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You Must Train The Coward Inside You

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There’s a long-standing connection between philosophy and soldiering. Marcus Aurelius, Cato, Socrates, and many other philosophers were all soldiers. James Stockdale, whose A-4E Skyhawk was shot down over Vietnam, was too. As he recounts: “After ejection I had about thirty seconds to make my last statement in freedom before I landed…And so help me, I whispered to myself: ‘Five years down there, at least. I’m leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus.’” It turned out to be seven years in a Vietnamese prison, and he credited Stoicism with saving his life. 

That’s what Stoicism was built for. It teaches us to—as they say in the military—“embrace the suck” and find security and peace even in the midst of warfare and crisis. Nick Palmisciano, CEO of Ranger Up and former Infantry Officer in the United States Army, discovered Stoicism at a young age and, like Stockdale, credits it with helping him get through some tremendously tough situations. Nick details many of them in our interview with him for DailyStoic.com. The thread, what Stoicism taught him and what he continues to cultivate, is about being comfortable with suffering:

Everyone has a breaking point.  For most people, that point is very low, which is why many people never push themselves past their comfort zone. The military demands suffering. It provides you with increased opportunity to suffer at every turn…The guys we revere are the guys that have suffered the most… And the dirty little secret is that everyone has a coward inside them, and if you really want to be tough, and I mean that both physically and mentally, you have to push that coward to the breaking point and then push past it every day. You have to embrace suffering.

Epictetus as a slave, Stockdale as a prisoner of war, Zeno shipwrecked—if you go down the list of Stoics, you find story after story of tremendous resilience in the face of tremendous misfortune. You also find that it’s never some innate superpower. It’s trained. “But neither a bull nor a noble-spirited man comes to be what he is all at once,” Epictetus said. “He must undertake hard winter training, and prepare himself.”

Nick continues to train in jiu jitsu, not because it will help with combat but “to get my suffering in and push the coward inside me past my breaking point.” That’s our challenge to you today: get out of your comfort zone, push the coward inside you, embrace suffering. Get it on the calendar. Undergo hardship voluntarily. Then, you will be better prepared for life’s involuntary hardships.

P.S. This was originally sent on December 18, 2019. Sign up today for the Daily Stoic’s email and get our popular free 7-day course on Stoicism.