Author Topic: Frustration and Vitality  (Read 7299 times)

Offline shadowfoot

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Frustration and Vitality
« on: May 08, 2011, 06:17:35 PM »
Okay. I want to preface this by saying that I am posting this for two reasons. First, because it interests me. Second, and more importantly, because it applies very much to my life right now. I want advice, and you guys have a smarter handle on this sort of thing than anyone I know.

Lets just say that someone in my family is in a bad place and has been getting routinely frustrated and emotional about non-important things like, all the time. This person is above me on the social scale and that's not something I can change. Actually, they are probably the only person in the entire world who I can't get mad at. That means that when they get irrationally angry at me, I have no recourse. Normally when this sort of things happens I can just shrug it off, but with the current frequency its getting difficult to deal with.

Right now, I see two possible actions on my part. I can continue to put a stopper on my frustrations. I happen to be very, very good at diffusing my own anger (when you have as many older brothers as I do, you learn when not to fight). The problem with this method is that if I do it too much I start to lose my energy and vitality. Perhaps you have read out the hormones related to primate hierarchies? The jist is that if you think you are the alpha and dominate over others, your hormone levels will adjust accordingly and make you dominant. However, if you are the lowest on the totem pole, well, lets just say that those who don't have anyone below them to get their frustrations off with don't live a very fun life. The other option, as far as I see it, is venting. It is very helpful for me to go attack the punching bag for a while as a means of diffusing the frustration. This,however, does not seem like a very mature solution.

So, here is where you guys come in. What do you think of the situation? Do you see any other ways for me to deal with it? Is there some way to apply hormesis to diffuse anger without making my body feel like I have mentally lost a whole bunch of fights and am a complete weakling?

Thank you for any help.

-shadowfoot

Offline aelephant

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Re: Frustration and Vitality
« Reply #1 on: May 09, 2011, 06:28:09 AM »
Quote
This person is above me on the social scale and that's not something I can change. Actually, they are probably the only person in the entire world who I can't get mad at. That means that when they get irrationally angry at me, I have no recourse.

I don't understand this part. Can you elaborate?

Offline shadowfoot

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Re: Frustration and Vitality
« Reply #2 on: May 09, 2011, 05:27:51 PM »
Sorry, I was unclear.

If I have a friend and act a certain way, I can stop being their friend. If a sibling acts that way, I can call them out on it and work it out with them.

The person who I speak of I am completely uncomfortable calling out on their behavior. This is due to my respect for that person, and also the relationship I have with them that I do not want to endanger, that I can't bring myself to get into a fight with them.

I suppose it would help if I put this a situation you might encounter. Here is an example. Say you have a boss who nags on you all the time and you know if you get mad at them your job would be endangered. You however, cannot quit due to financial strain. So, you are stuck in a position where you are "below" them and cannot do anything to fix the situation. Unless your boss really gets our of line, but that's not the situation here.

My current situation will pass, as it has in the past. But I think that I will encounter similar situations in the future, for example the boss example I just discussed. I am wondering what you guys think about various coping mechanisms.

-shadowfoot

Offline aelephant

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Re: Frustration and Vitality
« Reply #3 on: May 11, 2011, 04:53:15 AM »
Maybe this will be controversial, but I believe it is my duty here to state the obvious:

"All adult relationships are voluntary"

That includes relationships with family members.

If I had an abusive friend or co-worker, I'd tell them my experience and try to understand theirs.

If they were ultimately unable or unwilling to stop abusing me, the best thing for me and for them would be to end the relationship. Many abusive people are like addicts -- when they are around someone willing to be their "victim" they can't help themselves. If you wanted to help an alcoholic, you'd take the liquor away. If you want to help an abusive person, one solution is to remove yourself from the situation.

Offline thomas_seay

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Re: Frustration and Vitality
« Reply #4 on: May 11, 2011, 09:02:25 AM »
I agree with Aelephant, but I understand this is easier said than done, especially in the job scenario you depict.  I mean, especially if you have a family depending on you, it can be difficult to confront your boss.  On the other hand, we still have labor laws (admittedly quickly being eroded) and so should not have to put up with bullying.

On the other hand, that is not the situation you presently find yourself in, so I would at least confront this person or talk to them.  I think standing up to them would help relieve some of the tension and, even if it didn't, you would not suffer from the hormonal changes you allude to (lowered testosterone level) that comes from lowering your head in front of an "alpha" male.

Of course, my advice should be taken with a grain of salt, since there is much I don't know about your situation.

Offline shadowfoot

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Re: Frustration and Vitality
« Reply #5 on: May 11, 2011, 11:21:02 AM »
Thank you for your responses. They are insightful and helpful.

I'm not looking for some magic solution and I don't expect you to say anything particularly life altering. I'm just casting my net out there for ideas.

I should also make it clear that the relationship is not abusive and generally very pleasant. And that's what makes it complicated. Because when they are frustrated about something in their life, they tend not to control their emotions very well. And those periods of uncontrolled emotion sometimes last for several days, and end up in the frustration on my end that I have talked about. After these periods, they are very open and will talk about why and how they acted. But then do it again. So I don't think communication is necessarily the answer. So I'm back to my original idea, that mechanisms for coping with my frustration may be the best, as those would not only help me, but they would probably help alleviate the situation, considering that anger begets anger.

Offline Todd Becker

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Re: Frustration and Vitality
« Reply #6 on: May 11, 2011, 11:57:55 AM »
Lets just say that someone in my family is in a bad place and has been getting routinely frustrated and emotional about non-important things like, all the time.... Right now, I see two possible actions on my part. I can continue to put a stopper on my frustrations. I happen to be very, very good at diffusing my own anger (when you have as many older brothers as I do, you learn when not to fight). The problem with this method is that if I do it too much I start to lose my energy and vitality...The other option, as far as I see it, is venting. It is very helpful for me to go attack the punching bag for a while as a means of diffusing the frustration. This, however, does not seem like a very mature solution.

...Is there some way to apply hormesis to diffuse anger without making my body feel like I have mentally lost a whole bunch of fights and am a complete weakling?

Shadow,

Actually, the situation you describe has a very effective solution in Stoicism, which I consider to be a near cousin of Hormetism.  As I described in my page on Stoicism, the Stoics considered the emotions and behavior of others as falling into the sphere of externals, or that over which we have little or no control.  The Stoics pointed out that if we react emotionally to others with frustration, anger, or other negative emotions, that is a choice we're making that we don't have to make. It makes no more sense than getting upset at a thunderstorm or other natural event.  What we should pay attention to are our internal values, emotions, intentions and decisions -- things which we can in fact control.  Not that this is easy, but to the extent that reactions are conditioned, we can unlearn those reactions and learn new ones.

If you look at the emotional outbursts of others as "storms" then you can just weather and wait them out until they pass by.  I found this approach helpful in dealing with the tantrums of small children and the mouthing off or outbursts of teenagers.  It's easy to get drawn in and react, until you realize that these "storms" usually pass and things quiet down again if you just wait a little while.

If you have a chance to pick up William Irvine's "A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy", I think you'll find a very clearly written, insightful book that addresses your situation and many others.  I found it to be very helpful in reframing the way I approach other people and my own personal challenges.  Hormesis comes in here quite clearly, because you find yourself actually looking forward to testing yourself in how you handle situations that could be considered emotional or taxing...but with practice and reflection become like water falling off a duck's back.  Repeated exposure to these challenges builds your ability to avoid reacting counterproductively.  It doesn't mean you don't care, in fact it actually makes you more effective at helping in productive ways because you can focus on what actually works.  Learning to recondition your emotional response is certainly more effective, I think, than either suppressing your unhelpful emotions or venting them.

I don't know if this addresses your situation or helps, but I throw it out there just in case.

Todd
« Last Edit: May 11, 2011, 05:41:18 PM by Todd Becker »

Offline shadowfoot

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Re: Frustration and Vitality
« Reply #7 on: May 11, 2011, 01:04:15 PM »
I just read your post on Stoicism and found it to be very helpful, actually. I like the analogy of a storm to be "weathered." There is something I have been exploring recently that relates to this: the feeling of power. I find that my ability to "weather" stress and shrug things like this off is highly dependent on my the state of my mind and my body. If I feel powerful and confident, I am not bothered by things. If I have been stressed out for a few days, stayed up too late, etc, that caused me to feel less than optimal then I will have a harder time dealing. The factors that are involved in that are things I am actively and continuously pursuing.

I wanted to add a Lao Tse quote about impressions, but I can't find it now. Maybe it's not Lao Tse, but one of the other Taoist writers. Anyway, I will paraphrase. There is a man and he finds his ax missing. When he looks at the neighbor's son, the boy looks like a thief to him. Later, the man finds that ax and the next time he sees the boy he looks good mannered. The boy did not change, but the man's impression of him did. I suppose we could apply a similar concept to the Stoicism ideas. If I feel weak and not in control, even in a small way, I am more likely to interpret an angry person as a personal attack and respond emotionally to it. I will desire to fight back, and when I do I will send the message to my body that I am weak, compounding the effect. However, if I feel strong and in control of my body and emotions, that control being something that, as I understand it, the techniques of Stoicism are designed to supply, I am more likely to view the anger of another person as interesting, or even funny. In this case, I am confident their their anger is not really directed at me, and if it was I know that I can defend myself. Thus, I can not fight the storm, but not have it beat me either. Interesting.

See! This is what this thread was supposed to do, supply me with food for thought. Every suggestion you guys make gives me ten more ideas to explore. Thank you.

Offline Heidi

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Re: Frustration and Vitality
« Reply #8 on: May 11, 2011, 06:03:10 PM »
Hi shadowfoot.  First I just want to say that I think you are amazing and inspirational.  Your posts are intelligent, articulate, and mature.  If you hadn’t mentioned your age in an earlier post, then I would have assumed you were much, much older.

Quote
I happen to be very, very good at diffusing my own anger (when you have as many older brothers as I do, you learn when not to fight). The problem with this method is that if I do it too much I start to lose my energy and vitality.

When you are fully successful at diffusing anger, then you gain energy and enhance vitality.  It sounds as if you have developed a coping strategy that is only partially successful and that you have feelings of powerlessness underneath the anger.  Typically, anger and frustration have layers of emotions underneath.  If you genuinely address the various layers, then it’s possible to have an entirely different emotional response to a difficult situation.  Often we have beliefs, expectations, or agendas that keep us locked into a particular feeling pattern.  It is possible to unravel our emotional patterns and conditioning.  It is challenging work so be patient with yourself and focus on incremental progress.  The process is one of looking openly and honestly at the situation and ourselves.  This then leads to some kind of insight and making a change within yourself that implements your insight in a tangible way.  That then leads to a new insight.

Even though you feel as though the other person is in the alpha position and you are below them, if you look underneath you might find that the opposite is true.  Even though outwardly the other person is in the position of power, inwardly you might have access to insight, wisdom, and skills that they are lacking. 

I think that compassion, empathy, and kindness are crucial elements for genuine emotional healing. Usually, it’s helpful to first extend those qualities towards yourself.  As you resolve the issue from within yourself, you tend to naturally feel and extend those qualities to the other person who is difficult to deal with. All people who are projecting their anger onto others are in a state of pain and suffering. 

It is helpful to have a feeling of spaciousness and a broad perspective concerning the situation.  Some kind of meditation and quieting the mind and thoughts can be helpful with this.  Also, knowing that the situation will change.

For me personally, it helps to have a spiritual understanding and approach.  In terms of contemporary spiritual teachers, I recommend Adyashanti.  He has some free audio downloads on his web site. http://www.adyashanti.org/cafedharma/index.php?file=library_audio

I have found that breathing is incredibly helpful in dealing with emotions.  I recommend a gentle connected breath, meaning that you connect the inhale with the exhale and do not pause or hold the breath.  Holding the breath is usually connected with emotional holding.

I also recommend moving your eyes either in a sideways figure eight pattern or a random scribbling pattern.  The eyes lock in patterns of emotion.  Changing your eye movements releases emotional conditioning.  I currently combine the eye movements with the gentle connected breathing, while allowing myself to feel the emotion.  With practice it releases challenging emotions and frees energy.

There are lots of other tools and techniques for working with emotions.  I would explore and experiment with different ones until you find what resonates for you. 

Good luck and may you come to peace with this situation.

Offline aelephant

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Re: Frustration and Vitality
« Reply #9 on: May 12, 2011, 04:16:08 AM »
Great post Heidi.

Even though you feel as though the other person is in the alpha position and you are below them, if you look underneath you might find that the opposite is true.  Even though outwardly the other person is in the position of power, inwardly you might have access to insight, wisdom, and skills that they are lacking.

This is spot on. I think a lot of young males in particular have been sold this very Hollywood version of what an "alpha" male is that entails trampling others underfoot, being disconnected from one's feelings and needs, and often seeking "happiness" through meaningless sexual conquests. This is a great recipe for getting respect from other easily manipulated young men, but not such a great recipe for success in life or achieving true happiness. I don't mean to imply that shadowfoot has this mentality, but since it was brought up I figured I'd share my thoughts.

Offline shadowfoot

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Re: Frustration and Vitality
« Reply #10 on: May 12, 2011, 04:42:17 AM »
Thank you Heidi. Your post was very helpful. I'm sorry if I do not respond to your points, but I feel that I need time to properly digest time. Thank you also for your kind comments. I could reveal many things about myself which would help to explain how I got to be the way I am, but I prefer to be a bit of an enigma. Maybe some day.

I would say that the "alpha" male that aelephant describes is not me. I see two versions, if you will, of the "alpha" personality. The first is the stereotyped male who wants to dominate and does so through strength and brutality with no real understanding of the emotions involved. The second is a more sophisticated alpha, an alpha of the twenty-first century. This alpha still dominates the situation, but he does so through poise, skill, leadership, kindness, etc. I strive to model myself more after the second ideal.

However, I would say that in my weaker moments, as I described earlier, I subconsciously lean more towards the former. If I feel weakened, attacked, or not in control (of the situation and, more importantly, my own emotions), I revert to a more primitive thought mode.

I think in many ways it is not just this specific situation that I posted here wanting answers about, but many similar situations in life. I think it boils down to this -- how to strong when you feel weak, because, as much as I might try to prevent it, there is no getting around the fact that I will feel weak sometimes. You guys have given me a lot of good food for thought so far. Thank you.

Offline thomas_seay

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Re: Frustration and Vitality
« Reply #11 on: May 12, 2011, 09:36:21 AM »
I think I have to part company, at least to some extent, with the stoics on this one.  The same beef I have with them, I have with certain types of behaviorism.  Basically both schools take into account only surface appearances.  Certainly the stoics would admit that there is an inner-world, however, their notion of it lacks the complexity of depth-psychology. I will clarify what I mean below.

Sure, there are certain circumstances over which we have no control and we need to do the best that we can in such circumstances.  However, just because we might need to "make do" does not mean that such circumstances will have no effect on us negatively.  For example, I don't have the study at hand, but I have read studies (maybe by Sapolsky) about how testosterone levels in males diminish when they lose or are "dissed" by another male in some way.  (I am assuming here that you agree lowered testosterone levels are not a good thing).
So, the question is, would this change if we attempted the stoic posture in such situations?  I mean, if we just reconciled ourselves-at least, seemingly- with the situation would there not be such a physiological change?  I don't know, but I doubt it. 

I read a book a few years ago that sheds light on this issue as well.  It was written by a Doctor Sarno M.D. and the title was "Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection.  Sarno is an orthopedic surgeon and professor of that discipline at New York University.  He became disenchanted with the diagnoses and treatment of most back treatments.  He noticed that when comparing the X-Rays of "bad" backs with "good" backs there was often no difference.  (You'll have to read the book for a detailed discussion of this, I am obviously simplifiying).  Mind you the cases involved seemed to have a physical cause...the person had been in an accident, had lifted something heavy, etc...but it turns out, according to Sarno, that this wasn't the real cause of the malaise.  He found out that in MOST cases back ailments have to do with some suppressed emotion, usually anger, that the person is unwilling to confront and deal with.  Sarno claims that when such emotions are dealt with the back ailment will be alleviated.  He has some statistics in his book on his success.  I can only report that at the time I read the book I was suffering from some back problems-bad ones-that were resolved when I followed his methods and did a self-inventory of my emotions. 

Now I can imagine the stoics applauding the self-reflection advised by Sarno, but I can also imagine them NOT allowing the anger to be and finding some outlet for it.  Yet, what happens to anger that does not get directed outwards?  It gets directed inwards.  It is worth noting that Marcus Aurelius is thought to have suffered from ulcers.  It's a matter of speculation, but I wonder if this might not have been a result of "holding it all in".   I hope my point is clear.  Having a philosophical position that holds that these emotions have a bad effect on you does not render such emotions harmless, no matter what you say or no matter what kind of happy face you put on.


Offline Todd Becker

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Re: Frustration and Vitality
« Reply #12 on: May 13, 2011, 08:17:18 AM »
I think in many ways it is not just this specific situation that I posted here wanting answers about, but many similar situations in life. I think it boils down to this -- how to strong when you feel weak, because, as much as I might try to prevent it, there is no getting around the fact that I will feel weak sometimes.

I think I have to part company, at least to some extent, with the stoics on this one.  The same beef I have with them, I have with certain types of behaviorism.  Basically both schools take into account only surface appearances.  Certainly the stoics would admit that there is an inner-world, however, their notion of it lacks the complexity of depth-psychology...Sure, there are certain circumstances over which we have no control and we need to do the best that we can in such circumstances.  However, just because we might need to "make do" does not mean that such circumstances will have no effect on us negatively.  For example...testosterone levels in males diminish when they lose or are "dissed" by another male in some way.  (I am assuming here that you agree lowered testosterone levels are not a good thing). So, the question is, would this change if we attempted the stoic posture in such situations?  I mean, if we just reconciled ourselves-at least, seemingly- with the situation would there not be such a physiological change?  I don't know, but I doubt it.... what happens to anger that does not get directed outwards?  It gets directed inwards.... Having a philosophical position that holds that these emotions have a bad effect on you does not render such emotions harmless, no matter what you say or no matter what kind of happy face you put on.

Shadowfoot and Thomas,

Great discussion here.  This is exactly the sort of reflective philosophical discussion I enjoy on this site!

You both raise excllent points.  While the issues you both raise are different, my response to both of you centers on a common theme: namely, that emotional strength is not a fixed entity, but rather something we can influence.  This comes from the perspective of treating the person or organism as highly adaptive -- not merely in body, but also in mind.

As you indicate, Shadowfoot, we are most vulnerable to frustration and an impaired response when we are feeling psychologically "weak". But just as we can strengthen our muscles, our immune systems, and the other aspects of our organism, we can likewise become more resilient psychologically.  I think that hormesis provides a good model for doing that. Certainly, my own experience -- and what I've learned from others -- is that taking on more emotionally challenging situations and handling them well builds the capacity to become more adept at how we respond. And yet it is possible to become overwhelmed emotionally, just as one can become overwhelmed physically. There is always a "breaking point".  Nevertheless, we can usually increase our capacity.  I think this can be done deliberately to some extent, using Stoic "spiritual excerises" such as voluntary discomfort and negative visualization. But you can go further and make a point of testing yourself, planning out how you'll respond to the next angry, inconsiderate, or condescending individual.  

Thomas, I agree that some versions of behaviorism appear to deal only with surface behavior. But the more sophisticated versions acknowledge emotions and an inner life. And I believe that just like overt behavior, emotions can be conditioned, at least to some extent. That is not to deny that we have many deep seated, innate ways of responding, and we have emotional needs. I would also agree with you that emotional repression is not a good idea. But I think there is a big difference between repressing or suppressing emotional responses and changing how we respond. Certainly, fears and anxieties can be largely overcome and mastered by progressive exposure, together with insight. I've seen this in friends, relatives and even myself. The same is true for anger. I stopped becoming angry at one individual once I better understood his situation and realized that my reaction wasn't helping anything. The anger vanished, and our relationship improved. And I'd really have to say that this did not involving repression or redirecting my anger inward. Analogously, you can re-condition how you respond to food and change your appetite without "repressing" your hunger.  The point that many people miss, however, is that changing behaviors, emotional responses, and appetite is a gradual process that takes time and lots of reinforcement. The bottom line, however, is that you really can "re-wire" your responses on the level of neural circuits and neurotransmitters.

I have no doubt that disrespect can lead to biochemical changes like reduced testosterone, as you point out. But this is also a conditioned response that can be changed. It requires the crucial perception that one is being harmed by the "disrespect". Gang members can be easily "dissed" by looks or gestures that would probably not seem disrespectful to you or me. I used to react to drivers who cut me off in traffic, honked, gave me the finger, etc. But honestly, this really doesn't bother me any more. I actually find it a bit humorous, and perhaps feel a bit of pity for people who are so reactive. I'll get to where I'm headed in the car, listen to nice music on the radio, and have a nice day.  I'm sure that if you are surrounded by non-stop hostile and ugly behavior, it can get to you at some point.  But the idea is not to become insulated and immune from the world.  On the contrary, I think we want to fully engage with both positive and negative emotions, but we want to become more resilient.  Again the physical metaphor is apt:  We strengthen our bodies so we become more resilient and can take on challenging, fun and adventurous physical activities. If we go mountain biking, rock climbing or play sports, we are always vulnerable to injury and mishap; but strength and agility training helps reduce their impact and make exercise more enjoyable overall.

I think it is useful to think about specific training exercises or techniques we can carry out to build our emotional resilience.  Doing this in a deliberate "hormetic" way, as opposed to just generally taking on life's challenges,  might be quite effective.  Training oneself in advance of real life challenges, and separately from them, is something that we do for our physical selves, but it seems to be uncommon to do it for our emotional selves.
« Last Edit: May 13, 2011, 05:11:35 PM by Todd Becker »

Offline thomas_seay

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Re: Frustration and Vitality
« Reply #13 on: May 16, 2011, 03:11:52 PM »
Quote
I have no doubt that disrespect can lead to biochemical changes like reduced testosterone, as you point out. But this is also a conditioned response that can be changed. It requires the crucial perception that one is being harmed by the "disrespect".

There are things over which we have little control, and it is good that we can accomodate ourselves to them through the techniques that the Stoics recommend, however, I have to say that I am skeptical of the above statement.  It might be true, but I would have to see evidence of it.  Surely there is a difference between "getting flipped off by an irate motorist" and a scenario in which we are daily being insulted.  Would an abused housewife-I will limit the example to emotional abuse-be able to use Stoic exercises to cope with her situation? Should she?

This leads to the next question:  when should one resort to such techniques and when should one choose more assertive action?  It's been over 20 years since I last read the Aldous Huxley's, "Brave New World", but it comes to mind in regards to this discussion.  Brief recapitulation.  The protagonist lives in a society where people are made "happy" by means of a drug called Soma.  However, every now and then, people will start to get uneasy, especially when they are in the vicinity of nature. Now substitute "your body" for the word "nature".  I know that the Stoics were not escapist, per se.  They didn't just ignore the contents of their mind or circumstance.  However, I wonder at what point the body/psyche will break or rebel against attempts to transform it to "fit in" to a given situation.

I see value in what the Stoics have to offer, and I don't mean to reduce their thought to some political ploy.  However, it's hard not to imagine that Stoicism could be of some use by those interested in maintaining the status quo.  After all, if you've got a problem with the system, it's your problem.  "Don't get upset about it.  Go change your mind about it.  Things could be worse".  Important to at least keep in mind that it developed in a society based on slavery.  As with Plato, another defender of the status quo, one mustn't reject the whole philosophy and reduce it to political expediency, but it might be important to bear in mind that even philosophy is not completely exempt of its authors' class interests.  Important to keep in mind that Marcus Aurelius was a staunch persecutors of a group that threatened the status quo of the Roman Empire: the Christians.

Offline Todd Becker

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Re: Frustration and Vitality
« Reply #14 on: May 16, 2011, 08:46:44 PM »
Surely there is a difference between "getting flipped off by an irate motorist" and a scenario in which we are daily being insulted.  Would an abused housewife-I will limit the example to emotional abuse-be able to use Stoic exercises to cope with her situation? Should she?

This leads to the next question:  when should one resort to such techniques and when should one choose more assertive action?... I know that the Stoics were not escapist, per se.  They didn't just ignore the contents of their mind or circumstance.  However, I wonder at what point the body/psyche will break or rebel against attempts to transform it to "fit in" to a given situation.

I see value in what the Stoics have to offer, and I don't mean to reduce their thought to some political ploy.  However, it's hard not to imagine that Stoicism could be of some use by those interested in maintaining the status quo.

Good comments, Thomas.

I do see how Stoicism can easily be misread as fatalism or accomodationism...just learning to take the bitter medicine with a happy face. Your critique reflects to some extent my own issue with William Irvine's gloss on Stoicism, which I wrote about on my blog. I think that Irvine incorrectly interprets the Stoics as advocating a type of "tranquilty" that translates to being content with one's lot in life, which means being less inclined to take assertive action to resist unjust or abusive treatment.  

But if you read the actual Stoics like Epictetus, or prominent followers of the Stoics like Stockdale, that's not what you find. If you saw Russell Crowe as the Stoic Maximus in the movie Gladiator, or the character Conrad in Tom Wolfe's Stoic-inspired "A Man in Full", that's not what you see.  You'll actually find strong individuals who forcefully resist their oppressors, and help the helpless --  and  do so with moral integrity and at risk to their own well being. Keep in mind that the Stoics lived in a harsh era, where there not much societal support for those who were slaves or oppressed.  In those times, Stoicism evolved as a form of resistance.  To quote Epictetus, the slave:

Quote
He, therefore, whom neither pleasure nor pain, nor fame nor riches, can get the better of, and who is able, whenever he thinks fit, to spit his whole body into his tormentor’s face and depart from life, whose slave can he ever be? To whom is he subject?

Stockdale credits a college course on Epictetus with empowering him to avoid cracking during years of being tortured in a POW prison during the Vietnam War.

I realize that you've brought up several facets of Marcus Aurelius's life that puts him in the oppressor camp, particularly in his treatment of the Christians. Other accounts indicate that as Roman emperors went, he was more fairminded and forward thinking and less self-aggrandizing than most of his predecessors and followers, and that he held the Roman Empire together through a period of great external and internal challenge. So perhaps he is more of a mixed bag than other Stoics like Epictetus .  

Of course, in our age where we are more empowered to act, and have a better chance of success at righting wrongs, we can be more confident in taking action. We should take action wherever we can to effect positive change.  Where I part with classic Stoicism is that I think actual outcomes in the external world matter - we should not merely be satisfied with making a good effort or acting justly.

But where I do agree with Stoicism is that we can become more effective in resisting unjust and abusive actions by learning to focus on positive actions to resist or change an unfair situation.  Sometimes powerful emotions like fear, anxiety and anger can prod us to action, but I think that more often they can paralyze us, distract us,  or interfere with our ability to take effective action.  

Regardless of how you interpret Stoicism, the key point I've tried to make is that to the extent that emotions overpower us and make us less able to respond effectively, we should consider strengthening ourselves to make those emotions less debilitating or distracting.  This is not something we can generally "chose" to do in the moment.  But there are things we can do to become more resilient.  Reslient doesn't mean complacent or accommodating. It means tougher -- and that toughness can be used to resist or to bring about positive change.  Toughness doesn't mean banishing emotion, but it does mean gaining a degree of control or mastery over one's emotions.

Thanks for your comments, Thomas.  I enjoy the insight and passion you bring to these discussions -- so I look forward to meeting you this week at the talk in Palo Alto!

Todd

« Last Edit: May 16, 2011, 09:39:18 PM by Todd Becker »