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You Make Yourself Sad

I recently read a quote that gave me pause.  It came from the stoic text The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. One translation of the 167 AD text went:

If thou art pained by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs thee, but thy own judgement about it. And it is in thy power to wipe out this judgement now.

The more common way this quote is written — on inspirational posters and coffee mugs:

If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your own estimate of it, and this you have the power to remove at any moment.

In other words, if you’re upset, it’s not the event or situation or person causing you to be upset but the power you’re giving that event or situation or person.  You can just snap your fingers and say, “you know what?  I’m not going to be upset anymore.”

I call bullshit.

I always call bullshit when I encounter this attitude.  Does it work on small things: absolutely.  If I’m frustrated because the house is a mess or someone cut me off on the road or someone isn’t returning an email, it is in my power to decide not to let these things bother me.  I know this is true because sometimes they bother me and sometimes they don’t, depending upon my current mood.  If I just received great news, I’ll laugh at the fact that the house is mess and turn it into a funny Facebook status update.  If I’m in a terrible mood and everyone leaves their shoes by the front door… watch out.

The word that makes me call bullshit is “any”: “any external thing” or “anything external.”  Once we lump all pain together and say all emotional pain should be treated equally by our hearts and minds, I’m going to call bullshit.  To paraphrase John Green, some infinites are larger than others.  And in that vein, some pains cannot be contained or changed; they can only be endured.

This community knows you can’t just decide to feel otherwise; at least not on your own timetable.  Feelings change over time, but that is just it: it’s time that wears the rough edges smooth.  There are things that you can do to speed up the process, but you feel things when you’re ready to feel things, and those feelings may not come when you force them but mosey into your heart like a cowboy entering a saloon, casually eyeing the room for danger before deciding to sit down at the counter.

I guess I just showed my hand in how I feel about stoicism in general.

What do you think of the quote?


1 Beth { 10.18.17 at 8:45 am }

I agree with you. I think in the short term I can choose not to feel the pain but I am only putting it off. When we were deepest in the trenches of infertility, I decided to throw myself into Christmas as a way to make myself choose happiness. I played Christmas carols, made my own tree skirt, really went all out. And it worked. And then Christmas was over and the pain was there. Because stoicism only works on the big stuff short term.

2 Noemi { 10.18.17 at 9:34 am }

This idea reminds me of the idea of equanimity in Buddhism, which is basically the accepting of all situations with a calm and evenness of temper. It is achieved by inhabiting a place of true non-judgement, by approaching situations without expectation, for only the failure to meet expectation creates suffering. Supposedly if we can really and truly banish expectation we will never suffer again, because we will be accepting of any situation without judging it as good or bad. At that point we’ve reached enlightenment. (This is my crude explanation of my basic understanding of this premise.) on the one hand I understand it, from an analytical perspective. I mean, it makes sense. On the other hand, it seems impossible for human beings to achieve it, because our emotions (which are ultimately born of our judgements) are what make us human. I suppose that is why so few mere mortals ever achieve enlightenment… I guess it’s just something to aspire to, but not ever really expect to attain.

3 Working mom of 2 { 10.18.17 at 9:36 am }

Ha,years ago I read entire books based on this premise. I’m kind of ambivalent. It has some merit, but yeah.

4 Jjiraffe { 10.18.17 at 10:47 am }


Stoicism has been a life-changer for me in the past few years. And Cognitive Behavioral Therapy actually has its roots in this philosophy as well. Stoicism knows life IS pain, to paraphrase Princess Bride. It knows you can lose your house in a fire, not get what you want with all your heart, be insulted regularly and eventually you will die. It starts with this point in mind.

The philosophy teaches you how to deal with hardships, by reminding yourself bad stuff will happen, but you can do your best to control your reaction to the bad stuff, as much as is possible. That’s not to say you should never grieve, or feel sad. You are supposed to acknowledge you feel sad, honor the feeling then release it for the moment as best you can and move on by focusing on one thing at a time – whatever you need to accomplish that day.

It’s a uniquely un-American POV, because here we’re taught life will be perfect as long as we work hard and do the right thing. So we’re shocked when that doesn’t happen.

Stoicism is more realistic about life.

5 Cristy { 10.18.17 at 1:05 pm }

Been thinking about this post all morning. I can see your point and why this quote would anger you so much. But after from through EMDR and practicing Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, I’m more in Noemi and Jjiraffe’s camp.

There’s a quote from Charles R Swindoll that reminds me of this quote from Marcus Aurelius’s. “The remarkable thing is we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past…we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude…I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it.” Granted, there are some things that are going to be a lot harder to tackle with this approach (i.e. losing a video game vs. losing your home or your job), but being able to step back, assess the situation for what it is and doing so in a manner that allows you to move beyond is what I think these quotes are getting at. And it’s something I’ve been trying to practice every day (though I fail a lot of the time).

6 a { 10.18.17 at 6:40 pm }

I’m somewhere in the middle – if you keep encountering the irritant over and over again, eventually you may become immune to its irritating qualities. That’s not necessarily a decision you make. My husband likes to tell me outrageous stories to…I don’t even know his intent – give me anxiety so he can share the wealth? It’s always vaguely believable, but I don’t get excited about anything he says any more, because I know his tricks. (He likes to call and tell me he’s in jail for a road rage incident, or that our house taxes have doubled, or that our electric bill is three times what it should be.) So, I don’t know if it’s as much a choice in reaction as a conditioning to react less to bad news when you get a lot of it.

On the other hand, there are a lot of things out there that are objectively distressing – why should I decide not to be distressed about them? Why would I even try? Death is inevitable – does that mean we shouldn’t grieve?

On top of all that…we are who we are. Some people are naturally cheerful and optimistic. Some people are not.

Maybe I’m not in the middle – maybe I’m totally opposed to this “choose your attitude” philosophy.

7 Lori Lavender Luz { 10.18.17 at 9:56 pm }

Not knowing a ton about stoicism, I think it’s not a philosophy for me. It relies too much on reason and discounts too much emotion. Sometimes to get through something, you have to let those emotions flow (not forever, but for some time), not pack them away. IMHO.

8 torthuil { 10.19.17 at 11:15 am }

Yeah that’s a tough one. We might need different approaches at different times of life. What works for me (usually) is putting a perspective on things. I aim to be aware of what is lacking in my life. For many periods of my life, the truth is I was not completely happy because X was missing. Whether that was meaningful steady employment, relationship, child, or whatever. But I also was able to pay attention to what I had in the present that WAS good, and could function at least in the short term ad a replacement: temporary employment that might lead to more opportunities, solid friendships, time to myself, chance to travel and take on projects and risks,etc. If those things didn’t quite bring the happiness I wanted, they still had intrinsic value and opportunity that I could acknowledge if I chose. That was the choice. Faced with a major loss or crisis it is harder to maintain this equanimity: it’s much easier done with a calm life. Still, regular practice in non crisis times does help when facing crisis. The flip side is, I do NOT discount my feelings or instincts if they are telling me something is wrong or lacking. Or I try not to.

9 Stephanie (Travelcraft Journal) { 10.19.17 at 9:25 pm }

I totally agree! That only works for the small stuff.

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