“Hey, that’s not fair!”
Do you remember the first time you heard or said these words? Maybe it was while playing hopscotch, tag, or “Monopoly” with your friends or siblings. Or, like me, you may recall that expression from the school playground, when someone broke the rules of the touch football game. The fact is, most of us grew up in a culture that places great value on “fairness” and “playing by the rules.”
There’s just one problem with this noble ideal: the world simply doesn’t work that way. As the biblical book of Ecclesiastes observed, “The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise...but time and chance happens to them all.” Indeed, the physicists tell us that the universe tends toward maximum disorder, or “entropy”—not fairness! And yet, most of us react to injustice, mistreatment, and even natural disasters with a sense that we have been treated unfairly—as the B.J. Thomas song put it, we feel that “Somebody done somebody wrong!”
This is perfectly understandable. If someone assaults you, steals from you, or cheats on you, you have every right to feel upset or angry—so, too, if you have suffered verbal or emotional abuse. Many of you who have gone through, or are going through, a painful separation or contested divorce may understand what I mean. You will almost certainly need time to grieve the loss of your marriage. And, depending on how your spouse has behaved, you may also need time to work through feelings of anger, betrayal, and the downright “unfairness” of it all.
Yes, these feelings make sense—but past a certain point, they may do you more harm than good. They may even trap you in an endless loop of paralysis and negativity. Freeing yourself from this trap is critical to moving on with your life. As Dr. Mark Banschick put it in his blog of Jan. 31, 2012, “Radical Acceptance means that you understand that bad things do indeed happen to good people...all the time. You can stay mired in your sense of injustice and self-righteousness...But what purpose does it [serve]? ...You lose a second time because you become a victim of your own victimhood.”
Indeed—but what can be done to achieve this “radical acceptance” of life’s unfairness? Enter, the Stoics. These disciplined thinkers flourished in ancient Greece and Rome, and strongly influenced later Jewish and Christian theologians. There are also strong similarities between Stoicism and Buddhism. And, as we’ll see, the Stoics have helped shape our modern schools of cognitive-behavioral therapy. But before discussing some basic Stoic beliefs, it’s important to debunk a few myths.
When you hear the term, “Stoic,” you might picture those stiff-upper-lip types on Masterpiece Theater, repressing their roiling emotions as they look down their noses at the kitchen staff. Or maybe you associate the term “Stoic” with the ever-logical and unflappable Mr. Spock, on “Star Trek”. But these caricatures have only a remote connection with the great Stoic philosophers, like Epictetus, Seneca, Cicero, and Marcus Aurelius.
The Stoics were not joyless, godless, logicians! They saw a divine order in the world that united all mankind. They did not want to eliminate emotion so much as to refine it. Rather than “sweating the small stuff”, the Stoics saw the larger picture of life, and focused on developing ethical and virtuous action—the only real and lasting “good”, in Stoic philosophy. So, with this background in mind, how might Stoic philosophy help you cope with painful losses and traumas in your own life?
Fundamentally, the Stoics taught that we need to live in harmony with Nature and the Universe. No, they didn’t mean hugging a tree, or eating organically-grown grapes. They meant that we need to accept the world for what it is. The Thai Buddhist Master, Ajahn Chah, put the idea this way: “If you want the duck to be a chicken and the chicken to be a duck, you are really going to suffer!” Indeed, part of accepting life for what it is means accepting—not liking!—that there are many “bad actors” out there who sometimes try to hurt us.
Stoicism teaches us that we don’t have to be blown away by their bad behavior--nor need we become enraged or hateful toward those who treat us unjustly. The Stoics recognized that, in the end, we are all in the same, storm-tossed boat, filled with fallible human beings. The emperor-philosopher, Marcus Aurelius put it this way:
“First thing every morning tell yourself: I am going to meet a busybody, an ingrate, a bully
, a liar
, a schemer, and a boor. Ignorance of good and evil
has made them what they are. . . None of them can harm me, for none can force me to do wrong against my will, and I cannot be angry with a brother or resent him, for we were born into this world to work together . . .” [from The Emperor's Handbook
, by C. Scott Hicks and David V. Hicks.]
So, are the Stoics saying we should simply “turn the other cheek” and put up with injustice or shabby treatment at the hands of abusers? Certainly not! They believed that when it was in our power to change the bad behavior of others, or to correct an injustice, we should do so. But once having exerted our best efforts, we need not torment ourselves if a bully is still a bully; a duck, still a duck—or an exploitative ex-spouse, still exploitative.
Stoic philosophy may be summed up in that well-known maxim associated with 12-step programs, but originating with the theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971): “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Stoicism holds that “things,” events and people do not really upset or disturb us—it is only our opinion of these that has the power to distress us. This is a very odd, counter-intuitive idea for many people to grasp! I often hear patients say, “C’mon, Doc! Are you saying that if somebody insults you at a party, in front of all your friends, that isn’t upsetting!?” Well, the Stoics would answer, “It isn’t the insult that upsets you, but your opinion regarding the insult.” Our modern day cognitive therapists would agree. For example, the late psychologist, Dr. Albert Ellis, divides the experience of being upset into three components: A. The event that seems to set off the emotion. C. The emotion itself. And what is the “missing B”? It is our belief or opinion about “A”, the event. Often these thoughts are barely in our consciousness, but may emerge upon careful self-examination. So, for example, the target of the insult probably had thoughts such as, “Oh, my God, this is so embarrassing! How am I ever going to live this down? I can’t stand that I’ve been humiliated like this!” Ellis would call this sort of thinking “catastrophizing” or “thinking irrationally.”
The Stoics would say that you have placed excessive value upon the opinion of others, and too little value on your own virtue. After all, if you have done nothing wrong—like tossing your gin-and-tonic at the person insulting you—you have no reason for being terribly upset. Marcus Aurelius put it this way: “Seek refuge in yourself. The knowledge of having acted justly is all your reasoning inner self needs to be fully content and at peace with itself.” Shakespeare undoubtedly understood the Stoic position when he had Hamlet say, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so...”
There is much more to say about Stoicism, and I have provided some useful references for further reading. But before we close, let’s see how the principles we’ve discussed may apply in a painful domestic dispute:
“Marge,” a 35-year-old mother of two (6 year-old Tiffany, 8 year-old Bryce), was involved in a bitter, hotly-contested divorce proceeding, in which her estranged husband, Rick, had been completely unbending in his demands. One day, in front of both children, Rick accused Marge of being “a crappy, selfish mother” and “destroying our family.” Marge had secretly hoped that the children might rally to her defense, but they ran off to sulk in the car. Marge, at first, felt devastated, and began to wonder if Rick was right about her. Then, she began to feel furious with Rick, and started having violent revenge fantasies.
Later that day, Marge spoke with her friend, Dawn, who had some training as a grief counselor. Dawn pointed out that while it was natural for Marge to be upset, she need not fall victim to Rick’s insult, and that Marge had done nothing wrong. Marge began to realize that she had consistently behaved ethically and responsibly toward Rick and the kids, and began to feel better about herself. “I guess Rick is always going to be Rick,” she told Marge, “and I had better deal with it.”
In closing, when buffeted by life’s many “slings and arrows,” I find it helpful to keep in mind an important ethical teaching of Marcus Aurelius: “I do my duty. Other things trouble me not.”
William Irvine: A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, Oxford University Press, 2008.
Albert Ellis, Robert A. Harper: A New Guide to Rational Living, Wilshire Books, 1975.
Ronald Pies MD is a physician, poet, and writer living in the Boston area. He has academic appointments at Tufts University and Upstate Medical University, and is the author of several psychiatric textbooks. Dr. Pies is also the author of "Creeping Thyme" (a collection of poems); "Zimmerman's Tefillin" (a short story collection) and "Everything Has Two Handles: The Stoic's Guide to the Art of Living." Dr. Pies's novella, "Ben Maimon's Mind", (link) is available on Amazon.com as a Kindle book. His most recent books include "Becoming a Mensch: Timeless Talmudic Ethics for Everyone" (Hamilton Books); "The Judaic Foundations of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy" (iUniverse); "Ziprin's Ghost" (short story collection) and “The Heart Broken Open” (poetry chapbook), the last two available only at Harvard Book Store in-house publishing. He is now at work on a book unifying Jewish, Buddhist, and Stoic beliefs, titled, “The Three-Petalled Rose.”
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