“Who then is invincible? The one who cannot be upset by anything outside their reasoned choice.” – Epictetus, Discourses, 1.18.21
Our thoughts control our mind, and our mind controls our emotions. As what we eat determines our physical health, what we think determines our mental health.
But what is it to think well? We know how to eat well and to be healthy. Doctors and numerous books on nutrition and dieting tell us so. But how do you think yourself to better mental health? When you are sick, you take medicine. However, when you are discouraged by failure, what do you do? When you are torn by a breakup, how do you recover? When you miss a job offer, what then? The answers may be found in Stoicism.
Stoicism is medicine for the mind. This millennia-old philosophy is as relevant today as it was in the 3rd century B.C. when it was founded. It’s a philosophy used by people ranging from the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius to the Greek slave Epictetus, from the New England Patriots to the Founding Fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Washington put on Joseph Addison’s play “Cato, a Tragedy,” about the Roman Stoic Cato the Younger, in order to strengthen the resolve and morale of his troops during the hard winter of Valley Forge where starvation and disease took the lives of more than 2,500 troops. Marcus Aurelius reflected on the principles of Stoicism every night in order to improve himself as a servant to the people of Rome. From Marcus Aurelius to Epictetus, from the New England Patriots to George Washington, each used Stoicism as a way to regulate their emotional thermostat, readily able to balance themselves when sullen or to strengthen themselves when broken.
Though we are unlikely to find ourselves ruling an empire or to be fighting starvation and disease even in the coldest of winters, we will face the stress and anxiety of daily life. We will face pain, heartbreak, and fear. Stoicism can balance us. It begins with refining perception. The mind can be controlled, and emotions thus regulated, by aiming perception to find the good in the bad, to find conquest where others see catastrophe.
“I can control my thoughts as necessary; then how can I be troubled? What is outside my mind means nothing to it. Absorb that lesson and your feet stand firm.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 7.2
It is hard to dispute whether any period in human history brought more suffering than the Holocaust, and it is harder to dispute whether a human being can be put in a hell worse than Auschwitz. Upon entering the infamous death camp, detainees are examined by Nazi doctors and split into two groups: those fit to work and those unfit to work. All who are unfit, including the handicapped, the elderly, the pregnant, and the children, are immediately marched into gas chambers and killed. Those who pass the examinations, however, are still unlikely to survive. Detainees are forced into slave labor and often die from overwork, disease, malnutrition, torture, or random executions. Auschwitz was responsible for an estimated 1.1 million deaths, more than the United State and the United Kingdom’s World War II casualties combined.
Among the dead were the mother and brother of Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl. Frankl’s mother, Elsa, was thrown into a gas chamber immediately upon entering Auschwitz. Frankl’s brother, Walter, died not long after his mother. Frankl’s father, Gabriel, died of exhaustion at Therensienstadt, a concentration camp located in what is now the Czech Republic. Frankl himself was detained in Auschwitz and eventually ripped from his family and marched to the Dachau concentration camps. He and other detainees were forced to run in freezing winter with stinging winds in their face and Nazi guards at their back. But one thought kept him moving: his wife. “My mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise. . . . I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets . . . I understand how a man who has nothing left in this world may still know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved.” But being unable to send or receive mail in his imprisoned life, Frankl would only discover until after his liberation that typhus, onset at the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, had taken the life of his beloved Tilly. Stella, Frankl’s sister, was the only survivor of the Holocaust in Frankl’s immediate family. He endured hell on earth, but a year after World War II ended, Viktor Frankl published his book Man’s Search for Meaning—also known as Saying Yes to Life in Spite of Everything: A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way,” Frankl reflected. Despite being imprisoned in a concentration camp, Frankl chose his attitude and wrote the groundwork for Man’s Search for Meaning, which has since sold over 12 million copies in 44 different languages. Despite having lost his mother, his brother, his father, his wife, and even his unborn child, whom the Nazis forced Tilly to abort, Frankl never stopped writing the now irreplaceable guide to living the good life, the guide to fulfillment and happiness even and especially while under the heel of misery and death. If Frankl can come out of even the Holocaust, even Auschwitz with brighter hope and greater resolve, would it not then be possible for us to do the same with our small problems?
A core tenant and practice of Stoicism that the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius often reflected on was how to find lessons from losses, how to use obstacles as “opportunities” to practice virtue and as “raw material” to strengthen himself. “What is any of this but training—training for your logos [reason], in life observed accurately, scientifically. So keep at it, until it’s fully digested. As a strong stomach digests whatever it eats. As a blazing fire takes whatever you throw on it, and makes it light and flame.” This is the same method retired Navy SEAL officer and Bronze and Silver Star recipient Jocko Willink uses to deal with failure. Actually, Willink deals with failure by using one word: good.
In life or in war, Willink’s reply to distress was and is always the same: good. “Mission got canceled? Good. We can focus on another one.” “Didn’t get the new, high-speed gear we wanted? Good. We can keep it simple.” “Didn’t get promoted? Good. More time to get better.” “Didn’t get the job you wanted? Good. Go out, gain more experience, and build a resume.” “Got beat? Good. We learned.” “Unexpected problems? Good. We have the opportunity to figure out a solution.” The more time you spend crying over what you cannot control, the less time you will have over what you can control. As the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam poses so eloquently, “the Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, moves on: nor all your piety nor wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line, nor all your tears wash away a word of it.” It is vain and destructive to waste time and attention on what you cannot change. Certain circumstances will be out of your control, but what you always will have complete control over is your response. How do you choose to deal with failure? Do you let it beat you down? Or do you, as Ryan Holiday says, “steal good fortune from misfortune”? With the right perception, even nightmares can be flipped, “because,” as Marcus Aurelius wrote, “we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
Viktor Frankl suffered the horrors of the Holocaust and the death of a family, yet in this time he found and penned a method for finding fulfillment and happiness even when everything he knew and everyone he loved was out of reach. Even from death, Frankl found life. He proved that all circumstances, no matter how dark or despaired, are opportunities to grow, to become stronger, smarter, and better. It is in your hands to find tranquility within trouble. Your perception is your prison, a prison to which you have the key. As long as you’re able to find the good in the bad, as long as you’re able to control your perspective, you cannot be harmed. You will be invincible.
“Wherever I go it will be well with me, for it was well with me here, not on account of the place, but of my judgments which I shall carry away with me, for no one can deprive me of these; on the contrary, they alone are my property, and cannot be taken away, and to possess them suffices me wherever I am or whatever I do.” – Epictetus, Discourses, Chapter VII, on Freedom from Fear