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From Vol. 6, Issue 7, July 2024

Adversity and resilience

Practicing Stoicism || Chuck Chakrapani

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Stoicism and Epicureanism

Stoicism has many things in common with with its ‘rival’ philosophy, Epicureanism. But one of the areas in which Stoicism sets itself apart from Epicureanism is in dealing with adversity.

What do you do when things don’t go your way? What do you do when fate hands you a lemon? What do you do when faced with adversity?

“Pack up and leave,” advised the Epicureans, “Better still, proactively avoid all adversities by retreating to a place where adversity cannot touch you. Lay low. Don’t get involved in things like politics and don’t draw attention to yourself.”

“No way,” said the Stoics. “We are not running away. Bring on any adversity. We will be here. We will face it head on. We are not afraid and we are not going anywhere.” 

The Stoic strategy for dealing with adversity

But the Stoics were not about to let themselves be run over by adversity. So how do they deal with adversity? Here is their strategy:

1. We cannot avoid adversity

Stoic refusal to run away or hide from trouble arises from their basic belief that we don’t create our troubles, so they are not under our control. Adversity is handed to us as the effect of some cause we may not even be a part of. Think of the many adverse conditions we may face: a pandemic, a job loss due to a company merger, an unexpected illness, a loved one dying, an unreasonable verbal or physical attack on us, an unfair lawsuit – we don’t create any of these. Even if we had some role in facilitating the things that happen to us, they happen without our permission. We can’t keep running from one place to another to avoid adversity. We may face adversity any time, any place.

Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature... Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. - Helen Keller

The Stoic position is, if something is not your doing, you cannot stop it from happening. Since adversity is an external thing, you cannot avoid it. They advise us to

...move aversion away from everything not up to us... - Epictetus, Encheiridion, 2

So the first step in dealing with adversity is to not complain about it or be upset about it but accept that these things naturally happen in the course of our life.

2. We can choose how to deal with adversity

Once we accept that things like adversity are ‘givens’, it becomes a part of the reality we face. The effective way to live is to not complain about reality but find the best course of action, given the reality. This step, and not the adversity itself, is what matters.

It's not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters. - Epictetus, Enchiridion, 5

So the Stoic does not fret about adversity, which is not under their control, but focusses on the next step which is.
For example, your lost your job because of a merger. You can’t do anything about this adverse condition. What can you do given this adverse condition? You can negotiate a better severance package, you can take some time off to relax and regroup, you can think about changing your career path, or look for a better job. All these are better alternatives than bemoaning your loss.

3. Facing adversity makes us resilient

Stoics don’t seek adversity any more than avoid it. But they also recognize that dealing with adversity stengthens us. Just as exercise strengthens the body by stressing it, difficulties strengthen the mind by stressing it.

Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labour does the body. - Seneca, On Providence, 2

As you successfully face adverse situations in your life, you become more proficient in handling adversity. An adverse situation will be much easier to handle if you have already handled such situations before. Always retreating from adverse conditions would only make us more fearful.

The Stoic looks at challenges not as insurmountable obstacles but as chances to develop virtues such as courage, patience, and wisdom. In facing adversity, we build character and fortify our mental and emotional capacities.

4. Adversity can be a hidden opportunity

When handled the right way, the adversities we face can become opportunities for our growth.
The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way. - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 5.20

There is no difference between the headwind and the tail wind. The headwind is the tailwind when we move in a different direction. The wind that hinders a sailboat is the same wind that propels it forward. The rain that ruins your picnic is the same rain that makes your food grow. Adversity is just a name we give to reality from our point of view. See it from a different point of view and it is not adversity anymore.

Rather than being deterred by difficulties, a Stoic embraces them as part of their journey, allowing them to guide them toward greater understanding and achievement.

5. Preparing for adversity

When we face adversity, we overreact. Because of our overreaction we exaggerate the problem, which makes it worse.
We suffer more often in imagination than in reality. - Seneca, Moral Letters, 13
So how can we stop suffering more in imagination than in reality? One way to do this is to imagine vividly that the worst thing that can happen has already happened. You might realize that you are still alive and it is not as bad as you thought after all.

In short…

  1. Adversity is a part of life. We can’t avoid it.
  2.  What really matters is what we do about it.
  3. Adversity makes us resilient.
  4. Adversity can be opportunity in disguise.
  5. We suffer more in imagination than in reality.