Why It’s Time to Retire Stoicism
Emotions and negative reactions to things that cause distress are actually normal and healthy
Recently, I was walking my dog, Daisy (breed: VERY GOOD GIRL) in my quiet neck of the woods when an unleashed dog appeared out of nowhere and attacked Daisy for what felt like 5 hours. Was I screaming at the top of my lungs? Yes. Very much yes. My Very Good Girl didn’t fight back; I later sent a report to animal control.
Random, unprovoked assaults go straight to the core of the stress response, releasing all of the fury; sometimes, it just takes a front door to swing open to stir up that hell. (If this sounds dramatic, just imagine watching your child get beaten up by another kid with fangs and possibly rabies.)
What was once a source of much pleasantness — dog walks! — immediately became stressful marches spent anxiously scanning the periphery. For two days, my memory and attention were testy and shattered; my shoulders randomly tensed up. I cried. I did the emotion regulation stuff. I did the self-care stuff.
From my research on resilience, I knew that taking care of myself was healthy and necessary—but, partly because my internet algorithm bubble includes a lot of Stoicism and talk about productivity/hustle culture—I felt guilty as hell.
What Happens and How We React
One of the main tenets in recovery circles and 12-step programs is the importance of focusing on our reactions rather than what happened. I was blown away by the similarity between those lessons and tenets of Stoicism, like this quote from The Art of Living by Epictetus:
Things themselves don’t hurt or hinder us. Nor do other people. How we view these things is another matter. It is our attitudes and reactions that give us trouble.
It resembled an oft-quoted passage in 12-step literature:
Acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing or situation — some fact of my life — unacceptable to me. I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment.