Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, June 24, 2019
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the Caesars of Rome. While Italy is not on my summer travel plans, we are going back for a second helping of pasta because behavioral psychotherapist Donald Robertson has a new book, “How to Think Like a Roman Emperor,” about Emperor Marcus Aurelius and his embrace of stoicism.
Traditionally, to be a stoic is to endure periods of mental and emotional hardship without complaining. The contemporary urban phrase is to “suck it up”— just deal with it without further lament. Easier said than done.
Emperor Aurelius had his hands full. He was at war with the Parthians, Rome had the infamous Antonine Plague, which killed 5 million people, and to top it off, there was a famine and the River Tiber was flooding. (So, when there is traffic on the I-5, take a breath). In fact, the phrase to suck it up actually comes from taking in a deep breath, which is supposed to give you pause to slow down and not to lash out immediately. (The car horn, along with the middle finger, is not going to stop that idiot from cutting in front of you.)
Robertson, a cognitive therapist, points out that the new model of psychotherapy is strongly influenced by stoicism, in contrast to Freud, who just wanted to talk about your mother. The $10 billion self-help industry is fueled by the millennial search for personal improvement, relief and happiness. Many people believe that there are answers, that the world can be known and change can be achieved. In contrast, I would refer them to the inscrutable football coach Bill Belichick — “It is what it is.” Deal with it.
The stoics were brilliant in understanding that you can only be responsible for what is “under your control.” Robertson points out that the hard part is seeing the distinction between your own actions and responsibilities and events over which you can do nothing. This is called getting a grasp on reality.
Aurelius wrote a book, “Meditations,” which still resonates today. Stoicism is not the same as mindfulness, which is the hot new mantra; rather it is seeing the world for what it is — and finding the grace to accept it — and then ultimately to embrace it. Robertson calls this, “Tattooing it on your body.”
One of the ways to engage with stoicism is to modify your language, particularly violent imagery. Robertson suggests that instead of saying, “My idea was shot down in flames,” try saying, “He expressed disagreement with me.” Are you kidding me? My daily dialogue is peppered with colorful (unprintable) language. But Robertson says it is exactly that kind of behavior modification that will improve company performance. The CEO needs to set a more accepting and stoic tone. (What might be called biting your tongue.)
Notwithstanding that perspective, there is an equal if not greater body of thinking that supports the screaming, demanding, unyielding, unrelenting technology leader, who gets outsized positive results. (That list is a bit longer.) The trick in the puzzle is to understand the role of your anger and how it negatively shapes the conversation. Aurelius would argue that acceptance diffuses anger (I realize that I cannot change that event), but that does not mean you are a roll-over-sure-no-problem-whatever-you-say leader either. Nuance is all.
Robertson explains that stoicism is not about passivity or concealing and repressing emotion. Rather it is about the opposite — emotional acceptance. Call out the pain and despair and disappointment, let it see the light of day, and of course the result is that when it is on the table, it is not as fearsome as you thought. Stoicism is not depression, but rather it supports the long-standing philosophical tradition “of contemplating loss, misfortune and ultimately your own demise.” Be sure to bring that up at your next dinner party.
Robertson believes that “sometimes our actions are irrational, especially when we are happy.” This is a risk that I manage personally by embracing the Woody Allen/Larry David model — just stay miserable.
Finally, he believes that stoicism can help “protect us against the adverse effects of advertising, social media and celebrity culture” in the search to find our true inner values. He asks his patients — in the end, what do you want to be remembered for?
Rule No. 615:
— Frank Costanza