Stoicism; Where Psychotherapy, Philosophy and Pandemics Meet

I attempted to write this blog in a concise but meaningful and artistic way about 5 different times and each time it ended up being about 20 pages long. Am I just too wordy? Do I ramble? Is the subject just too weighty to be summed up in a blog? Do I just suck? Probably all of the above. So I’ll try something different and make this a sort of bulleted list that gives you a very basic over view rather than my typical blah, blah, blah of a windy blog. Further reading is strongly encouraged. Here we go.

Introduction

I enjoy learning and find myself interested in a variety of topics. The problem with this is that I dabble in dozens of things and end up having a surface level knowledge of a lot of things rather than a deep knowledge of a few things. Quantity over quality, jack of all trades…pick the cliché that you like. Just before the Covid-19 pandemic hit though, I decided to try something new. Somewhat due to the inspiration of a client, I decided to commit myself to a 3 month at a time, immersive deep dive into a single subject. Approximately 11 months and four subjects into this practice now, I’d like to tell you about my first subject of study, Stoicism and some things I’ve gained as a result. One of the reasons I think this topic is important and one of the reasons I’m writing about it is that there’s direct application to the current realities of pandemic life and all the shitty things that have come with it.

History

Stoicism is an ancient Greek philosophy that was further developed by the Romans. Zeno is said to be the philosophy’s founder. Other notable names are Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Epictetus and Cato. It is an active philosophy that is meant for daily use. Though perhaps not stated so directly, the implication of Stoicism is “do these things, in this way and your life will be better because of it.”  

Basic Tenets (or at least the ‘Overly Simplified Brandon Armchair Philosophy Expert’ bits that are relevant)

The dichotomy of choice – The act of intentionally seeing the world in terms of that which you can and cannot control. For the Stoic, controllables were such things as thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Uncontrollables were essentially everything else. Those things over which you have no control, say the Stoics, are to be treated with indifference.

Virtue– Stoicism suggests that nature and the laws that govern it were the ultimate source of truth and wisdom. In a sense, nature was god. Not in the literal way but more in the sense that nature and natural laws are forces larger than humanity that play themselves out in predictable and consistent ways. Nature unfolds exactly as it was meant to. What takes place, was meant to be and was to be accepted and revered. To accept and revere nature was to be virtuous. All things have a fundamental way of being and man’s way of being, said the Stoics, was reason. Therefore, the use of reason by man was the ultimate expression of virtue. Why should I act this way or that way? Because logic and reason demand it and acting with reason and logic are virtuous.

Don’t focus on the outcome – Reason suggests that outcomes fall within the realm of that which we cannot control, therefore, living with virtue is enacting the dichotomy of choice and treating outcomes with indifference. I can diet and exercise in the most precise and dedicated way and still get hit by a bus and die tomorrow. I eat healthy and exercise because, logically, these are the things that will likely lead to a longer, healthier life and will help me feel better in the moment; they are controllable. Past that, however, I have no power, leaving indifference towards outcomes my remaining virtuous and healthy choice.

The Covid/therapy part

Covid-19 is a terrible fate that has befallen us. It’s sucked from day one to day whatever this is. But the Stoic teachings of the ancient Greeks and later Romans give us as a way to work around it. It’s also worth mentioning that during the reign of the Stoic philosopher and Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, there existed The Antonine Plague, just one of hundreds of pandemics that have plagued (pun intended) the human race. If for no other reason, the Stoics have something to say about Covid because very literally, they’ve done this before.

The dichotomy of choice Other than wearing a mask, social distancing, washing your hands and getting vaccinated, you have no power over coronavirus. Therefore, it is to your benefit to treat it with indifference. You CAN control your behaviors. You CAN control your thoughts and emotions surrounding it. You cannot control any other aspect of it. It is to your psychological and emotional benefit then to treat with indifference all other aspects.

Virtue – Logic and reason are virtuous say the Stoics. You can use your reason to employ the dichotomy of choice to train yourself to calm your fears of covid. Your logic says, control the things you can, don’t worry about the rest. This is a direct and specific way to manage anxiety and depression and the like.

Don’t focus on the outcome – If you manage the controllable aspects of covid (or any other situation really), you have done all you can do. The outcome of even the controllable aspects, however, are out of your hands. Nature, in the Stoic sense of the word, will play itself out in the way that it was destined, likely without your permission. Reason tells you that whether or not you contract the virus can be influenced by your behaviors but ultimately will be in the domain of fate. Focus on your controllable behaviors and allow yourself to let go of the idea that you can beat this thing. If you get it, you get it. Somehow, some way, you were going to die anyway. Perhaps this is the way nature intended it. Reason will tell you that you are subject to the same forces as all other beings. It’s normal, it’s healthy, and it’s part of it. It’s okay.

(Disclaimer: Although I feel these last several statements represent universal and ultimate, factual truths that are unaffected by one’s personal feelings about them, apologies if comes off as cold and insensitive to those who are sick or who have lost someone close. Disrespect is not my intention and I hope you won’t take it as such.)

A personal note

My only beef with the Stoics has been from a clinical perspective. While I’m no complete expert on Stoicism, it appears that at least in its classical Greek form, the philosophy sometimes advocates repression and avoidance of feelings. As a therapist, I simply can’t endorse that idea and I can reference mountains of research on why I take this stance. However, the potential resolution of this came in the form of a YouTube video on Stoicism. A quote from the lecture stuck with me; “The Stoic aims to understand all feelings so that he may assent to them or dissent from them”. If you’ve worked with me in therapy before, you may recognize this as very foundational Brandonian Philosophy; “Feel your feelings and then step away from yourself at some point and assess your feelings. After that, enact free will to choose whether or not it is healthy to continue to feel this way.”

I acknowledge fully that I, like basically all of us, have struggled during Covid. But Stoicism has enabled me to acknowledge those feelings, take the actions on it that are in my power and then simply dismiss the rest. It doesn’t work 100% of the time. I’m a fallible human just like everyone else. I can tell you, however, that my Stoic practice has been immensely valuable during this time and continues to help me maintain a consistent level of mental and emotional health during a terrible time in human history.

Very rarely in my clinical practice do I tell clients what to do but this is one of the times I will; Incorporate Stoicism into your life. It will help. “Do these things, in this way and your life will be better because of it.” DO IT!!

Unrelated book – EMDR: Basic Principles, Protocols, and Procedures by Francine Shapiro; EMDR was one of my 3 month study subjects and I hope to blog about it in the future as I gain more knowledge and am eventually certified in it. This book is dry, technical and boring stuff but make no mistake, EMDR literally may hold the secrets to world peace! Check it out!!

Unrelated Song – I recently introduced my 7 year old daughter to Star Wars and no surprise, it was a hit. Unrelated to Star Wars, there’s a whole series on YouTube called “Bad Lip Reading”. Where the 2 subjects meet is this:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U9t-slLl30E

About Brandon Peters, LPC

Brandon Peters began his career in mental health approximately 11 years ago while pursuing a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of Arkansas. During his training he worked as a psychiatric technician at the Piney Ridge Treatment Center for adolescent sex offenders in Fayetteville, Arkansas. He later relocated to Houston, Texas and obtained his master's degree in counseling from the University of Houston. Since then, he has worked with clients in residential treatment, psychiatric hospitals, school based therapy, home based therapy, support groups and outpatient therapy. He has worked with children as young as 4, adolescents, and adults in areas such as individual therapy, group therapy, family therapy, case management, play therapy and crisis intervention. Brandon Peters now owns and operates a private psychotherapy clinic conducting individual, group and family therapy and specializes in Existential Therapy. Additionally, he is a board approved LPC Supervisor.
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