Last month I focused on the concept of offence and on how the different ways we understand concepts (‘cultural conceptualisations’) may give rise to offence.
I am going on a tangent this month - still on the topic of offence, but rather more widely interpreted.
In my ongoing reading up on Stoicism (just finished Massimo Pigliucci’s How to be a Stoic), I came across a reference to Epictetus’s insistence that we look at “impressions”. An impression is an understanding that emerges in my mind as a response to an external stimulus, whether this is a traffic jam, an argument with a spouse or a boundary dispute. It is important to recognise that although linked, the impression formed in my mind is independent of the event itself. In Pigliucci’s example (p 150), if someone calls me ‘fat’, I can take a step back and go through this process:
Is this true? If factually true, why get offended?
Is this false? If false, the speaker is childish and factually wrong, so there is no ground of offence either.
Well…maybe. I would still feel offended, but I am now gradually getting used to taking a step back and questioning myself. Here’s how the scenario would unfold in my mind: do I think the speaker is being deliberately offensive? As I understand it, this is what Epictetus recommends: the speaker may be trying to be offensive, but it is up to me whether they succeed. On the other hand, they may be doing nothing of the sort, and may in fact be projecting their own anxiety and fatphobia; they may be socially awkward, unable to check the expression of their thoughts; they may in fact be childish and really mean no harm. If I am still upset after this reasoning, my emotion points towards something I need to address in myself. It seems that somebody else’s behaviour (an external event that I have no control over) triggers negative feelings in me. This is where the work should take place.
(A caveat: the following account is not supposed to be a complete exposition of Stoic thinking, but only a personal response to what I am working through now).
Over the last year and a half I have had to re-appraise aspects of my relationships with loved ones, dead and alive. I found the basic Stoic teaching of the dichotomy of control enormously useful. This is how I understand it:
Keep in mind what is under your control (your thoughts, emotions - to an extent, actions): focus on working on these;
Keep in mind what is not under your control (the weather, politics, the world economy, your health, the thoughts/emotions/actions of others): don’t waste time and energy on these.
I was stunned by the simplicity of these concepts, exactly the opposite of what I had been doing for decades: fussing and fretting over things outside my control, and not even considering what lay within my control. Relationships and I suffered: I unthinkingly attributed intentionality to the actions of others, attributing responsibility where there was none, and completely glossing over my own responsibility and control over the events. As practice, I review past situations and try to re-imagine an alternative response. For example, I was angry and hurt by my late mother’s dismissiveness: nothing I did was good enough for her. Without articulating it even to myself, I assumed that, being a mother, she must have known she was hurting me and therefore she intended to do so - and I was angry! (Now that I’ve written it down, it sounds too simplistic and crazy even to me.) But I have recently realised that she may have been acting out her own frustrations, possibly been trying to protect me from similar disappointment…I doubt whether she even knew herself. The lesson for me lies in this realisation: I was not compassionate towards her because I did not know how, so the same applies to her.
Why did I not work it out earlier? (This doesn’t mean I have worked it it out now, only that I am aware of the need to make the distinction). In the past, this question took me down the blind alley of regret (if only…I wish…) where there is no point in going, except in order to learn:
[…] regret is about things we can no longer change and the right attitude is to learn from our experiences, not dwell on decisions that we are not in a position to alter.
(From How to be a Stoic, p 210)
I now communicate more effectively, following Stoic principles in my conversations and in how I relate to others. I look forward to exploring this avenue in more detail, and I would love to hear your ideas!
Practical Paths to Flourishing Conference
Last Saturday 5 June 2021 I attended the first ever Women’s Stoicon-X event, Paths to Flourishing, organised by Brittany Polat and Kathryn Koromilas (to whom the postcard below is addressed). It brimmed with ideas and inspiration by speakers and the participants who shared their paths to flourishing stories before the conference. Check out my #pathstoflourishing story here.
Massimo Pigliucci’s How to Be a Stoic
Just finished reading this gem of a comprehensive, practical guide, have already recommended it to three friends, and bought it as a present for a fourth one. I couldn’t resist posting the Greek translation listing here.
The Stoicare website, by Eve Riches’ and Brittany Polat
The landing page starts with the following quote from Marcus Aurelius: it informs all their inspirational content on caring in the community and in the ‘people’ professions (teaching, health). Great ideas for volunteering too!
Have I done something useful to my fellows? Then I have already profited. May you keep this thought ever at hand and never cease from such action.
Dear Kathryn, my fellow Greek and fellow Classicist
We met in the London Writers’ Salon daily writing sprints, a place where many lockdown friendships flourished. I owe my (re)introduction to Stoic thought to you: not only have you recommended Stoic Week, The Stoic Writer and much more, but you have shown me Stoicism in practice: you generously gave your time to help me cope with a stressful medical procedure a couple of months ago. You helped me visualise how to carry myself, what to say and how to say it. During the procedure, I jokingly let out a mock cry even before the needle went in (Epictetus would have patted me on the back.) For this, and for everything else, much gratitude.
If you enjoyed this post, why not share?
If you enjoy my newsletter, consider sharing it with your friends!
Not yet a subscriber?
This is very interesting and your own honesty about your mother and understanding her attitude is an important part of the ‘philosophical’ process. It seems today we still live in a world where so much sensitivity to the words and actions of can cause acute distress. That is based on some of our family relationships.
However, I still feel we have to interact with the outside world where we have so little control. I admire some activists who make a stand publicly.
We have got back to Spain for a short while but hopefully when safer we can meet up.
Lots of life lessons in here and beautifully written!