to follow through with the better path.  It’s that process that makes up four of the main cardinal virtues of Stoicism — wisdom, temperance, justice, and courage — four easy concepts to filter our experiences through.

So that’s what I’ve been thinking about today — how I react to things, what my opinion is on everything that happens to me or around me.  Life — and especially the people in it — is particularly complicated and quite nuanced, and there’s no room for snap judgements if one is to live a happy and content-filled life.  There’s always more to the story, a backstory that likely explains how a situation has escalated to where it is now — and it takes courage, temperance, wisdom, and a heart for justice to consider other possibilities beyond what we think or feel at first glance.  It’s not an easy thing to do, in fact, I think I suck at it.  But I think it’s a worthwhile discipline to work at, kinda like how I’ve started devoting myself to simple disciplines like walking every day, trying to eat and drink a little less (moderation), seeking out wisdom and knowledge every day, and taking time to process all this through blogging and journaling.  One day at a time.

Memento mori.


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