Stoicism Saved Me
Stoicism saved me in a way. My last deployment to Iraq was particularly trying. I was medivacced out with just three weeks left of the deployment. I recall as the helicopter crew chief told me we had crossed the Kuwait border and that I was safe, I was relieved that I survived a war zone, but was under no illusion that I was “safe.” I’m a son of a Vietnam vet. The war did not end for him when he got home, in many ways it had only just begun for me. Relief quickly faded to resolve as I was determined not to suffer the same fate as my father: being angry at the world.
During recovery, back in the States, I could tell that my deployment had changed me. Infuriated would be a good word for how I felt 10 years ago during as I began to mend. Google militant atheist and my picture would show up and I would look pissed in it. I felt betrayed by my country, coopted to fight for profit and gain. I had seen so much suffering. The anger was poisoning everything, and what made the poison spread even further was that I was angry because I was angry. I had turned into my father.
It is difficult to describe what war does to a person, which is probably why many combat vets are reluctant to share their experiences. I have found that Plato was astute in his observations of the human condition and his allegory of the cave describes the experience of war fairly accurately. Seeing war is like being brought to the entrance of the cave, you are exposed to what life really is and upon return to the back of the cave you see the shadows for what they are—
Illusions. Those still chained within who have not experienced seeing the sun or color will struggle to understand, perhaps even call you mad for telling them they are living a life of illusion. I find it an extraordinary insight, and the parallels for returning combat veterans are uncanny. It is one of the best explanations for non combat veterans to understand the struggles of combat veterans, it also helps combat veterans understand they are not “broken” but are just processing what it is like to see the sun, so to speak.
I do not recall where I read it, but someone had suggested that if you were to bring an ancient philosopher to the present they would not be far off the mark addressing the struggles of modern humans. I came to a similar conclusion: perhaps their wisdom could help with my rage. I was determined to take this anger on headfirst. I was not going to be doomed to another 40-plus years of anger and I knew avoidance behaviors like drinking or isolation were not going to help me master emotional regulation. I certainly recognized that I was essentially a puppet and the master of my strings was my emotions.
I revisited the philosophers of Greece and Rome; I figured they had experienced war often and perhaps had some insight on how to address this experience of being brought to the mouth of the cave. As fate would have it, my therapist was bringing up Stoic thinkers during my therapy. So I began to learn the Stoics’ philosophy in depth and apply any insight I discovered. I was first introduced to Stoic thought in high school and again in college in the early 90’s and recalled that Marcus Aurelius wrote a book called Meditations. I started there.
It does not take long when you begin to read a Stoic philosopher to realize that Stoicism is a philosophy of action. Marcus Aurelius is no different. Meditations was a compilation of his thoughts written in a journal. Many of his thoughts are calls to action, to improve, to remember, and above all live a life of virtue. So in the spirit of Marcus Aurelius, I will explain how I implemented Stoicism and took action to gain some sort of mastery over my emotions and quell the fire of anger.
I believe that one should start Stoic practice with non-emotionally charged circumstances, something you do daily. This could include shopping or interactions with strangers, but I think one of the best places to begin is driving. I’m not the only one to suggest this is a starting point for Stoic practice; other notable Stoic practitioners have made similar recommendations. For me, I started Stoic application to driving about nine years ago and I’ll share step by step how I did it and include insightful quotes from Marcus Aurelius to encourage taking considerate action.
For me this quote by Marcus Aurelius in Meditations was the starting point of my Stoic practice, “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” So how does this apply to driving? Well, the answer is relatively straightforward; you have no control over other drivers, the street conditions, and traffic signals/signs; you only have control over your own driving. Period. When I first got home, I was very outside focused when driving. I would full on rage at other drivers, “what is that idiot doing?” and other profanity-laced variations. My daughters use to laugh at me and call me the Road Raged Dad. So, the first application for me began by asking a simple question: “Do you have control over what other drivers are doing?” The answer is always no. “Then why are you getting angry over something you can not control?”
At first, my responses to that question were some variation of the other driver was intentionally trying to make me mad. “That SOB knew I was coming and got over anyway,” for example. Which invariably leads to another question: “Are people intentionally trying to make you upset driving?” Of course they are not, most of them are driving for their own self-interest, trying to get to where they are going, caught up in their own world of concerns. Marcus Aurelius had a remedy for this false sense of injury and rationalized anger comes from a misapplied sense of justice, “Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears.”
When I began my Stoic driving practice, I would constantly try and work from the premise that I only have control over how I drive and would focus on that. If someone were to cut me off, I would tell myself, “I can’t control him, only me, give him the space.” If I felt a sense of injury and reacted, I would say to myself, “No one can make you mad but you, own your reactions.” Again, only something I can control. So the first step was focusing on what I can control my driving and my reactions.
So for about six months I really focused on those two aspects of control, my driving and reactions. I was testing Marcus Aurelius’ advice, “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” Over that time, I realized that there was a whole lot of things I can’t control and very little I could. So I visualized a very large circle representing all the things I can’t control and a small circle of the things I can. I narrowed my question whenever something came up while driving to “Are you focused on the large circle or taking action in the small?” If I answered yes to the first one, then I immediately shifted to the small circle. It has worked like a charm for me ever since. My angry reactions started getting less frequent and less intense and I contend Marcus Aurelius’ statement passes the test with flying colors.
After focusing on what I could control and let go of what I cannot, I continued my study of Meditations and came across this journal entry: “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” The part about estimations really stood out to me. It dawned on me after I read it that asking questions after the fact was all good and well, but If I master estimations then my need to navigate tricky reactions would be cut down dramatically. The light bulb came on and the hypothesis formed–a right objective view is key to equanimity.
To paraphrase Marcus Aurelius, at every instant circumstances and environment bombard us with information that gives rise to impressions or value judgments. According to the Stoics, we have to be very careful to give objective estimations or we may apply these reactionary value judgments to circumstances that require none. In essence, we become slaves to our emotions when we overly indulge in labeling events as “good or bad”, when in fact they may not be. So let’s apply this idea to driving. Imagine you encountered an erratic driver, flashing his lights, cutting people off, who ran a stop sign and was traveling well over the speed limit. Stop and think how you would react to a person driving in this manner. Now for many combat vets, including me, this instantly warrants the one-finger salute and a whole tirade of swearing and rage. Did you immediately create a value judgment as you imaged the situation?
Lets put Marcus Aurelius to the test again with an event in my own life. I had been practicing focusing on the small circle of control for about a year when I was on my way to see a Batman movie marathon. I was excited because the new third film was included. My son called while we were on the way to the show and informed us that he had been shot in the eye by a paintball. He was in shock, didn’t know what to do and called us instead of the 911 line. I was closer to him than any medical personnel so I rushed over to his location. I applied what I learned in combat life saver classes in the military, knew that time was paramount to save his eye.
Here is where the discipline of estimations comes into play, if you had seen me driving like maniac and somehow got the information that I was driving my son to the emergency room would your perception radically change? When I contemplated that day, I realized that I was applying reactionary value judgments on other drivers daily without knowing a damn thing that was going on with them. How do I know the reason why they are cutting me off? Or on the phone while driving? Or speeding? Could they be taking their son to the hospital? Rushing to get to the bathroom before they have an accident?
This story should drive home the point that misplaced value judgments skew our estimations. If you objectively look at a situation and have no real evidence of why people are doing what they are doing, then your emotional reactions are completely on you because you are the one placing the value judgments. When you begin to understand the power of estimations you realize you are better off demanding evidence, exercise more useful course of action and display emotional flexibility by realizing your views of the world may not be accurate. Those chained to the back of the cave are fairly certain about the shadows I suspect and that is where the real slavery begins.
So to simplify the second skill of applying objective estimations, I took a twofold approach. First I would visualize my trip ahead of time, running through my head any possible scenarios that may occur and applying objective estimations. For example, exiting the freeway I objectively visualize what traffic may do and thus be less prone to place reactionary value judgments when an incident does happen. The second half is, should a reactionary value judgment occur in real time then I would simply ask myself “Where is the evidence that your estimation is accurate?” or “Is your estimation useful to the point of taking right action?”
Combined with constantly being aware of which circle of control I was working in objective estimation took my Stoic practice to the next level. I’ve been testing Marcus Aurelius for about 10 years now and I have yet to prove him wrong. When I get angry, I know I’m focused on the large circle of what I can’t control and/or have placed a reactionary value judgment on circumstances that required objective estimations. I’ve found Marcus Aurelius right when he said reject your sense of injury and the injury disappears. Rejection is easy when objectivity is applied I’ve found.
In my journey, I never told my family about what I was doing nor asked them how I was progressing. I just did it and I can’t emphasize enough that Stoicism requires action, not talk or over-intellectualizing. It took years for them to see real progress. They remembered the antics of a cliché angry combat vet and those memories are hard to forget. One day – I never will forget – my daughters told me, “Dad you aren’t angry anymore.” That was after six years of taking action. I can report that it takes a lot to make me upset and lose equanimity today. I moved on from just applying these principles to non-emotionally charged events to o emotionally charged events like relationships. I think there is wisdom in applying skills in a daily, deliberate way as to work your way up to more difficult situations.
A decade of concerted practice has paid off. I get unsolicited feedback of “you are the calmest person I’ve ever met” often. To return to Plato’s cave allegory, I have learned to embrace what I have seen at the mouth of the cave, that if you call the shadows on the back of the cave anything other than shadows then your estimations need work. I realize those that have only seen shadows fall into the value judgment trap and are focused on the big circle of what they can’t control. Most of all I realize that combat was like being dragged to the mouth of the cave, but I’m not broken for experiencing it, just the opposite.
Like Vietnam combat veteran and POW James Stockdale has stated, I tested Stoicism and it passed with flying colors. As such I believe my life has been unleashed because of applying stoic concepts. But a word of caution as you practice Stoicism, I find that many in our society struggle when they encounter a well-practiced Stoic. It took my family years to adjust to my indifference about many things, my objective evaluations and calming of emotional reactions. It was worth the struggle and applied action. I wouldn’t trade my life for anything and my life has become unleashed. I’m currently trying to bring even more Stoicism in my practice to help vets. I talk about it all day long. In a real sense, Stoicism saved me and taught me how to address Plato’s concerns about the cave. I hope you find my applications useful and fate permitting, you apply them and test them for yourself.
Roger Johnston is a Clinical Social Worker who works with combat veterans and retired from the U.S. Army having experienced combat himself. Roger is currently in the crossing the return threshold stage of the hero’s journey and hoping to mentor others on their own hero’s journey. Far from being a master of two worlds or a sage, Roger hopes to impart what little hard-earned wisdom he has learned in practicing stoicism for a decade.