There’s something to be said for a Stoic response to difficult or uncomfortable situations.
To be more specific, it’s nice to be able to step back and assess things from a mental distance. To recognize and acknowledge what’s happening, but to address it from a place of calm, rather than a state emotional fragility. To recognize that you cannot control what’s happening to you, but you can control how you respond to it.
There are some obvious use-cases for such a capability. When you’re strapping in for an eight-hour flight with a crying baby seated in front of you and a chatty man who neglects to cover his mouth every time he noisily sneezes seated next to you, the Stoic perspective is valuable. Does the situation in which you find yourself suck? By all indications, yes, it sucks. But does that mean you have to suffer? No, it does not. You can choose to enjoy yourself or not enjoy yourself, so you might as well choose the former.
This is the idealized case, of course. In the moment, it’s seldom as easy to fall into that state of mental calm and acceptance as it is in theory.
All the same, with practice it becomes more doable more of the time. And after a while it becomes a sort of default. A calm mental space that provides a buffer between you and the dangers and difficulties of the world. Not a muffling blanket or numbing chill, but a quarter-second pause to think before responding, and a recognition of one’s own power to interpret and react however one sees fit.
That said, there is a potential downside to this approach to dealing with the often unpleasant variables with which we come into contact throughout the day.
It’s possible to rationally assess a situation, only to realize afterward that perhaps emotional immersion would have been the better approach in that particular circumstance.
You can look at a beautiful sunset and recognize that it’s beautiful, that the colors are amazing, that the weather is perfect, and that you care deeply about the person standing next to you as you both look out, together, at this wonder of nature. That’s a very valid and valuable flavor of enjoyment.
But because of that mental airgap between you and the moment, it’s not exactly the same thing as plunging headfirst into an emotional response to what’s happening. You can enjoy a sunset Stoically, but it may be more prudent, in terms of full exposure to everything that’s available to you in the moment, to dive deep as you dare into what you’re feeling, rather than calmly and safely floating along the surface.
The term ‘unflappable’ usually refers to someone who responds to a moment of crisis with a deep calm.
The self-control that makes up one facet of Stoicism can result in an unflappability that is, in most cases, quite desirable. But there is still value in periodic, tactical flappability, as long as you can find the right balance and unleash it at the proper moment.
There are times in which unguardedly, unreservedly viewing that sunset with that person about whom you care deeply will be more valuable, more memorable, than processing it rationally. Where experiencing the full range of emotions, both positive and negative, will be beneficial.
The same is true of very difficult moments: when you’re suffering in a way you’ve never experienced before, and it may be worthwhile to allow some of that suffering to permeate so that you learn an important lesson, or so that you’re capable of knowing such pain, which can expand your mental horizons and allow you to better empathize with others who have suffered in a similar fashion.
Loneliness, too, is a valuable feeling to fully experience, sometimes. It can force you into a different state of mind and wrestling with it, coming to terms with it, can help you learn to be okay with yourself, and just yourself, rather than relying on externalities to keep you entertained and contented.
Which is a strange thought, really. The idea that self-control mechanisms might be more valuable if you can develop them in such a way that you can drop them when warranted, before pulling them back up again. It’s like working hard to strengthen your grip, only to realize that learning to unclench and relax the muscle is just as vital as the opposite.
Absolutism seldom leads to optimal outcomes.
Purity is unnatural, and that applies to genes and ecosystems and societies and mindsets. A philosophy to which we adhere 100% of the time is almost certainly less resilient and useful than something we adopt 99% of the time. The former is more satisfying in a dogmatic sense, but the latter allows for more valuable mutation and growth. Unless your aim is to cloak yourself in a garland of moral superiority, the value of reaching that 100% is debatable.
All of which is to say that self-control—especially in the sense of having emotional and reactionary fortitude in the face of difficulties of all shapes and sizes—is worth the effort. Reminding yourself of your powers in this regard, that you can control how you respond to things even if you can’t control the things themselves, is a great place to start. It’s an exercise that never becomes truly easy, though the motions do become more familiar over time.
But with this and with any other philosophical or methodological framework, it’s important to leave yourself wiggle-room. To build flexibility and plasticity into the skeleton of what you’re constructing.
In this case, that means giving yourself permission to let loose and fully, inarticulately, irrationally feel when it makes sense to do so. In other cases it will mean deviating from your dietary restrictions or workout regimen or religious rituals or ingrained habits when the gain from doing so outweighs the benefits of strict adherence to a practice.
This doesn’t mean you should allow yourself to succumb to the many excuses your brain will come up with to avoid establishing valuable habits and routines, and it doesn’t mean you should give yourself a pass for indulging in non-valuable emotional responses like jealousy or inarticulate rage.
It does mean, though, that self-control isn’t about denying those things, or carving them entirely away. It’s about shaping yourself and your way of thinking so that you are aware of them, aware of your options relating to them, and are capable of making the right decision about how and when to use them in the pursuit of personal fulfillment.