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.