Minding Impressions (cont'd)
Live Like a Stoic
This is the second day of a two-day assignment. After completing the assigned exercises for yesterday and today, click here to access the prompt for tonight’s reflection and to submit your 1-2 paragraph journal entry.
How easy it is to reject and wipe away every disturbing or alien impression and then be at once in complete calm.
– Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 5.2
For the Stoics, recognizing the authority that we have in affirming impressions can also help us address unhealthy emotions like anxiety and fear. This is because they believe the vast majority of unhealthy emotions result from flawed judgments. Such judgments typically concern a perceived harm that involves something outside of our control. But observing that the source of an impression lies outside of our control should prompt us to reassess our assent to the impression that we’re being harmed. And withholding our assent to that impression should diminish the feeling of harm itself. As Marcus puts it: “Get rid of the judgment, and you have got rid of the idea, ‘I have been harmed’; get rid of the idea, ‘I have been harmed’, and you have got rid of the harm itself” (Meditations 4.7).
Epictetus expresses this point even more concisely in a well-known line: “It is not things themselves that trouble people, but their judgments about things” (Handbook 5). An athlete experiencing anxiety before a match, for example, perceives a prospective harm in things outside of their direct control: perhaps the approval of the crowd, the superiority of other players, and in general the outcome of the match itself. But for the Stoics such things are “none of our business.” If the athlete attended wholly instead to what is under their own control—such as their training and the quality of their play and their efforts in preparing for the match—their feelings of anxiety would diminish.
Today you should continue the practice of minding your impressions that you began yesterday, but now considered in light of the Stoics’ views on dealing with unhealthy emotions:
- Remind yourself that this is an impression that will affect you only if you give it your assent.
- Evaluate the judgment that accompanies the impression: rather than labelling a situation “good” or “bad,” try instead to form the judgment “this has happened.”
- Next, ask yourself whether the impression involves things that are under your control or things not under your control.
- Finally, consider your response: determine what lies within your power in converting challenges into opportunities, and if the situation is ultimately not under your control, be prepared to say “not my business.”
Repeat these steps throughout the day as you encounter any upsetting thoughts or when you sense the onset of troubling feelings. How does being on guard with your impressions help with the management of such emotions?