Given one of my favourite phrases is ‘it is what it is’ I was always going to enjoy The Stoic Challenge: A Philosopher’s Guide to Becoming Tougher, Calmer and More Resilient by William B Irvine.
Irvine starts by pointing out that for many of us, becoming frustrated or angry is the natural response to not getting what we want. And of course anger is anti-joy and has a negative impact on ourselves. The argument of this book is that there is another way – what Irvine calls the Stoic test strategy. When we are faced with a setback, we should treat it as a test of our resilience or character. This can dramatically alter our emotional response, allowing us to prevent anger, to stay calm and improve our quality of life.
The chapter on setbacks was very helpful. Irvine argues that when you experience a setback, it is helpful to recall that although other people are sometimes responsible for the setbacks you experience, in turn you are also responsible for the setbacks of others. If you are finding someone annoying, they are probably finding you annoying too and going easy on one another is, therefore, a helpful response. As is remembering that most of the setbacks you experience are probably actually the result of poor planning on your part. Sometimes we do manage to prevent setbacks by planning, but we don’t put as much effort into planning how we will minimise our negative emotional response to setbacks.
He also points out that we all know people who endlessly talk about their setbacks, re-stirring up their anger and inflicting it on themselves and others. Clearly, this is not helpful. Sometimes people cling onto these old wrongs done to them for decades and being the one that someone comes to for pity or vindication that life is unfair is to be avoided.
There is a lot in the book on resilience. Irvine argues that when there are a limited number of options available, we should choose the best one and get on with life. This is about choosing the optimal workaround – it won’t necessarily be pleasant, but it will be less unpleasant than the other possible workarounds. Resilient people refuse to play the role of victim, remaining upbeat and looking for workarounds to problems in their path.
I hadn’t realised until reading this book that concepts like ‘framing’, which I find really useful, and ‘anchoring’, are essentially borne from Stoic wisdom. It turns out that negative visualisation can be a powerful and helpful ‘anchoring’ tool. This is not about dwelling on things, but instead having ‘flickering thoughts’ on how our lives and circumstances could be worse. It’s also worth trying a ‘last time meditation’ – there will be a last time that you will do everything and reflecting on that may give everyday occurrences more meaning. It’s also helpful to think that when you are doing something mundane at some point in the future, you may wish that you could travel back to this very moment.
In turn, framing can prevent setbacks from disrupting our tranquility. There are so many useful frames to choose from that Irvine sets out here – the competing obligations frame, the incompetence frame, the storytelling frame, the comedic frame, the game frame, and the ‘Stoic-test’ frame (imagining that the Stoic Gods are testing you). I found the game frame particularly helpful – getting tackled is part of rugby and if you don’t want to get tackled, you shouldn’t be playing. The same can be said of challenges at work. I know that framing works, as I use it all the time. How we characterise a situation has a profound impact on how we respond to it emotionally. But I definitely need to employ re-framing when stuck in traffic, which I always deal with badly, much to the annoyance of my partner.
Irvine also argues that it is important to be actively aware of our emotional responses. I immediately failed the Stoic test the morning after finishing this book, by spilling my coffee in the dark and swearing angrily as a response. But at least I noticed that I did it and I hope that may make me stop and think about reacting like that again.
Irvine quotes Theodore Roosevelt, which really summed up for me the Stoic philosophy: ‘Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are’. Great advice for dealing well with the Covid-19 pandemic.