Maintaining Sanity and Equanimity: The Graduate Center’s Resident Stoic on Getting Through Anxious Times

Massimo Pigliucci (Photo credit: Simon Wardenier)

Is there a better time to be a stoic? Professor Massimo Pigliucci (GC/City College of New York, Philosophy) sees the ancient philosophy of Stoicism as a way of life, and puts into practice the idea of solving problems through reason.

Yet even stoics get anxious. In this second contribution to our series on managing anxiety, Pigliucci explains how concentrating our energies on areas in which our agency is maximized ⎯ and relinquishing the illusion of control over what is outside our power ⎯ can help us get through this period of high stress:

We live in highly unusual times indeed. We are in the midst of a once-in-a-century pandemic, which our government is not handling well; we have seen unrest in the streets in response to systemic racism; and we are facing a highly uncertain election in which some people are openly attempting to undermine our democratic values. No wonder people feel anxious!

My response through it all has been to put into practice an ancient principle known as the dichotomy of control. You may have heard it articulated in the Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, 

courage to change the things I can, 

and wisdom to know the difference.

It is also found in medieval Judaism and 8th-century Buddhism. But the most ancient version I know of is articulated by the 1st-century Stoic philosopher Epictetus:

Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.

The idea is that sanity is maintained by internalizing our goals, focusing where our agency — our ability to act — is maximized, while at the same time cultivating an attitude of equanimity toward everything else.

For instance, since the beginning of the pandemic I have taken all the standard precautions advised by experts. I wear a mask in public, keep social distance, minimize my outings, wipe down my groceries, and wash or sanitize my hands frequently and thoroughly. These are all things I can do; they are in my power, as Epictetus says. Nevertheless I could still get unlucky and contract the coronavirus. I am mentally prepared, as best as I can be, for that possible — if unlikely — outcome. Should it happen, I will then switch to a new set of priorities under my control, like seeking immediate medical care, following whatever my doctor says, and so forth.

Anxiety is the result of fear of the future and of a sense of lack of control over outcomes. The truth is, the Stoics remind us, that we do not, in fact, control outcomes. We only control our decisions and actions. So let’s focus on those, and let the rest be as it may.

Submitted on: OCT 16, 2020

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