The Stoics believed that stressful and dangerous situations unfold like this:
Something happens—we wake up to reports that the stock market has taken a dive, we get screamed at by our boss, the doctor raises an eyebrow and recommends we go in for further testing…
And this provokes a reaction—not a good one either. A scared one. Or an angry one. Something emotional. Or we go the opposite way and we just shut down, paralyzed by the events.
The Stoics called these involuntary and immediate impressions that we form in response to bad news or stress phantasiai. Contrary to what you might think, the Stoics were quite sympathetic to these reactions. They understand them as natural, and largely out of our control. You throw something surprising at someone…and they’re going to be surprised. That’s how it works. That’s why it’s called ‘surprise.’
Stoicism is not a philosophy meant to show you how to stop that. Instead, what Stoicism is about is what to do next. What to do after the involuntary first impression has been given its moment. As Donald Robertson writes in his wonderful book, How To Think Like a Roman Emperor, “The Stoic tells himself that although the situation may appear frightening, the truly important thing in life is how he chooses to respond.”
It’s perfectly reasonable to tremble in the face of danger, he says, and it was likely that Cato and Marcus Aurelius were scared on the eve of battle or before an important speech. But we don’t hold that against them, because what mattered is what they did next.
They led the charge. They gave the speech. They did the right thing anyway. They transcended their phantasiai.
And so must you.
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