[Feel free to submit a question for this column, addressing it at massimo at howtobeastoic dot org.]
E. writes: Before I discovered Stoicism, many years ago, I struggled with an addiction. At the time I tried to implement what I now understand to be the dichotomy of control: that I can’t control external events but that it was within my power to work and change my addictive behavior. Yet no amount of realization seemed to make the situation better. If anything it made it worse.
But once I entered a 12 step program they taught me that the first step was to realize my powerlessness over the addiction. That was transformative, and the program is what brought me relief and “sobriety” from the addiction. Of course, there is more to it, but admitting my powerlessness over the direct addiction, whilst simultaneously strengthening my resolve to work around the addiction, made the difference. Some actions I could control: working the steps, making amends, talking to my sponsor, reporting on progress, daily journaling, going to meetings, helping others, etc.
Now that I face other (less destructive, but emotionally turbulent all the same) addictions, and after losing my belief in a higher power and trying to act according to Stoic virtue, I find myself in a state of not progressing again. Mostly I just really hate myself for how badly I’m failing to live up to Stoic ideals and a virtuous life. Is there any room in the dichotomy of control for finding utility in recognizing that some people seem powerless to change their bad behaviors directly, but have power to alter their environment, thoughts, etc. such that eventually their behaviors change as a consequence? I can’t say unequivocally this is the case, but it almost seems, paradoxically, that for me attempting to exert control over the addictive behavior is counterproductive and makes it worse.
Stoicism is a philosophy of life, not a cure for addiction. The latter requires professional intervention, in forms that may vary from support groups like the one that helped you originally, to psychotherapy, to medication. Nevertheless, as you know, many 12-step organizations adopt the so-called Serenity Prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
The Prayer is, in fact, a modern Christian version of a sentiment found in different cultures (e.g., in the writings of 8th-century Indian Buddhist scholar Shantideva, as well as those of 11-century Jewish philosopher Solomon ibn Gabirol), but is also found in Stoic writings, especially Epictetus:
“Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.” (Enchiridion I.1)
The tricky part is that the standard interpretation of Epictetus assumes that he seems to be assuming that people having complete control of their inner workings, a notion that modern psychology most certainly does not support. But the Stoics, despite living in a pre-scientific era, where keen observers of the human psyche, and they realized very well that there are plenty of aspects of the human mind that we do not control. That’s why they famously distinguished between proto-passions and fully formed passions. Consider what Seneca says, for instance, about anger:
“A passion, therefore, consists not in being affected by the sights which are presented to us, but in giving way to our feelings and following up these chance promptings.” (On Anger, II.3)
We cannot help being affected by external events, or internal turmoil. It is human, and to even attempt to control those is a path toward misery and possibly destruction. What we can control is our cognitive attitude toward what is going on, the very same principle that informs modern Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, for instance. Interestingly, early CBT was based on the assumption that changing maladaptive thinking (the “cognitive” part) eventually leads to changes in behavior and affect (the “behavioral” part). Some more recent varieties of the approach maintain, more modestly, that the focus should be on one’s attitude toward the maladaptive thinking, rather than on the thinking itself, though I think both approaches are valid, depending on what, exactly, “the thinking” is about.
As is well known, the basic steps of CBT are:
I — Identify critical behaviors;
II — Determine whether critical behaviors are excesses or deficits;
III — Evaluate critical behaviors for frequency, duration, or intensity (obtain a baseline);
IV — If excess, attempt to decrease frequency, duration, or intensity of behaviors; if deficits, attempt to increase behaviors.
You can see even from this short summary that CBT is very practically oriented, it doesn’t provide, and is not meant to provide, a general philosophical framework for life. That is why I suggest engaging in both: therapy for the immediate problem, philosophy (what my colleague Lou Marinoff calls “therapy for the sane”) for a broader outlook.
You do not provide, in your letter, any details about which specific addictions you are battling, but if they are indeed addictions, then you need counsel and therapy, not just philosophy. That said, a philosophy, especially Stoicism, should be helpful in putting things into perspective, providing you with a compass for your entire life, not just this particular aspect of it.
Moreover, I keep stressing that Stoicism is inherently forgiving and, especially, self-forgiving:
“An ignorant person is inclined to blame others for his own misfortune. To blame oneself is proof of progress. But the wise man never has to blame another or himself.” (Enchiridion, V)
So long as you earnestly try to be a better person for yourself, your loved ones, and the rest of humanity, you are a prokopton, literally someone who makes progress. And progress isn’t linear either. Sometimes we slip back a bit, and that’s okay, it is human. Of course the danger is that we may rationalize our failures and actually give up a positive path to eudaimonia. That is why the Stoics suggested three fundamental types of exercise:
* Engage in self-reflection, for instance by way of keeping an evening diary;
* Summon the mental image of a role model (the “Sage on the shoulder” exercise) and ask yourself what he or she would do;
* Confront yourself with peers and like minded people, either directly, if possible (a local Stoic group, for instance) or indirectly (via our increasingly large Facebook community), to keep yourself from making up excuses and stop progressing.
You need to apply to yourself the very same attitude of non-judgment that Epictetus counsels us to apply to others:
“Someone bathes in haste; don’t say he bathes badly, but in haste. Someone drinks a lot of wine; don’t say he drinks badly, but a lot. Until you know their reasons, how do you know that their actions are vicious?” (Enchiridion XCV)
The advantage, when applying this attitude to ourselves, is that we actually have a decent understanding of what we are going through, as well as, more generally, of the limits imposed on human agency by addiction. Forgive, then, yourself and simply do your best to cope with the situation the universe has handed you.