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The Stories We Tell Ourselves

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Stoic philosophy is based on two assertions. First, you are telling yourself a story, whether you know it or not, and you probably don’t know it. Second, you think the sequence of events goes: stimulus — response. Actually, the sequence of events goes: stimulus — choice — response.

Stylized face of man in extreme upset clawing at face

Let’s say you

get up, rushing to get somewhere that is important to you. You go outside, and a tire is flat. On your car, your bike, whatever. Stimulus: flat tire. Response: cursing, stressing, irritation.

Let’s say you have just gotten familiar with a new group of people. You like them, you think they like you. However, when you go to meet the group, you overhear one of them saying something extremely hurtful about you. Stimulus: hurtful gossip. Response: you’re hurt and suddenly you hate that person and the group.

One more scenario: It’s late in the evening after a stressful day. You suddenly remember you have a pint of luscious ice cream waiting in the freezer. “That’s just the ticket to relaxation!” your mind tells you. Stimulus: ice cream. Response: must eat it, despite the massive calories.

You have in each case forgotten that you are making a choice; you have forgotten your freedom, which exists in the realization that you

Stories. False stories. And, you have forgotten your freedom. Your choice.

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus put it simply:

“Some things we can do, some things we can’t. We control our opinions, desires, aversions, and — to be plain — our own emotions.” (Handbook 1)

The stress over the flat tire: opinion. The stress over someone talking about you: opinion (and desire to be liked). The ice cream: desire.

In each case, you forgot your freedom. As Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius phrased it, “No one can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness.” (Meditations 2.1)

Contemporary self-help will tell you that you “own your feelings.” That’s true, so far as it goes. What’s truer is that the ownership is total and our freedom lives in realizing the stories — the false narratives — our brains create.

Marcus Aurelius says it well:

Always and everywhere, it is in your power to accept what is happening, to act justly to those around you, and to use your skills to control your thoughts so that nothing slips into them without examination.Don’t be looking for what principles motivate other people. Rather, look straight at what nature leads you to do — both the universal nature that surrounds you and your individual nature related to what needs to be done. Every creature should fulfill its nature. Rational beings affect a great many things and should act rationally.Consider yourself dead and finished with everything you have done up to this point in your life. Now — you have more time: start living according to nature’s laws.Love where you are and what has happened to you. What else can you do? (Meditations 7. 54–57)

And as Epictetus phrased it:

As wood is to the carpenter and bronze to the sculptor, so our own lives are the material we work with in the art of living. (Discourses 1.15.2)

Life is an art. Pick up that pencil and get at it.

Coffee and Wisdom

First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis

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