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Stoic Week day 5: Emotions

Terribly late, because we took a night off to see some friends and have dinner together. More of an Epicurean evening than a Stoic one, but still, today’s topic is emotion, and we start with Epictetus, a former slave that became a philosopher.

It isn’t the things themselves that disturb people, but the judgements that they form about them. Death, for instance, is nothing terrible, or else it would have seemed so to Socrates too; no, it is in the judgement that death is terrible that the terror lies. Accordingly, whenever we are impeded, disturbed or distressed, we should never blame anyone else but only ourselves, that is, our judgements. It is an act of a poorly educated person to blame others when things are going badly for him; one who has taken the first step towards being properly educated blames himself, while one who is fully educated blames neither anyone else nor himself.

Epictetus, Handbook, 5

So, what should we do with our emotions?

Epictetus makes it clear that emotions are our reactions to external factors, the effects of a possibly unconscious judgement over a situation or a fact.
In a statement that sounds a lot like the Buddha stating that attachment leads to suffering, Epictetus basically tells us that bad emotions – such as fear or anger – are born from our tendency to attach too much meaning to external factors and those already mentioned “preferred indifferents”.

In the last two years, the fear born of not knowing if I’d have enough to buy food or pay the bills – a fear of losing the preferred indifferent of economic security that presented itself month in, month out – caused me a lot of distress, anxiety and pain. When the stress and pain became insufferable, I realized I had to take stock of the situation.

What if I was unable to pay for the next installment of the mortgage, or the electric bill, or whatever?
What was under my control, of the whole situation?
Work harder, yes, find new clients (let’s say 50/50 control), and pressure the already established clients to pay me (a state of affairs over which my control was very scarce).
And so?
Would such a juncture make me a bad person, or a person deserving of blame?
Would driving myself into a heart attack make any positive difference?

So I decided to concentrate on what I could do, and pushed the pedal on what Epictetus and the stoics call “passions” – positive emotions born of knowing you are doing your duty at your best.
Work harder, and enjoy the run. Enjoy the fact that you are making a good show, and you’re making it.

And indeed, God forgive me, it would be fun, this continuous dancing on the edge – always close to bankruptcy, always able (so far!) to cover all the bills in time. It would be fun, were it not that there’s other people depending on me.

So, in the end, I think that’s the way to do it – focus on what you can do, and do it.

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