Stoicism for Trauma Survivors Part 1/3
I’m a PTSD survivor, which is just one form of anxiety disorder. So many of us a trauma survivors. In fact, methinks life is trauma survival. One of the things that help keep my nose above water is Stoicism. I have compiled a summary of Stoic ethics for my own guidance. I share it here, hoping it may also help you a bit. It’s from my viewpoint as a trauma survivor, but it’s applicable to anyone anywhere
I used the thought of the greatest Roman Stoic, Epictetus, to help myself learn. This article will look at two of five questions:
1. What is the goal of life?
2: What is good?
Might as well listen to music from my origins - South Africa: Introducing Mango Groove
I've done 10 years of cognitive behavioural therapy, and will probably have to continue as long as I breathe, and I learned that Albert Ellis based CBT largely on Stoic principles. I have since read fairly widely in Stoicism. My favourite is Epictetus, a Roman Stoic who taught around 100 C.E. I love his direct, practical teaching with real life examples. My summary comes from a small collection of his sayings, called the Enchiridion (Handbook). This diary is part one of three. Today we'll cover the first two of five questions.
Here's wiki on Epictetus: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epictetus
Here is a medieval artist's image of Epictetus (there are no survivor busts of him)
What is Stoicism and how does it help?
Stoicism is an ancient philosophy that is a practical guide for life, not an academic word salad. Philosophy in the ancient world was nothing like the useless academic wordplay it has become in our era. Philosophy was a practical guide for life for busy people living in challenging times. Stoicism was an ancient philosophy, first started in Greece, which became the dominant way of thinking in the late Roman republic and empire. It helped make the Romans into the toughest people on earth, who dominated their region for a thousand years. Stoicism also teaches mental toughness, about which trauma survivors know a few things.
Stoicism, along with other ancient philosophies, says that the goal of life is to flourish as a human being.
What is flourishing?
• continuous excellence
• peace of mind, and
• strength of character
• zest for life
What flourishing is not: to be perfect.
The problem for trauma survivors is that the behaviour patterns we adopt in reaction to trauma subsequently inhibit our ability to flourish as a human being.
We are mostly stuck in one of three modes of traumatic functioning:
1. We succumb to the trauma and stop functioning.
2. We function within severe restrictions.
3. We function reasonably normally, but with “side effects.”
These three modes define our range of possibilities. We cycle between those with periods of being stuck. However, there is a fourth mode, one of post-traumatic growth. We could flourish. All of the major philosophies of antiquity taught this in various ways. But we need to change our existing worldview in order to break out of the three modes of traumatic functioning to reach the fourth mode, which is to flourish. The Stoic worldview could help us achieve this possibility.
How does one flourish?
Stoicism says that, to flourish, we need (only!) to return our character to accord once again with nature, rather than remain captive to the distortions absorbed from traumatic events, and from society and culture. Our reaction to the trauma distorts our character so that it is not in harmony with nature anymore. It means that we are not capable of being natural or acting naturally.
Stoicism says we flourish by keeping our character according to nature. Character is being able to distinguish good from evil and act accordingly. Nature would inform us how to distinguish and act, if we would only look. Note how different this instruction is to that of popular culture (of all times), which says that external things, such as possessions and people, will make us flourish. Stoicism insists that external things do not make us flourish, unless we use them to build character.
One of the great fallacies of our society is that external things will make us flourish. Consider all the advertising that bombards us every day. But trauma survivors above all people know that wealth or possessions cannot make us happy. It is better to have them, but they do not make us happy, because at the end of the day we are still within our damaged selves and still live with(in) our restrictions. It doesn’t matter how good the movie is, for example, if I can’t sit in the theatre because of my trauma reactions.
To flourish we need to rebuild our character in accordance with nature. External things can be helpful if I use them to rebuild my character. The movie experience could be improved if I would say to my wife:
“Honey, the theatre and the dark and the people and the noise scares me to death. But I also want to be able to go on a date with you. Maybe I can try it if we go really early before the crowds get there, and sit closest to the exit so I can easily leave if it gets to me.”
(Or, could we rather go for a walk down by the river!)
A major contributing factor to our inability to flourish is that we have difficulty distinguishing between good and evil. Our reactions to traumatic events skews our thought processes so that we struggle with what is good and what is bad. That happens on top of the regular distortions presented to us by society and culture.
So what then is "good" or "bad" in life?
Stoicism says that, only virtue (moral excellence) and virtuous actions are "good."
The only "evil" is vice (immorality) and actions motivated by vice.
Everything external is "indifferent," neither good nor evil. It depends on our actions.
Notice the difference between Stoic and the thinking of most cultures. Most cultures divide the moral universe into two categories: good and evil. Stoicism divides it into good and bad plus "indifferent." Our dualistic society taught us, even before we encountered trauma, an unhelpful way of thinking about good and evil. Society says that some external things, such as wealth or family, are good and, that other external things, like poverty or low status in society, are bad.
Stoicism however, says that the only good thing is moral excellence and the only evil thing is immorality. Everything else is neutral. Chocolate fudge sundaes are morally neutral, although they are not calorifically neutral! If I can’t stop thinking about them and buy one every day after work, those thoughts and actions become bad, not the chocolate or the fudge or the ice cream store.
Note carefully that Stoicism says that good and evil are internal to us: it falls within our character; external things are neutral, meaning they are neither good nor evil, but rather “indifferent.”
This small distinction has tremendous implications. Let’s explore that.
What are indifferent things?
We are programmed by society (in complete contradiction to the state of nature) to divide external things into good or bad. But Stoicism says that they are indifferent. All things external to me are indifferent, neither good nor bad. Wealth is neither good nor bad. Poverty is neither good nor bad. Family is neither good nor bad. Death is neither good nor bad. How can it be, since it is a natural process?
Stoicism says that these external, indifferent things are either “preferred” or “dispreferred.”
Health, wealth, friends, family, etc., are "preferred indifferents." These are not "good;" they are the objects upon which our virtuous actions (or vice) are directed.
"Dispreferred indifferents" (I so need a better phrase :=) are things like sickness, poverty, death, social exclusion, etc. Sickness is not bad: it is an experience to which we direct virtue or vice.
This kind of thinking has implications for trauma survivors.
I am always ready to say that the events and circumstances around my traumatic experiences are bad, maybe evil. And I am always ready to rage at this bad that has befallen me. I rage against “God,” the world, the military, the war, the battles, the people in it, the shite that happens, and blah, blah, blah.
But Stoicism says that what happened to you and I was a series of dispreferred indifferents. Yowza.
So is it bad/evil that I have an anxiety disorder? Stoicism says no; this is a disliked, morally neutral experience, one to which I can direct either virtue (good thoughts and actions) or vice (bad thoughts and actions). As a human phenomenon, PTSD is a neutral external thing: it will not touch my character - if I don’t let it. My work is to overcome my shame and become able to see PTSD and the events that lead up to it as simply disliked neutral things.
It is one thing to view correctly what is good, bad and neutral in life. But it is also important to see where my power over these things begins and ends. For often I can waste an incredible amount of energy on inappropriate things.
More on that in Part 2: http://caucus99percent.com/content/stoicism-trauma-survivors-part-2
Peace be with us, if we learn stoic principles and persevere, (no disclaimer, I work damn hard on it every day :=)
Note 1: This summary is loosely based on the outline of Keith Seddon’s book The Handbook of Epictetus and the Tablet of Cebes: Guides to Stoic Living.
I recommend the Seddon book as a great introduction. I provide the Amazon link so you could check it out, but buy it used somewhere. I got it in 2005 and since then it’s become stupidly expensive.
Note 2: I published this series at top in early 2015.