Resilience and Preparation for Adversity
Wow, it’s hard to believe it’s already Day 6. Stoic Week has been significantly more successful for me than last year. Last year, Stoic Week was held the same week as American Thanksgiving. My family traveled over 1500 miles to see me, and although I tried making an effort to take my bite of philosophy each day, it simply wasn’t working. Not to mention I also had to bear witness at a court trial, and had something very painful and unexpected happen that week. Here we are a year later. My own life is looking up compared to where I was a year ago. It has taken lots of courage and support, but quite seriously, Stoic philosophy has made a significant impact.
A year ago, I was submerged in depression. I had lost my job, and was in a really difficult point in my relationship with my Signifiant Other. You can read my “About Me” stuff for more details. But the truth is, I couldn’t get out of bed. If you’ve never experienced depression, I’m not referring to a “I’m sad and don’t feel like getting out of my bed and facing the world” type of attitude. I mean, quite physically, I could not get out of bed. In fact, it was difficult enough for me to even wake up. I would struggle to open my eyes in the morning and quickly drift off again, continuing until 3:00pm. Not. Normal. If I did finally manage to wake up and get out of bed, I was quickly drained of energy and would collapse on the couch in the living room.
I stopped eating. If I ate, it was one biscuit each day. Like I said, in summary, I was enveloped by depression. But Stoicism is largely responsible for pulling me out of that place. Stoic philosophy spoke to my character. You might be depressed, Kirsten, but at the heart of everything, you truly do want to be a good person. Stoic texts encouraged me, inspired me, gave me ground to stand on. Stoicism isn’t a magic philosophy that will fix the problems in your life. Those same problems will still be there. In fact, Stoicism won’t fix a damn thing outside of yourself. It won’t always bring you the news you were hoping for, and it won’t be easy. But Stoicism will bring you to reality, and it will give you the tools to deal with reality. Stoicism is a philosophy of empowerment.
Today’s Morning Reflection was the very first bit I encountered from Marcus Aurelius when I began my study of the book Stoic Serenity. It was difficult to face when I first read it. I was depressed. I just had a ton of $h!+ happen to me, and an ancient philosopher is telling me that this is just “bad luck”? But the quote is actually a beautiful metaphor for how we should strive to live:
Be strong like the headland, which is pounded by wave after wave, yet still it stands firm and sees each crashing wave through to its silence. “So many terrible things have happened to me. I must be cursed!” Oh, but it’s quite the opposite. “I am actually blessed, because while all of these terrible things have happened to me, I remain unfazed. For I have not been defeated by the present, nor do I fear the future.”
(Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4.49)
Marcus was a bit of a mysterious fellow, don’t you think? He had a way of writing that leaves you both puzzled and enlightened at the same time.
Lunchtime: Preparation for Adversity
Today’s bit is about the Stoic practice of negative visualization. If you are going to remember only two Stoic principles, remember these:
- Virtue is the only good.
- Some things are in my power, and some things are not in my power.
All other Stoic concepts and exercises are in relation to those principles.
Great, so I accept those principles, but I still find myself worrying about things, such as my upcoming job interview. How can I get some practice so my cognitive beliefs match my actions?
The Stoics recommended negative visualization for just that purpose. What does this exercise entail? It involves premeditation, or imagining, or anticipating future problems, and it works like this:
- Pick a topic/event that is worrying you.
- Imagine a hindrance/crisis/catastrophe that thwarts such an event.
In a nutshell, pick something you have anxiety over and imagine everything about it going wrong. Imagine you really messed up the job interview. Imagine your boyfriend left you. Imagine you died tomorrow. It sounds like a real downer, but Stoics claimed that by repeatedly picturing potential crises, you could reduce anxiety about them.
The Stoic Week Handbook suggests that if you are unfamiliar to the negative visualization technique, that you start with something fairly easy. For example, imagine that your favorite shirt has a hole in it. Just picture the scenario patiently and wait for your emotions to subside. Remind yourself that Virtue is the only true Good, and people are upset by their judgements of events, not by the actual events themselves.
The Stoic Week Handbook recommends that we spend 20-30 minutes doing this each day. I admit, I don’t engage in negative visualization as often as I probably should. I’ll put this on my daily to do list.
Record your experiences (This is directly from the Stoic Week Handbook here):
- Situation – Which upsetting situation are you imagining?
- Emotions – How does it make you feel when you picture the situation as if it’s happening right now? How strong is the feeling, from 0-100%?
- Duration – How many minutes did you sit and patiently expose yourself to the event in your imagination?
- Consequence – How strong was the upsetting feeling at the end, from 0-100%? What else did you feel or experience by the end?
- Analysis – Has your perspective of this upsetting event changed? Is it really as terrible as you imagined? How could you cope if the event were to happen? What is under your control in this situation and what isn’t?
Engaging in negative visualization can prepare us to face any type of adversity, from the death of a friend, to poverty, illness, and even your own death. Although I don’t practice this regularly, I have used it occasionally. I did find it pretty effective when preparing for my job interview back in April.
Every single minute, you must give your full concentration to carrying out the task at hand with a meticulous and unaffected dignity, and with an affectionate concern for others and freedom and justice, and give yourself space from other concerns. You will give yourself this if you carry out each act as if it were the last of your life, freed from all randomness and passionate deviation from the rule of reason and from pretense and self-love and dissatisfaction with what has been allotted to you. You see how few things you need to master to be able to live a smoothly flowing life: [God] will ask no more from someone who maintains these principles.
(Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 2.5)
I wasn’t quite sure where Marcus was going with this until I got to that line:
if you carry out each act as if it were the last of your life.
Now I get it. Be diligent and do everything to the best of your ability. Imagine that this is the last thing that you are ever granted enough life to do. Don’t just go bouncing around like life will go on and on, because 1) it won’t, and 2) your character will be affected by this ignorant way of living.
This actually seems to go in hand with Seneca’s quote from Monday:
Let us go to sleep with joy and gladness; let us say, “I have lived! The course which Fortune set for me is finished.” And if God is pleased to add another day, we should welcome it with glad hearts. That person is happiest and secure in his own possession of himself, who can anticipate tomorrow without apprehension. When a man has said: “I have lived!”, why, every single morning that he arises, he receives a bonus.
(Seneca, Letters from a Stoic “On Old Age”)
So go on ahead, complete your tasks diligently and honorably, tie up the loose ends of today. Complete your tasks to a level of satisfaction, so when you prepare to sleep tonight, you are able to say “I have lived! The course which Fortune set for me is finished.” And if we awake in the morning with the opportunity to live yet again, what a bonus.