The Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome lived in a harsh world. There's no denying that. Among its two best proponents, one was an emperor of Rome during its downfall, fighting barbarians on the borders, and betrayal in his personal life. The other was a slave and cripple. Stoicism has been continuously popular for 2,500 years for good reason: it makes people stronger, more good, more wise, more noble, and more calm, in good times and bad. It's especially suited to a masculine temperament. Therefore I recommend it to you. I've been reading Stoicism my whole adult life, including at the time that something terrible happened. Today I get personal. This is the story of how the slave, cripple, and stoic philosopher Epictetus helped me get through one of the hardest times in my life. I share this because my clients, like most people, go through very hard times too. We're all in this together. And there's a lot of wisdom out there, much of it ancient, that helps.
When you last got angry at something that happened, why did you react that way? Trust me, somebody else would have got sad or depressed in the same situation. And another person anxious. Why that particular emotional reaction, and not something else?
We often think that something happens, or somebody does something, and it leads straight to our reaction. But this is like saying that 2 = 4. We've left out a vital step. 2 + 2 = 4. The great psychologist Albert Ellis, inspired by Epictetus, formulated the nature of that second 2 which adds up to 4.
Something happens + we perceive it in a certain way = our reaction
What Epictetus is calling "opinion" above, I am calling perception, or attitude, or belief, or mindset. It's the cognitive filter through which an event passes, which determines what reaction we will have. Somebody cuts you off in traffic and gives you the bird. If you mostly think, such people deserve to be taught a lesson, you will go into anger. If you mainly think, nobody values me, you may slide into a depression. If you think, people are aggressive everywhere, you could fall into anxiety.
Ellis' stoic insight creates freedom. It means you can change and shape how you react, by changing your mindset. Sometimes that is easy: you catch yourself thinking one way, and choose another perspective. At other times it is hard, because the outlook is more like a deep, unconscious habit, or it is tied to deep emotional trauma. But in all cases, through awareness and effort, we are able to change. As Viktor Frankl wrote after surviving the Nazi concentration camps that killed his parents and pregnant wife: "Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms - to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way."
The beautiful thing about this freedom to change your mindset, is that it is not only a way of getting rid of bad emotions and behaviour. It is not only about getting from bad to okay, it can also be used to get from okay to great. This is one of my great fascinations. An idea that gets bandied about, but something which I saw unfold in the sober, rational context of my therapeutic work. A new mindset can become a prism, a filter for the good in life, which creates an upward spiral of more goodness. And this new mindset can create a positive feedback loop in the world. Where the better you are, the better others are toward you and the more good opportunities you recognise. It's a beautiful thing!
When I was young I would sometimes feel like people were judging me as I walked down the street. And so without realising it, I would scowl. And of course people would scowl back. So they looked as though they were judging me. I was not only interpreting the world in a negative way, but I was also shaping the reality around me, creating a negative feedback loop with others, and a downward spiral of depression in myself. Nowadays I smile as I walk along - often without realising - and even when others look dark because my strength and joy have meshed over time in this upward spiral, and so I experience a very different world, and good things happen as a consequence. Your beliefs, your attitude, your mindset, is fundamentally malleable, and what we take to be a realistic perception is many times arbitrary cynicism and fear. You can become strong and happy through your mindset, and experience the world very differently, and create a whole new world for yourself. You can radically change your life this way. This is Stoicism. It developed to create a mindset that dealt with bad things well, and this is the story of how it did that for me, but it is also the story of how it can be turned to create a mindset that makes good things, even out of suffering. I hope this helps you.
I won't go into literary detail, nor will I go into some of the harder details of what was done afterward, but I once suffered a double-betrayal.
It broke me in two. I still shudder when I remember that day. I heard somebody screaming, it sounded like an animal, and then as noise got closer, I realised it was me. I'm a different man today because of all this.
I'm wounded, yes, even after all this time, because such things change you, and they stay with you. But that's not the story I want to tell. I want to tell how I wouldn't be the man I am today without this pain. For I also changed for the better. I made the choice to do that. Like a phoenix from the ashes, except a little more half-baked. And that rise was far from easy. Nor is it complete. I felt like I was finally understood when I heard Jordan Peterson in a lecture say "the people who have been really hurt, have been hurt by deceit. You get walloped by life, there's no doubt about that. However people can handle earthquakes, and cancer, and even death. But they can't handle betrayal, and they can't handle deception. They can't handle having the rug pulled out from under them by people they love and trust. That just does them in. It hurts them psycho-physiologically, it damages them. But more than that, it makes them cynical and bitter, and viscous and vengeful. And then they start to act all that out in the world. And that makes it worse." I can attest to the truth of every word. I've lived it out, and am still living out aspects of that struggle. It's been years, but my body is a tense and sore thing to inhabit in ways it wasn't before. For two years I suffered daily headaches. It's psycho-physiological for sure, it has wiped years off my life. But it's the bitterness and malevolence that really concern me.
I've always been concerned about bitterness, both philosophically and therapeutically, because it is so utterly corrosive, and because I've seen that effect in action repeatedly. Before my experience I pictured the risk of bitterness in terms of a cross-road: you went through something terrible, and you had to make a choice which path you would take, between accepting your pain and maintaining an attitude of love and openness, or choosing a path of hardness and bitterness. I was wrong to picture it this way. It's not a choice of whether to go down into bitterness. It's more like you get thrown down there; down into a deep well of it. The sides are steep and slippery with stinking bile. And it can take a long time, and what feels like endless effort, to slowly pull yourself out. It takes even longer to finally get the stink out of your flesh, and eventually out of your breath. For betrayal damages deep dimensions of your mind and body, as Peterson articulates so perfectly.
Part of my pain was the shock, the inability to believe, that my dearest old friend, whom I treated as a brother, carried so often, could use my deep generosity and trust to take advantage and take everything from me, behaving like a sociopath as he did to me (and to my ex, as she soon discovered). But that's reality. 1 in 20 people are sociopathic. If you add in all the people with certain personality disorders - narcissists, borderlines, and so on - plus the merely distorted among us, then 1 in 10 people at least are deeply manipulative, at least in certain contexts. And such people are, by definition, great at appearances and deception. They can get very close to you, seem wonderful if you don't quite get too close, and one day ruin your life. There are people who lose their families, with children, and a home, through such friends, and even suffer false legal or criminal accusations thrown in.
I've seen others suffer worse, but I certainly suffered. And yet the greatest points of pain, which can change you for the worse in these deep and terrible ways, can at the same time become the means through which you become much better as a human being, and stronger as a man. For example, when you go through something like this you need to understand that that person's actions reflect them, not you. But you also have to ask what it was you needed to learn in this. For often life stabs us deepest in the areas precisely where we need to grow. There's something about the way we function in our flaws and weak points that leads to this. So I reviewed this experience over a long, painful time and saw many things that I needed to change in myself. This was gold for personal insight. For example I explored how I was too trusting, in part out of emotional neediness. And how partly my generosity, although mostly strong and real, was also motivated by weakness, in which I bargained with the world so that it would treat me well in turn. I also saw and changed how I was in romantic relationships, how I had needed to be different, whether that meant staying differently, or going. I also saw that my gut had been warning me long before it happened, and I had ignored it. And I recognised (or rather was deeply disturbed by the recognition that) if somebody who seemed so high-minded like my friend could behave like that, and self-righteously deny any wrong-doing, and even blame me and my ex with powerful rationalisations, then I had to ask: how am I blind to my own evil, whether actual or potential? I had to confront this question in myself in a fleshy, gut-based, rather than merely intellectual way, and it's an ugly thing when you really, truly look at the darker side of your own all-too-human heart. This was indeed like the phoenix, because it was like being burned to death, but having the chance to examine the ashes, see the causes of the fire (insofar as some were within me), and recreate myself anew out of this wisdom as I stood back on my feet.
As you do that, you start to accept what you cannot change. As per the quote at the top of this reflection, some things are out of your control. You slowly begin to accept what is. And you start to deeply value who you've become, despite the terrible things you had to go through to get there. If this was the cost of learning this, maybe it was worth it? I cannot fully answer either way, but what I can say is I would not go back and change what I have learned and become. You slowly learn to say Yes to reality as it is. And to really draw out the good in life even in bad circumstances and pain. You build strength to do so like you never had before. You see, we suffer from a bad event. That makes 50% of our suffering. But we also kick and scream against the event. Naturally we find it hard to accept, so much so that sometimes that it feels impossible. After all we are evolved animals with deep mechanisms for emotional pain. But that makes the other 50% of our suffering. It's not integral to the original suffering. When you accept reality as it is, healing begins, or accelerates, and so too does growth. Accept what you can't change, have the courage to change what you can, and the wisdom to know the difference. This is a core Stoic insight.
We live in an age of entitlement. Which leads to resentment. And so we weaponise victimhood. We get drunk on indignation. And outrage porn. Our perceptions are distorted, we won't accept what is, and we won't accept our lot in life. When it came to it fists I always won the fights against my small-town school bullies, but I was a pacifist, however now I was filled with rage. I won't repeat my fantasies. But such thing can get worn down in us by many means. For one thing, I can't stand the victim culture we live in, the way individuals weaponise their perceived victimhood or at least use it to self-aggrandise. And I started to wonder whether I was narrating myself as a victim. That's a twisted way of getting power, or the feeling of power. It's really weakness. It's a nowhere strategy for life. We have to accept the cards we've been dealt. And make the most of them. To live nobly as the ancient Stoics would have said, but maybe to live beautifully too.
I'm not saying you should resign yourself to whatever happens to be the case. The whole premise of my work is that we can each make our lives so much better. It's true, and if things seem otherwise, that's because we don't genuinely try. Maybe we don't know how. Or we are dispirited. It doesn't matter, and excuses are pointless; the outcome is the same. Again, there's magic in this freedom of mindset.
The freedom you possess with the cards you've been dealt lies in your capacity "to act well the part that is given to you." That part could be a rags to riches story, and you're only in the early scenes. If you play it badly you might never get there. Your part might to be to struggle, or it might be one of luck, but either way you can spend your time in needless fear, anger, or despair, or you can orient yourself to all that is good in a hard or lucky life. To the joy it is possible to take in what you do have - the relative peace and prosperity we all dwell in, the people you love and who love you, your talents, and so on. Again there's this attitude, this mindset, that actually shapes our reactions. There are fortunate people who are bitter. There are unfortunate people who are joyful and kind. There are lucky people who waste it all. There are poor people who work hard and build. What attitude are you going to take to your lot in life? What mindset will shape your thoughts, feelings, and actions, independently of your relative place in the scheme of things?
When I was 19 I volunteered with an organisation that sent young people into hospitals and elderly homes to spend time with the residents, chatting. I once sat with a man for some hours as he died. Maybe that's why I can imagine it so palpably, but it's a stoic practice to meditate on your life from the perspective of your deathbed, and I do it often. Imagine looking back and seeing that you wasted your life in impatience, or worse, resentment. Precious, beautiful time flowing by, made sour, turned to nothing of worth. Imagine instead having lived a life awake in love and gratitude, savouring this goodness which is life, and adding to the sum of it. Imagine becoming the reason some people despair or become bitter. Imagine becoming the reason some people believe in the goodness of others. I see some people who suffer death anxiety, and the most common feature also present is a failure to really step into their life. It seems to go hand in hand. If you live well, you can probably have a good death. Because you can look back on a part well-played. As so many wonderful old Australians have been heard to remark, "I had a good innings." That death constitutes more than a moment tacked on to a long series of moments. It's a meaningful arc, a story of a life, something that makes sense, that is good.
I've seen numerous depressed who wasted their days, months, and years, getting nothing done. They were in despair. Living lives composed of procrastination. And there are different reasons for this problem, but there are patterns. One of them is the guy who is, say, a writer, who never writes. He's absolutely dedicated to his art in the sense that he refuses to give it up and do anything else, but he doesn't do it, either. Maybe he hasn't even studied it. He has simply put his life on hold and shaped it around an identity that never involves activity. And his life has slowly emptied out.
It's hard work helping most of these guys. But we do at least get somewhere intellectually. Repeatedly in this situation it will emerge that the guy is more attached to being seen as a writer, by himself and others, than he is in love with writing. He doesn't love the art itself, he loves the identity. How he is seen.
He has given himself over to externals.
And so he has lost his purpose in life.
Now this kind of writer is a cliche, but we all do this in different ways. To the degree that you pursue not what is necessary, meaningful, and passionate, in your work or choice or partner, you may be pursuing appearances, the opinions of others. That will empty your life out. A good and substantial life is one that engages with necessity, which is to say reality. Which places the meaningful above appearances and other fleeting, unstable satisfactions. And which works at the heart, at the point of passion.
What do you really want? Most deeply. Who do you truly want to be? If nobody was paying attention or ever would? What would really make your life meaningful? What would truly make you feel you'd done right, and give you self-respect?
Now this is where the real challenge starts. I alluded to Stoicism's flaws, and the main one is its attitudes to emotions and attachment. Like traditional Buddhism (as opposed to its softened Western version), Stoicism preaches detachment as a means of avoiding suffering. But I'd rather love and suffer. Stoics argue over how to interpret this issue, but as a lover of Stoicism and a long-time reader of it, I have to admit to its flaws and interpret it to work with how I see the world. In fact the Stoics themselves did this, and it's in the spirit of the philosophy, which is about seeing life clearly rather than assenting to sacred doctrines.
But we can charitably interpret these words in ways that make them important. Among the many people whom I have counselled (literally thousands), including those with mental illness, and those with challenges in living, the people who were the most stuck were those who saw their suffering as unique. I don't know about you, but it makes all the difference to see myself as a human being, sharing in the nature of a human being, and all the joys and trials that are deeply, and for the most part universally, human. This is why we are so moved when we read a memoir like Romulus, My Father, by my friend and neighbour Raimond Gaita (hint, read that book! In some ways it's a modern Stoic story, about the beauty of goodness in the face of deep suffering). One point of transition in my pain over betrayal was the recognition of how archetypal this story is. Of how many others have been through it. And many of them worse. And how they still lived good lives and learned to love and trust again. And how the evil that runs through my old friend's heart runs through mine too. It's a human story. And when I heard of it happening to another, I was shocked, but soon returned to other concerns. So I started seeing my own suffering in that way. It used to feel like the centre of everything, but what if I saw it as something happening to somebody else, how then would I judge it? What would I tell that person in honesty, what perspective would I encourage in them?