The Stoics on Hurricane Irene: There is much you can do but you can’t do everything.
by Andrew Taggart
Update: In this Wash Post piece, you can check out my book recommendations on how to think clearly about Hurricane Irene. Also at Wash Post: Here you can read the Aug. 24 transcript of my live chat about philosophical counseling.
Philosophy is an ongoing practice in living well. Here you can read a few of my essays on philosophy as a way of life.
My father is a seasoned worrier. About Hurricane Irene he wrote,
This is a Cat 2-3 hurricane. Worst case has Manhattan under 7ft. of water. How high is your building above sea level? Power could be out for days.
My mom elaborates on my father’s condition: “Andrew, you know your father. He gets so worked up about things.”
As I see it, the only flaw with my dad’s thinking is that he didn’t make the weather. And that seems to induce in him more than his fair share of anxieties over parking, rule violations, finances, and hurricanes.
The ancient Stoics sought to get us out of this conceptual predicament by training us to think better about reality. Anxiety, they claim, arises from the belief that what we deem valuable will soon perish or what we care most about will never come to pass. The problem is that we’ve sought to treat what’s not within our control as if it were or, worse still, as if it should be. But gods we are not. And this mistaken belief about the nature of reality and the extent of our powers is leading us to unnecessary tension and strife.
To anxiety over escape routes and building heights. In Manhattan. For example.
There’s getting up worked up, and then there’s getting wound down. To achieve the latter, the Stoics suggest we perform regular mental exercises—most notably, that of premeditation. While our first instinct may be to hope that things will work out just the way we’d like, suppose instead we imagine they won’t. Suppose we imagine that an earthquake or a hurricane—Irene, for instance—is well on its way. First, loosen your mind from the thought that things could or should be otherwise; that reality will conform to your desires. Instead, assent wholeheartedly to this unavoidable reality. Second, consider what is within our power: you can take the necessary precautions to minimize the likelihood of harm.
Though at first it seems morbid, this exercise actually relieves us of anxiety by helping us to see not just that the weather is not up to us but also that our thoughts about the world, our awareness of ourselves, and our preparations for the worst all most surely are. Premeditation is thus a Janus-faced exercise in acceptance of reality and strength of will.
There is much you can do but you can’t do everything. The rest is love of fate. To learn the difference between will and fate: this is to become wise.
We want to worry less and to feel more at peace. Stoical philosophers like Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca take the process of reasoning to be an ongoing, demanding, yet rewarding exercise whose ultimate aim is to teach us how to replace negative emotions such as anger, frustration, and anxiety with a sense of joy that comes with the oceanic movement of good thinking.
Further Reading on Stoicism
Andrew Taggart, “Ataraxia, Allostasis, or Resilience?”