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From Vol. 4, Issue 7, July 2022

On human emotions


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Many years ago, Maureen, a friend of mine at that time, seemed to be constantly upset and ang ry about the state of the world, especially about social injustices. Wishing to cheer her up, I quoted the following verses from Dhammapada (a sort of Buddhist Enchiridion), hoping that it would calm her down and let her see things from a different perspecive:

Live in joy, In love,
Even among those who hate.

Live in joy, In health,
Even among the afflicted.

Live in joy, In peace,
Even among the troubled.

As I was quoting the above, she seemed to be getting visibly agitated. By the time I finished, she was furious. “How can you be so insensitive?” she exploded. “How can you be happy when you live in this hate-filled world? How can you be in peace when others are troubled? It is selfish people like you who are the real problem.”

I was taken by surprise. It felt like a sucker punch. I tried to tell her that you don’t have to be unhappy yourself to be kind, compassionate, and helpful to others. Facing her full fury, I am sure I sounded lame and unconvincing.

I was reminded of this long-forgotten incident when I saw the article by Brittany Polat, “Are we allowed to be happy?” This was the question that my friend posed long ago and came up with the answer ‘no’. There was no room for debate. Brittany Polat views it from a Stoic perspecive and concludes, as with the Buddhist perspective, “to maximize your ability to do good in the world, don’t find motivation through anger or bitterness. Allow yourself to be happy, and share your happiness with others.” I wish Maureen, wherever she is now, could read it. What motivated my friend’s anger was ‘righteous indignation’. But how justified are we in using anger as a weapon for prompting change in others? Is it even effective? Sharon Lebell discusses anger and outrage from a Stoic perspective.

At the other end of happiness, there’s depression. Should a Stoic never be depressed? Piotr Stankiewicz believes that it is not realistic to think so. In fact, he believes that we have even less control over things than the ancient Stoics believed. All we can do is to learn to respond to things in a better way.

Then there is the question of grief, an emotion we all face at some point in our lives. Is it alright for Stoics to grieve? This is a tricky quesiton. On the one hand, grief is meaningless to a Stoic because everything unfolds the way it should and you are not in charge of external events. But what if you do find yourself overcome by sadness and grief ? Stoicism does not ask that you suppress your grief, says Greg Sadler. We should pay attention to what we are feeling, and examine it, unravelling the impressions, and evaluate them.

Similar advice is also provided by Kai Whiting and Santara Gonzales. They point out that, while the Stoics encourage us to allow for a natural release of emotion in the form of grief, they also remind us that in our mourning we should not become so overwhelmed that it prevents us from flourishing.

The essence of Stoic advice for all our grief, depression, and other emotions is this: w e cannot avoid feeling them. They are natural. But we need to see that our emotions are our automatic responses to ‘impressions’, the way things seem to us. We need to step back and examine their true nature. We’ll see that we can flourish even when things go wrong.

Chuck Chakrapani, Editor