Many folks who hear the words “stoic” or “stoicism” bring to mind someone who is aloof. Cold. Uncaring. Self-centered, even.
But, actually—folks who practice stoicism do care deeply about the world. The difference is they know how to control their emotions, rather than letting the emotionality of the moment control them.
I’ve inadvertently practiced stoicism for many years. Meaning, I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing until I read the definition. I looked at my reactions to things as merely a way to remain focused and in a way were I could be actionary, if you will, rather than reactionary. But it’s easy for some who do not (re)act in such a manner about things to confuse stoicism with lack of caring or indifference.
As an example, several years ago there was a school shooting that took place around the holidays.
Of course I was deeply affected by that. But I didn’t speak of it or show it. I didn’t need to. But I knew one girl who was in constant hysterics about it.
My friend couldn’t stop crying—to the point where she was so incapacitated for several days after the event she was unable to sleep at night, and finally collapsed so deeply into her emotional overwhelm about the shooting so deeply she had to call in sick for two days! Stoicism.
She was often quite emotional about things, but the extent to which she was overwhelmed was, in my thinking (as well as those of us around her) an extreme. To her, however, it was a natural, normal reaction. She was utterly appalled that I wasn’t having a similar reaction, or at least wasn’t talking constantly about it and showing visible distress.
I could understand if she’d known one or two of the children, or she lost her own child, but it seemed way out of proportion to become that grief-stricken over something that happened to strangers.
She became convinced that my cooler way of reacting (and reacting to things in general) meant I absolutely didn’t care and I was completely self-centered. This wasn’t true at all.
When she finally calmed enough to a point where she could hold a non-sobbing conversation, I explained to her that it’s possible to feel things deeply, but not necessarily allow them to tear your life apart to the point where you cannot function. She stared at me as if I told her that she must tear off her own arm in order to continue on.
Finally, I said, “I was devastated and angered by that shooting. But how is allowing myself to be consumed by grief in such a way that I cannot function helpful? How did it feel to be so overwhelmed by your emotions you had to take two days off from work, claiming sickness?”
She stared at me a moment, still deeply confused, but blinking in a way that I could tell understanding had started to seep in.
“What does the phrase ‘care, don’t carry’ mean to you?” I asked.
“‘Care don’t carry?'”
She blinked again. “I don’t understand—?”
“It means you can care about something, deeply so. Even be affected—to a point–about it, but not so much you carry the weight of all the things that do affect you. Think of it like this. Let’s say you’re in a rock quarry, and you’re surrounded by dozens of gorgeous rocks, as well as some incredibly hideous ones. What’s easier–taking photos on your phone to remind you of the experience, or gathering up each rock and stone to keep with you at all times?”
She thought a moment. “But if I don’t get upset, how can I show I care?”
This is a prime example of indicating the confusion between caring and carrying. You don’t have to collapse into your emotions in order to show you care or are affected.
That’s what stoicism is. The understanding that you cannot (always) control what happens to you, and you definitely cannot control what other people do and what happens to them—but you can choose how you react.
And the degree to which you react.
“There’s a difference between being upset, and being upset,” I said. “Like tipped over and incapacitated. How can getting upset to the point where you’re fully unable to function help anyone?”
“I, well—I guess it can’t.”
“And, again—did you like feeling that overwhelmed by your emotions?”
“Well, not really, I guess. But how can I show I care if I’m not showing I’m caring?”
“Let’s say you had the means to fly out and help those families. Did the state you were in lend you the ability to do so?”
She thought a moment. “Well, no—but—” she stopped, blinked at me again, then mumbled something and walked off, confused. But it was clear an understanding had begun to knit together.
There are days when I still get overwhelmed by my emotions and I do cry or get visibly angry.
There are days when I’m even more overwhelmed and react poorly. Generally because I’m tired or it’s been a long run of crap and I’m burned out completely of reserves. But it doesn’t happen that often. And when it does, I’m certainly still able to function.
Generally, however, I keep it all to myself. I acknowledge how I’m feeling (stoicism is not burying things; burying emotions is merely overreacting inwardly, which is no different than overreacting outwardly). I allow myself to feel the feelings, but in a non-attached way.
Notice I said “non-attached”, not “detached”.
Non-attachment means you hold no judgement, you hold no expected (“concretized”) outcome. You’re merely observing (but feeling is fine, as you’re doing so in a way where you’re still in control.)
Detachment lends a sense of shoulder-shrugging and a sense of “meh-ness”. Not truly paying attention.
When you practice caring about the world, rather than carrying the world, you unburden yourself from unnecessary emotional weight. You free yourself from taking on pain that doesn’t need to be carried by you. Pain that’s suffocating you.
When you choose to feel the pain but not be controlled by it, you actually free yourself to feel things more fully, especially the joy that’s been squeezed out by all the pain.
Like the stoics, you can learn to let that water slide off your back like a duck. You learn how to stop the little things in life from pulling you down. You learn how to feel the big things deeply—but without incapacitation. It finally separates you from all that drama you keep saying you hate. It creates deeper and deeper levels of compassion.
And that’s how you can—most effectively—carry on.
Questions? Comments? Email me at heather (at) smallchangelife (dot) org or drop by my Facebook page and leave me a message, leave a comment below or feel free to start up a conversation in the discussion forum.