Negative energy, (over)emotion and stoicism

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Though I did not realize it, I’ve unconsciously been practicing stoicism in my daily life for the past several years. Going forward, I’ll be practicing it intentionally. But what is stoicism? It’s a philosophy of personal ethics that was practiced by the Greeks and Romans, teaching that happiness is achieved when one lives in the moment, accepting things for how they are, and not being emotionally driven by things you can’t change. It also teaches to live in accordance with nature, rather than the overzealous passions and technological dependency that seems to drive our modern culture.

Let me put things more simply. Stoicism breaks down things that happen in life into two categories: that which depends on us, and that which does not. Things that depend on us might demand that we take action in order to change or fix them. However, most things in life do not depend on us, and these things should be accepted as they are, without triggering an emotional response. For example, we should not become annoyed or miserable if it rains and cancels some plans we had made, because we cannot control the weather.
Marcus Aurelius, bust from the Metropolitan
Museum of Art.

I believe the following quote is attributed to Marcus Aurelius*: “The stormy sea upsets my mind. Is it the stormy sea that upsets me? No, it is my judgment on it. It is not something that depends on me, therefore it is neither a good nor an evil. The stormy sea is only the stormy sea.” What Aurelius is telling us is that he has no control over the raging sea. It is entirely a product of nature, which shall do whatever it will, regardless of how some person feels about it. If he is upset about it, he must criticize himself, as essentially, the problem lies solely with him and his emotional response to this matter. Aurelius’s quote is good allegory for life, which brings me to my next point.

There are so many negative people in the world today. I mean this not as an insult, but rather, a critique of how people deal with issues in their own lives. Compare, for instance, these two people: Person #1 steps in a puddle, and is immediately upset. He or she complains about how they ruined their nice shoes and/or pants, and now considers his or her day to be thoroughly ruined. Person #2 steps in the same puddle, but simply shrugs and continues with his or her walk, pausing only to contemplate stepping in the puddle as a generally unpleasant experience, but not having any melodramatic emotional reaction beyond that. He or she enjoys the rest of the day. Person #1 is a negative person. Person #2 is a positive one.

The latter solution (that of Person #2) is rather a simple one, but you’d be surprised how many people will have the former reaction. It is increasingly common in today’s world for people to moan, groan, and complain, pulling in negative energy, which, if you believe in the law of attraction, makes them even more miserable in turn. And as you know, misery loves company.

I offered the example about the puddle because it’s based on a lesson that I myself learned one day. I was living in West Milford, New Jersey, a rural town with rather spotty bus service, and there was a pretty big rain storm going on. I was all the way up on the mountain at a friend’s house, and I missed the last bus going back “downtown.” So I had to walk back in the rain, on the side of a road with no sidewalks, where there was minor flooding. Water was soaking my sneakers and pants, and I really wasn’t having it. I was cursing, yelling, complaining, etc. My friend happened to be with me, and he told me that there was no point complaining; I couldn’t control how the buses ran, could I? And I certainly couldn’t control the weather. Better to make the most of the experience, rather than get emotional and grumble and be a negative person. And he was right.

As Epictetus** said, “What is to be done? To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens.” People today are often generally unhappy because they do not follow this principle. One can see how the road to madness is paved with a lack of acceptance. You can drive yourself crazy when you’re stuck in a less than desirable situation, and you keep asking yourself, “What if I had done this differently? What if this didn’t happen? Why did this have to happen?” Similarly, you can ask yourself questions that I feel many working class and middle class people ask, such as, “Why can’t I have/make more money?” or “Why don’t I have more friends?” or “Why don’t I have more free time?” Meanwhile, these people are not accepting their present situations, and thus, not taking notice of all the positive elements they do have in their lives. Thus, through lack of acceptance, comes lack of appreciation.
I love animals. They’re natural stoics. Take the white-tailed deer - the ones you see here in America. They don’t know or care that their natural food sources are being depleted, due to the presence of invasive plants, or that many of them are starving due to overpopulation, because their natural predators, the wolves, have been purged from U.S. forests over the course of a hundred years. They don’t stop living or being mastered by their instincts because one of their own dies or is killed by a hunter. They don’t change their behavior because they have less food for this winter than they did during the previous one. Often, what is instinctual and intuitive for the animal, is also correct for the human being.

The second big part of stoicism is to not be driven by your emotions. It is about making the choice to exercise logic and reason over the kind of needy, overemotional actions that drive children and immature people. While I don’t believe that people should fully rid themselves of their passions (as that would not be in line with my other belief, Satanism), I do believe that this should not be the driving force in one’s life.

Look at people today - almost everyone you see is acting emotionally and making choices based on those emotions. You see folks on Facebook, or even in work places, who are literally maddened over what is happening in the political world, getting red-faced and delving into heated debates with others, pounding their chests and emphasizing their emotional need to make their point or express a belief in some current issue. These people are, to use a more earthy term, getting their panties in a bunch over a political matter that is likely beyond their (individual) control, and which will not change, no matter how angry or frustrated they get, or how much they cry over it. Politics is just one example, but it’s the best one.

It's not psychologically healthy for people to act this way, and it’s no coincidence that the rate of mental illness and dependency on pharmaceuticals is increasing in America. It’s also no coincidence that intellectualism is vanishing in today’s society. People are letting themselves be driven by emotion, as well as a lack of acceptance. The minute that the slightest thing goes awry in their lives, they flip out. Stoicism is something few people today have the patience, the will, or the intellect to put into practice, but those who can and/or are willing, should. Stoicism is very conducive to moral and ethical behavior, virtuous and courageous approaches to everyday problems, and perhaps even more importantly, patience and appreciation. Those are two things our modern world needs more of, don’t you think?

* Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor. His writing, commonly called "Meditations," includes an excellent series of quotations on Stoicism, of which Aurelius was a practitioner.

** Epictetus was a Stoic philosopher and slave in Rome, whose teachings were passed down and published by his pupil.

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