The Joy of Stoicism: Perception

We will all be attacked.

Physically, we have martial arts to defend ourselves. But emotionally? What do we have? How do you recover when a loved one dies? When your significant other is not the person you thought they were, how do you move on? When a failed exam or a lost job opportunity rips your career aspirations away, how do you continue? With Stoicism.

Stoicism is a system for managing your mind, a philosophy that teaches you how to regulate your emotional thermostat so you may restore yourself when sullen or strengthen yourself when frightened. As martial arts defends the body, Stoicism defends the mind. It is a practical philosophy that lives not in debate halls, but in deeds and daily life. Rather than being pondered in class rooms, it is practiced in crucibles. It is for the soldier, not the scholar.

Since its founding over 2,000 years ago, it’s been used by everyone from Roman emperors to Greek slaves, from Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to NFL coaches, from Medal of Honor recipients to the Founding Fathers of the United States. During the American War for Independence at the freezing winter of Valley Forge, a winter so cold even the horses died, George Washington put on “Cato, a Tragedy,” a play about the Roman Stoic Cato the Younger, to strengthen the resolve and morale of his troops. When the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius was betrayed by his own general, Aurelius journaled and reflected on Stoicism, finding stillness and quiet in wartime. When James Stockdale was tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, when his shoulders were ripped from their sockets, when his legs were shattered, and even when his back was broken, he found solace in Stoicism.

Stoicism strengthens the mind for the heavy lifting required of living, whether it’s for the break ups with partners we thought were incomparable or for the death of loved ones we know are irreplaceable. Death will be death, and break-ups will be break-ups, just as an 150-pound dumbbell will always be an 150-pound dumbbell. But with Stoicism, though our lives will not be made easier, we will be made stronger. Like the weight lifter evolves and the load of a dumbbell lightens, so will Stoicism strengthen us and lighten the encumbrance that comes with living.

And strengthening begins with perception.


“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

An event is what happens, and perception is what you think it is. In other words, an event is fact, but perception is merely opinion. James Stockdale was shot down from his plane and ejected into 8 years of captivity and torture. That is the event. And the perception? Considering the Vietnamese’s favorite method of torture was hanging prisoners from meat-hooks, imprisonment was the nadir. But Stockdale had a different opinion. As he parachuted down into Vietnam from his destroyed plane, he whispered to himself, “I’m leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus, [a Greek slave turned Stoic philosopher.]” And his thoughts after his release? “I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”

As eyes scan the world and project the images to your mind, perception scans what is in your mind and projects it as your world. Stockdale saw imprisonment and torture as a chance for growth and converted it into a life-defining experience, illustrating that people receive what they perceive. When we perceive an event as harmful, we will be harmed. When we perceive an event as frightening, we will be frightened. But when we perceive an event as harmless, we will be unharmed. When we perceive an event as helpful, as Stockdale did, we will be helped. It is our opinion of an event that upsets us, not the event itself. Just as it is possible for other tortured prisoners to beg for death, it is possible for a man like Stockdale, through the leveraging of perception, to fight for life. By managing our perceptions, we claim jurisdiction over our emotions. But how do we kick off this alchemical reaction? By focusing our vision on finding the good in the bad. And there is no place with more bad than the Holocaust.

Viktor Frankl’s manuscript was his life’s work, and he had to throw it away. Auschwitz, the infamous extermination camp, had no sympathy. After all, Frankl was stripped of every other physical possession on the day he arrived. Much was taken from him even before he arrived (Nazis forced his wife, Tilly, to abort their child. His father died of exhaustion in the Theresienstadt Ghetto), and much more would be taken from him after.

Frankl was set to endure slave labor. To get to their work sites, Frankl and other detainees were forced to run in freezing winter with the stinging wind in their face and Nazi guards at their back. Many detainees’ feet were so swollen that they no longer needed to tie their shoes. They ran in the dark, they ran without socks, they ran through puddles, they ran with frostbite, and they ran while being beaten with the butts of Nazi rifles. And when they arrived at their work site, there were more beatings. If an SS guard disliked the symmetry of their lines, they were beaten.

Like his forsaken manuscript, Frankl’s past life was lost. But even through the torment of Auschwitz, he continued his life’s work. He was writing a new manuscript on stolen paper and dreaming of a new life as he wrote. He dreamed of lecturing about his experiences at Auschwitz, finding teachings in his trauma. And it was this thought that held him strong—this and the thought of 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.”

In 1945, Frankl was liberated from the torment of concentration camps. At last, he could write to his family. But before Frankl could put pen to paper, he learned that his mother and brother had both died in Auschwitz, that his best friend was decapitated, and that his wife, who was planning an escape to Italy, died of typhus. Though he was liberated from the physical torture of the Holocaust, the emotional torment festered.

“So now I’m all alone. Whoever has not shared a similar fate cannot understand me. I am terribly tired, terribly sad, terribly lonely. I have nothing more to hope for and nothing more to fear. I have no pleasure in life, only duties, and I love out of conscience. . . . And so I have re-established myself, and now I’m re-dictating my manuscript, both for publication and for my own rehabilitation. A couple of well-placed old friends have taken on my cause in the most touching way. But no success can make me happy, everything is weightless, void, vain in my eyes, I feel distant from everything. It all says nothing to me, means nothing. . . . In the camp, we believed that we had reached the lowest point—and then, when we returned, we saw that nothing has survived, that which had kept us standing has been destroyed . . . “

Frankl was crushed, but he did not crumble. Even if his old life was lost, he could still build on his dream of lecturing about the experiences and psychological lessons of Auschwitz. He could, as he put it, “turn a personal tragedy into a human triumph.” He spent a year battling despair, but as he battled, he wrote, cultivating his new life with the seeds of his past. And in 1946, a year after the war ended, Frankl published the book Man’s Search for Meaning—also known as Saying Yes to Life in Spite of Everything: A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp. Frankl used the rubble of his former life to build a cathedral. Man’s Search for Meaning, since it’s publication in 1946, has sold more than 12 million copies in 44 languages and stands as one of the most influential books in psychotherapy and the world.

Frankl began his physical imprisonment by throwing away his life’s work, and in 1946 he ended his emotional imprisonment by publishing his masterpiece, revealing the undeniable truth that “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.”

Stockdale used perception to thrive in Vietnam, and Frankl used perception to survive the Holocaust. As bodybuilders use soreness to strengthen their muscles, Stockdale and Frankl used suffering to strengthen their minds. Perception is the mental alchemy that turns life-ending events to life-defining experiences, irreparable losses to irreplaceable lessons. So whatever troubles you face, whatever emotional attacks, whether you lose a job or lose a friend, tell yourself, “what is any of this but training—training for your logos [reason] . . . 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.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 10.31


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