Is your reaction to Britain's decision to leave the EU anticipatory delight at the prospect of a new era of British autonomy? Do you find yourself nodding approvingly at proposals to make June 23rd Independence Day or "St.Nigel's Day"? If so, I suggest you read no further. You have no need for a Stoic response to Brexit.
But maybe thoughts like these have been popping into your head since Friday morning:-
"I'm so disappointed in the attitude of my fellow citizens"
"At this moment I am ashamed to be British"
"I am really worried about the future - what will the effect be on future generations?"
"I am very concerned that this will unleash the forces of Little Englandism and bigotry"
"Will this be the start of the break up of the UK?"
"Will this be the end of the European dream?"
"I am worried that I or my friends or loved ones won't be able to stay in the UK"
"I am angry with David Cameron for a political gamble with all our futures"
"I am hoping that I will wake up and the Brexit result will turn out to be a nightmare"
Such thoughts bring with them emotions extending from disappointment to shame, feelings ranging from mild anxiety to fear, and frustrations fluctuating from mild irritation to anger. Some of you may be worried where it will all end. As one friend told me "It's not like when David Bowie died and you were really upset for a few days but got over by listening to Ashes to Ashes and Life on Mars. The consequences of Brexit will be with us forever."
Long ago, a group of ancient Greek and Roman philosophers devised an excellent life philosophy - Stoicism - to help them deal with adversities worse than Brexit. In this post I will describeStoic Strategy # 1 Analyse your mood
5 Stoic strategies to help you handle Brexit.
5 Stoic strategies to help you handle Brexit.
Moods and emotions are not, according to the Stoics, an inevitable consequence of things that happen to us. They result from an interplay of events and our interpretations of them. In Epictetus's words
Now ask yourself these questions.
- Need this thought be 100% true?
- Is there a different way of looking at things?
- Is there anything helpful I can do to deal with this concern?
Stoic Strategy #1 may seem familiar to devotees of CBT which isn't so surprising since CBT stole them from Stoicism. For the Stoic, they are just the beginning.
Stoic Strategy #2: Accept those aspects of the situation which you cannot change
"What, then, is to be done? To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens." Epictetus, Discourses, 1.1.17None of us are gods (not even you Boris, should you be reading this) and there are limitations to what we can change. Thinking otherwise will inevitably leas to frustration and other negative emotions. Applying this to Brexit, it isn't in our power to change the result, so there is no point dwelling on all the "if onlys". Dwelling on the past or worrying unhelpfully about the future is a very dangerous strategy. Indeed, for the past few years I have analysed thousands of questionnaires during Stoic Week to discover the relationship between our attitudes and happiness. The attitude that is consistently the least conducive to well-being is
"I spend quite a lot of time dwelling on what’s gone wrong the past or worrying about the future"
If you notice yourself doing this, remind yourself that this is really unhelpful and look for a more fruitful way to spend your time. By all means try to learn from mistakes and make plan about what's to be done. But these aren't dwelling or worrying, it's trying to change the things you can, which is our next Stoic strategy ...
Stoic Strategy #3: Change those aspects of the situation which you can (and should) change
Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are our opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Epictetus, The Enchiridion
Stoicism should not be confused with a philosophy of quietism or resignation. Stoics argue that you both can change your emotions and should do the right thing. Stoicism can help you to reframe unhelpful thoughts and consequently feel calmer and develop wiser action plans. Here are are nine understandable but ultimately unhelpful ways of looking at Brexit and how to reframe them Stoically.
#1:"I'm so disappointed in the attitude of my fellow citizens " : "At this moment I am ashamed to be British"
Pre-Stoic emotion: Disapointment possibly spiralling down into despair if left unchecked & Shame
What I can't control: How other people have voted
What I can control: My own attitude to how they voted
Stoic reframe: "I am disappointed in the attitude of many of my fellow citizens but I can't control their attitudes. Furthermore I can't be held responsible for the attitudes of other British people, so shame is not appropriate. What I can control is my reaction, which can be to be an inspiring role model of how British people should be -see Stoic Strategy #4
Stoic emotion: Acceptance and determination
#3:"I am really worried about the future - what will be the effect on the next generation?"Pre-Stoic emotion: Anxiety
What I can't control: The future
What I can control: My own behaviour, which may have a positive influence on the future (though this cannot be guaranteed)
Stoic reframe:"I can't control the future, there isn't any point worrying about it, unless my analysis can produce a good action plan. I can use the Stoic Worry Tree and get involved in projects that can help the next generation.
Stoic emotion: Calm, focussed and determined
#4:"I am very concerned this will unleash the forces of little Englandism and bigotry"Pre-Stoic emotion: Anxiety
What I can't control: The political and social environment
What I can control: My own behaviour in so far as it can be part of a ripple effect exemplifying positive virtues
Stoic reframe:"I can't control society, but I can be a role model for cosmopolitanism and tolerance. One way of doing this might be tweeting such Stoic exercises as the Concentric Circles of Hierocles
Stoic emotion: Caring
#5:"Will this be the start of the break up of the UK?" &
#6:"Will this be the end of the European dream?"
Pre-Stoic emotion: Anxiety
What I can't control: The political and social environment
What I can control: My own behaviour
Stoic reframe: "I can't control whether the UK breaks up - I'll cross that bridge when I come to it. With regards to the European dream, whilst I can't control what governments do, I can act like a good European. Marcus Aurelius used to say "concentrate every minute like a Roman". I should "concentrate every minute like a good European".
Stoic emotion: Acceptance and resolve
#7:"I am worried that I or my friends or loved ones won't be able to stay in the UK"Pre-Stoic emotion: Anxiety
What I can't control: Decisions made by government
What I can control:How I relate to my friends or loved ones
Stoic reframe: "I can't control what happens with regards to employment law though I could try to influence it by campaigning. More immediately, I can be as supportive as possible to those I care about, being a rock for them to lean on, helping them emotionally and in practice ways."
Stoic emotion: Concern and full of purpose
#8: "I am angry with David Cameron for a political gamble with all our futures"Pre-Stoic emotion: Anger
What I can't control: Decisions made by David Cameron
What I can control: My thoughts about decisions made by David Cameron
Stoic reframe: "I can't control the past, least of all that relating to our Prime Minister's actions. It would be futile to dwell on this. I need to focus my energy on things that matter that are under my control
Stoic emotion: Calm
#9:"I am hoping that I will wake up and the Brexit result will turn out to be a nightmare"Pre-Stoic emotion:Incredulity
What I can't control: The result
What I can control: My response to the result
Stoic reframe: "The result of the referendum has gone against my hopes. I need to accept the result and then move on to thinking about how I can respond like a good Stoic and a good citizen of Europe and the world"
Stoic emotion: Acceptance and resolve to respond with Stoic virtue
Stoic Strategy #4: Ultimately, external things we want - like wealth, status, pleasure, power and even health - that aren't under our control aren't nearly as important as how we conduct ourselves, which is under our control
“Seek not the good in external things;seek it in yourselves.” EpictetusThe Stoic outlook is not a dismal one. Stoics believe in the potential for a virtuous circle of positive emotion, ethical behaviour and happiness. First we learn to reframe our thoughts so we try to control only the controllables, thereby avoiding much frustration . Next we recognise that what we have most control over is our own thinking and conduct. But exactly how should we think and behave? The Stoic answer is that we should aim to develop the cardinal virtues summarised admirably by Professor Christopher Gill in this way:-
Wisdom - understanding how to act and feel correctly;
Courage - knowing how to act and feel correctly in situations of danger, in facing things seen as fearful (above all, death and other ‘disasters’);
Self-control - knowing how to act and feel well in situations arousing other emotions such as desire, appetite, lust;
Justice - knowing how to act and feel well in our relationships with other people, at individual, family or communal level, knowing how to act generously and with positive benevolence, with friendship and affection.
According to the Stoics, developing these virtues is within our power. So focusing on virtue means we are at the same time controlling the controllables and leading (morally) good lives. We will also increasing our chances of happiness. If this last claim seems at all fanciful, then the results of Stoic Week do indeed suggest a strong link between Stoicism and happiness , as does other research.
So how can the cardinal virtues be applied to this situation? Here are some ideas.
Wisdom - Reflecting on what is and is not under our control, what really matters and what we need to do
Courage - Doing the right thing even if it brings about inconvenience or discomfort to ourselves
Self-control - Avoiding lashing out angrily at those who do not share our views. Noticing and halting thoughts that lead to self-pity or despair
Justice - Working at both a personal and communal level to help those adversely affected by Brexit. Being a positive role model of a good European and citizen of the world
Stoic Strategy #5: See difficulties as a challenge and an opportunity
“The greater the difficulty, the more glory in surmounting it. Skillful pilots gain their reputation from storms and tempests. ” Epictetus
John Sellars argues that Stoics should actually welcome adversities as a chance to develop and prove themselves.
"It is only through a real fight that the wrestler can develop his skills and prove his talent. Likewise in life, it is only through apparent adversity that we get to prove our character."Let us consider both those ideas in relation to Brexit. It provides the opportunity to develop character - to notice your unhelpful ways of thinking and responding and to replace them with unhelpful ones. Brexit also gives you the opportunity to prove yourself. Churchill - himself an early advocate of a united Europe - would not have had the opportunity to show his qualitiesif it had not been for Hitler. Brexit gives you have the opportunity to show wisdom, courage, self-control and justice.
I hope to have shown that Stoicism can be a useful philosophy for dealing with real-life adversities like the prospect of Britain leaving the EU . Whilst we cannot change what has happened, we can learn how to think about it rationally and and how to conduct ourselves like a good citizen of Europe and the world. Up next - the Stoic response should Donald Trump get elected as President....