Keep Calm and Get your Stoic on – Georgios Ardavanis (Ph.D.)

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Some people are naturally resilient and look at problems as challenges to overcome. Some people even see adversity as an opportunity to excel. This attitude is the essence of stoicism, but that does not mean we hide or deny our emotions, as the popular understanding of the word “stoic” might suggest. Instead, our feelings follow our recognition that there is simply no point in panicking over aspects of our situation that are out of our control and that it makes much more sense to focus on what we could control. So, we will take control of our emotions before they control us. I recognize that I have some skills and others I do not.

The US army has learned through several battles and POW cases that the thinking skills that lead to resilience can be taught. The US Army has developed the “Comprehensive Soldier Fitness,” which aims to teach 1.1 million US army soldiers those thinking skills that will upgrade their resilience and take control of their emotions by using the same philosophical ideas and techniques that Athenians, Spartans, Macedonians, and Romans used to cope with their grueling campaigns, at the dawn of western civilization. In other words, the US army is trying to raise a generation of resilient philosopher warriors.

So the question is whether it is all down to your thoughts.

Rhonda Cornum, a US flight surgeon, told a group of troops in 2010: “I approached every problem I encountered, whether it was failing an exam or a disease or getting showdown and shot up the same way: I would fix what I could fix and I wouldn’t complain about what I couldn’t.” Cornum doesn’t think of herself as a Stoic, but the technique she practices and teaches was best described by a Roman Stoic philosopher in the 2nd century called Epictetus. 

According to Epictetus, there is a list of things that are not in our control, such as our body, parents, co-workers, the weather, the economy, the past, the future, and the fact that we are going to die. However, Epictetus draws up another list of things in our control, such as our beliefs. And that’s pretty much it. This may seem like a minimal field of governance. And yet this tiny window is the basis for human freedom, autonomy, and sovereignty. According to Epictetus, we must learn to exercise our power over Zone 1 – our thoughts and beliefs. That is our sovereign domain. In Zone 1, we are the king if we choose to exercise our sovereignty. We always have a choice of what to think and believe. The Stoics insisted that no one can ever force us to accept something against our will. No one can brainwash us if we know how to resist them. Epictetus said, “The rubber of your free will does not exist.” However, we must accept that we don’t have sovereignty over Zone 2 – over external events. We only have limited control over what happens in the world. We must accept this. Otherwise, we will be angry, afraid, and miserable for most of our life.

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