“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
― Viktor E. Frankl
Here at the end of a very challenging year due to a global pandemic, it may be difficult to see the bright side. One lesson we might take away from this year is that it’s not the situation, but how we respond to it that matters most.
There’s an ancient Chinese story about a man who raised horses for a living, and one day he lost one of his prized horses. Hearing of the misfortune, his neighbor felt sorry for the rancher and came to comfort him. The rancher simply asked, “How could we know it is not a good thing for me?” After a while, the lost horse returned with another beautiful horse. The neighbor came over and congratulated the rancher on his good fortune. But the rancher simply asked, “How could we know it is not a bad thing for me?” The next day his son went out for a ride with the new horse and was violently thrown from the horse and broke his leg. The neighbor again expressed his condolences to the rancher, but he simply said, “How could we know it is not a good thing for me?” One year later, the Emperor’s army arrived at the village to recruit all able-bodied men to fight in the war. Because of his injury, the rancher’s son could not go off to war, and was spared from certain death.
The ending of this story suggests that every misfortune comes with a silver lining. Or what first appears to be good luck can come with misfortune.
Similarly, the Stoic ancient philosophers, which included Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, took the perspective that if you want to have a happy life, you need to take responsibility for it. When bad things happen, it is not the event itself but your reaction to it that can do the most harm.
“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment,” according to Marcus Aurelius.
William B. Irvine, author of The Stoic Challenge: A Philosopher’s Guide to Becoming Tougher, Calmer and More Resilient, says that much of our suffering is due to the response we have to life. “When someone says something disparaging to you, it is just words, but how you respond to them can continually harm you. The response is usually worse than the event itself.”
When you think of the word stoic, you may be thinking of some unemotional Spock-like character devoid of feeling. However, while stoicism refers to a person who takes whatever life throws at them without expressing emotions in the process, Stoics (with a capital S) don’t suppress emotions but try to avoid expressing negative emotions. Ancient Stoics were actually considered to be cheerful individuals.
Anchoring & Framing
How would Stoics suggest we respond to this COVID experience? According to Irvine, you could practice a concept called anchoring, which involves comparing this situation with one that could be much worse. For example, whether you experienced it or not, you could envision being stuck in a concentration camp during the Holocaust, which would obviously be much worse.
Or you might try framing to provide a different perspective. Think of the hypothetical situation of your doctor saying you have a serious illness and a choice between two procedures: One has a one-month survival rate of 90 percent, while the other has a 10 percent mortality rate in the first month. Many will choose the first option due to its high survival rate, however, the perfectly rational person would see the two as equally attractive. As humans, we are not perfectly rational and we are influenced by how the exact same situation is framed.
Irvine also sees it important to develop your “emotional immune system” in the same way you boost your physical immune system. This means deliberately exposing yourself to things that would make you emotionally uncomfortable, so that you are more likely to overcome future setbacks. This ultimately makes you more emotionally resilient to handle whatever you encounter. The social isolation of the past year has certainly been an emotional challenge for many of us.
This is not to suggest that you resist all negativity, but only that you don’t let your response to challenges and setbacks make things worse. Choose to see the bright side. Be optimistic. And seek to respond in ways that bring you closer to getting what you want.
Here’s to a brighter, healthier and more resilient 2021!