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The Stoic Challenge: A Philosopher's Guide to Becoming Tougher, Calmer, and More Resilient

por William B Irvine

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Some people bounce back in response to setbacks; others break. Irvine combines key lessons from the ancient Stoics with modern psychological techniques to develop a surprisingly simple strategy for dealing with life's unpleasant surprises. By using the updated Stoic strategy, we can transform life's setbacks into opportunities for becoming calmer, tougher, and more resilient.… (mais)
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A very easy read. I found it very practical and did take more notes than I expected to. There are some good prescriptions in the book, esp. about framing a setback as "test from the Stoic gods", a useful fiction if I ever saw one. In terms of potential improvements, the book could have been condensed to a pamphlet or even a one-pager of the key points. Nevertheless, I would still recommend it to someone who wants a practical intro to the ideas and practice of stoicism. ( )
  tgraettinger | Jan 25, 2024 |
A short collection of stoic philosophy on how to lead a more calm and happy life. I am a little disappointed in not getting more practical information on how to follow the stoic life, nor into the philosophical discussions of why it is important for our happiness. In retrospect it seems to be a watered down version of earlier thoughts from the author to milk some money out of a different book.
1. Avoid painful setbacks if possible.
2. Frame the setback so as not to get angry. Make it a test from God or the stoic gods.
3. Use anchors to reduce the negative emotions/thoughts. This could be worse.
4. Look for stoic adventures when you are handed adversity. Where will this lead me? Make it a game.
5. Embrace failure so as to learn not to make the same mistakes.
6. Train with minor obstacles to help you prepare for down times. Experiencing too much comfort can reduce your ability to enjoy those days of comfort and joy.
7. Use negative visualization techniques to help anchor our thoughts and enjoy what we have now. Meditate on death. Meditate this might be the last time I do this. Use prospective retrospection to know that you could be living the good life right now that your future self will want to return to.
8. Are there things unsaid or undone in your life right now? How can you tie things up to end at any moment. Seize the moment thinking. ( )
  wvlibrarydude | Jan 14, 2024 |
I have read Meditations by Marcus Aurelius which is the bible for stoicism. Stoicism is a very practical philosophy on how one should conduct themselves in times of troubles, disappointments, failures and turmoil. Stoicism an easy philosophy to accept and rationalize but a hard one to actualize given how many of us react strongly to adverse circumstances. For someone like myself who possesses limited patience and tolerance, I find myself given to anger and temper when things don’t go my way.

Nonetheless this book is an excellent contemporary companion to Meditations. I like the idea of viewing life as a set of challenges and tests and the importance of how we view them internally.

The chapter on Death offers a unique philosophical perspective on how we should consider our last days. For me the advice may be easy to say, but hard to do.

I enjoyed the book. Stoicism is not the most scintillating subject for a reader but I gained some wise persepctive from this book. ( )
  writemoves | Oct 26, 2021 |
Well calibrated balance of ancient sources and modern pop psych. Not too academic but definitely skews obvious. ( )
  albertgoldfain | Dec 21, 2020 |
My choice of the best book of philosophy for 2020 - a slim volume which applies Stoic wisdom to contemporary life. Take the test of the Stoic Gods next time your life hits an obstacle. This book is much cheaper than a few visits to a therapist and has the potential to help you even more.
1 vote Tom.Wilson | Sep 11, 2020 |
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When you are angry that someone has set you back, it is helpful to recall that although other people are responsible for many of the setbacks you experience, you are likewise responsible for many of theirs. Yes, you find them annoying, but maybe, just maybe, they find you annoying as well. In particular, they may be annoyed by how easily annoyed you are. This fact is easy to forget, given that you are more acutely aware of the problems others cause you than you are of the problems you cause them. One sign of maturity is a realization of the extent to which you, either intentionally or unintentionally, make life difficult for those around you. Consequently, you should keep in mind the words of Seneca: “we are bad men living among bad men; and only one thing can calm us—we must agree to go easy on one another.”

Another thing to keep in mind about the setbacks you experience is that if you drew up a list of the people who have caused you setbacks, you would have to put yourself on that list, probably at the top. Many of the setbacks you experience are the result of poor planning on your part. You ran out of gas because you failed to check your car’s fuel gauge before setting out on a trip. Or maybe you overslept on the last day of your vacation and missed your flight home because you failed to set your alarm. In other cases, you might be set back because of poor choices you made. You might, for example, develop a case of shingles because you refused to get vaccinated.
If you are reading these words, you are doubtless a thoughtful individual who spends time and energy thinking ahead in order to prevent foreseeable setbacks. But have you also spent time and energy developing a strategy for minimizing the emotional harm done to you by unforeseeable setbacks? You should have, since when you add up the costs imposed on you by being set back, you will often find that the biggest cost by far is the emotional distress a setback triggers.
WHEN WE BECOME ANGRY, we have two options: we can either express our anger or suppress it. If suppressed, our anger might take root in us and enter a kind of dormant state, only to spring back to life at an inopportune moment: a year after experiencing a setback that angered us, our anger might flare into our consciousness again. Furthermore, these anger flashbacks can continue for decades. As people age, they forget a lot, but they cling to old wrongs that were done them. A ninety-year-old woman, who doesn’t know what day of the week or even what year it is, might nevertheless be able to recount, in a fair amount of detail and with renewed ire, an incident that upset her half a century before.

Suppose that instead of suppressing our anger, we express it. Do so in a manner that breaks the law, and we might end up in prison. And while expressing anger in a socially acceptable manner may or may not hurt the person at whom we are angry, it is certain to have a negative impact on ourselves.

There are angry people who, when you try to calm them down, respond by saying that they have every right to be angry. If you point out that their anger is making them miserable, they might respond by saying, with some indignation, that they have every right to be miserable. If you then question the value of such a right, they might back off a bit and say that what they mean is that it is perfectly understandable that they would be miserable, given what they have been through. Yes, it is understandable, but it is nevertheless unfortunate. And wouldn't it be tragic if they went through life needlessly miserable as the result of routinely experiencing anger that they could have avoided?

The Stoic philosopher Seneca understood how much harm we do by allowing ourselves to get angry. In his essay “On Anger,” he asserts, “No plague has cost the human race more.” Because of anger, people insult and sue each other, they divorce each other, and they hit and even kill each other. Because of anger, the nations those people live in go to war, and as a result, millions might die at the hands of people they have never even met. Cities might be reduced to rubble, and civilizations might fall.
Imagine the life of a person—let’s call him John—whose childhood has few setbacks, thanks in large part to the efforts of the adults in his life. Although this sheltered childhood will be pleasant, it deprives John of the chance to develop his setback-response skills, a downside that might not become apparent until he leaves home.

When the adult John is set back, he might not rebound; he might instead experience a potent mix of hostility and despair. Likewise, instead of regarding the failures he experiences as stepping stones on the road to eventual success, he might regard them simply as traumatic events. John might also be quick to take offense at the things other people say and do, even though they are going out of their way to avoid offending him. His acquaintances might, for these reasons, characterize him (privately) as emotionally brittle. And one more comment is in order: even though John may be a passionate advocate of social justice, it is difficult to imagine him going on to become, say, the next Martin Luther King. Playing such a role would require self-confidence and inner strength, traits that John seems to lack.

One can only imagine how John’s great-grandparents, if still alive, would react to his behavior. During World War II, they likely would have experienced many setbacks and might even have had to fight in the war. They nevertheless emerged from the ordeal as functional human beings who, if anything, were stronger and more appreciative of life than they formerly had been. And yet their great-grandson, despite living in peaceful and prosperous times, seems both unhappy and emotionally vulnerable.

Some readers might have had a childhood like John’s and, as a result, might now lack resilience. If you are one of them, realize that my goal in comparing you to your great-grandparents is not to make you feel bad but to offer encouragement. If resilience were an innate trait, the way eye color is, you would likely have inherited it from your great-grandparents. The fact that you didn’t is therefore evidence that resilience is not an innate trait; it is instead an acquired ability—like the ability to ride a bike or to speak a foreign language. This in turn means that you have it in your power to become more resilient. It will require effort on your part to do so, but the resilience you gain can result in a dramatic improvement in the quality of whatever life you find yourself living.
The storytelling frame: When you have been set back, think in terms of the setback story you might tell in the future. It may be a story about how frustrated you were, how mean and stupid people are, and how unfair the world is. It can, in other words, be a truly boring story, the essence of which people have likely heard hundreds of times before. With a little effort on your part, though, you can “write,” with your behavior, a story that is not just interesting but potentially uplifting to those who hear it.

Thinking in terms of future storytelling can take much of the sting out of the setbacks you experience. This is because your attention will be focused not on how you are being wronged but on what you must do to bring the story to a satisfying conclusion. And if events take a strange turn in the aftermath of a setback, you may, rather than getting even more upset, feel grateful. It puts, after all, an interesting wrinkle into your setback story.

At this point, a clarification is in order. Using the storytelling frame does not mean that after muddling angrily through a setback, you make up a story about how wonderfully you handled it. The story you tell must be true. So for you to come off as resilient and competent in your story, you must actually be resilient and competent in your handling of the setback.

Realize, too, that if a Roman Stoic like Epictetus employed the storytelling frame, he might not subsequently share the story he had “written” with other people. His primary goal in employing this frame, after all, would have been to avoid experiencing negative emotions in the aftermath of a setback, something he already would have accomplished by the time storytelling opportunities arose. Furthermore, if he did subsequently share the story, it would likely be for one of two reasons. The first would be to make people aware of a workaround for a setback they had experienced or might experience. The second would be to show a pessimistic person that experiencing a setback needn’t trigger negative emotions; indeed, it can even trigger positive emotions. How about that!

Something Epictetus would not have done is share his setback stories with others in an attempt to impress them with his resilience and ingenuity. He knew full well that the values by which he and the other Roman Stoics lived were uncommon. Whereas most people valued fame and fortune a Stoic’s primary goal in life was to attain and then maintain tranquility—to avoid, that is, experiencing negative emotions while continuing to enjoy positive emotions. He also knew that when people judge others, they do so in accordance with their own values, not in accordance with the values of the people they are judging. He therefore concluded that a sensible Stoic will ignore the praise of non-Stoics, so it would be pointless for him to go out of his way to gain that praise by sharing his setback stories.

Epictetus even went so far as to suggest that we should take non-Stoics’ praise as a kind of reverse indicator of our progress as Stoics: “If people think you amount to something,” he said, “distrust yourself.” He might likewise take other people’s criticism of him as evidence that, as a practicing Stoic, he was on the right track. This sounds perverse, I know, but look at the unhappy people around you. The surest way to win their praise is to adopt and live in accordance with their values. It will then be easy for them to praise you, because doing so, they are indirectly praising themselves. The snag, of course, is that by sharing their values you will likely end up sharing their misery.
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Some people bounce back in response to setbacks; others break. Irvine combines key lessons from the ancient Stoics with modern psychological techniques to develop a surprisingly simple strategy for dealing with life's unpleasant surprises. By using the updated Stoic strategy, we can transform life's setbacks into opportunities for becoming calmer, tougher, and more resilient.

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