As I’ve mentioned before, I have enrolled in the Stoic mindfulness and resilience training course offered by the good people at Modern Stoicism, and coordinated by Donald Robertson (the author of Stoicism and the Art of Happiness). I’m doing this in part for my own benefit, and in part as an exercise in philosophical journalism, in preparation for one of my forthcoming (fate permitting) books on Stoicism.
I figured, then, that I would write a series of posts, one for each of the four weeks of the course, focusing on the suggested “big question of the week,” to bring the discussion to people who have not enrolled in the course and to perhaps broaden the appeal of what Modern Stoicism is doing.
This week’s big question is: What would be the pros and cons of continually remembering, when starting to feel distressed about a situation or event, that it’s not things that upset us but our judgements about things?
This, of course, refers to one of the central Stoic doctrines: the difference between “impressions” and our judgment of such impressions. As Epictetus put it (in Discourses I, 13, 7): “There are impressions that you assent to, others that you reject; sometimes you suspend judgement altogether.”
For instance, I may suddenly experience irritation at something someone said to me (perhaps a slightly insulting comment). Irritation is not a positive emotion, so Stoics would recommend to keep your distance from the initial “impression” and decide whether you wish to give it “assent” or not. Why am I getting irritated? Is the person who insulted me someone I regard highly? If so, perhaps he meant to convey a constructive criticism, to which I’m reacting defensively rather than listening and learning. Or maybe this is a guy whose opinion I really shouldn’t value at all. In which case why allow him to bother me? He just doesn’t know better.
Since I began practicing Stoicism I have tried to apply the discipline of assent, as it is called, with varying degrees of success (hey, I’m learning…). The major con I can think of occurs when you try to communicate it to others, with the genuine intention to help. Sometimes it has happened that people close to me got upset about things that really should not have upset them — like a slight received from a boss, or an unnecessarily harsh word from a friend. Even though the people in question know I’m practicing Stoicism, and had been exposed to the idea of assent to impressions, they were visibly irritated when I reminded them of it in the midst of their reaction. What I got was something along the lines of “don’t tell someone who is nervous to calm down. It doesn’t help.” But I do think the discipline of assent is very helpful, and I do want to help people close to me when they are in emotional trouble. So I have switched to a softer tactic, a combination of talking about the doctrine when they are not in the midst of an emotional situation, and gently nudging them away from the issue when they are in the midst of it, using paraphrases that don’t make it sound like I’m reading straight from Epictetus. I think it works, at the least some of the time.
The major pro, of course, is exactly what the Stoics said it would be. At the least for me, it really helps to train to distance myself from my immediate emotional reaction to a situation; to try to gain some time to calm down and achieve a level of detachment, if needed; and then to analyze the emotion rationally and decide what it is telling me and what the best course of action is.
I hasten to say, of course, that this is not at all a question of becoming “unemotional.” I’m practicing Stoicism, not “Spockism.” That is, the idea is just as much to control negative emotions as to nurture positive ones, like joy toward life, love toward others, a sense of justice, and so forth. So detachment here doesn’t mean not giving a crap about events or people, it just means an attitude of avoiding to succumb to instinctual, and perhaps misguided, first impressions, taking one’s time to decide what to care for and what to do about it. Think of it as a Stoic recommendation to switch whenever possible from what Daniel Kahneman famously labeled “thinking fast” to his “thinking slowly”: from quick reaction to deliberative reflection.