Thursday, November 10, 2016

A Stoic Response to Trump becoming President

“I’m trying to use the Stoic disciplines now, Tim, I really am. But I can't yet get any traction on dealing with the anxiety, anger, and downright fear I feel after last night's result. Thoughts? “ (Derek, posted the day after Donald Trump's election).


It’s no longer just a negative visualisation  - Donald Trump really is  going to be the next President of the United States.  How exactly can Stoicism help Derek and others who finds the result hard to stomach?

Let’s start with a quick mindfulness exercise. Derek mentions anxiety, anger and downright fear. What are you experiencing? Feeling down, sad, upset or  shocked are amongst some other possibilities …

Have you ever noticed that when you  - and others - feel  “negative” emotions, we sometimes  (not always) behave in rather unhelpful ways?  What has the election result made you feel like doing? Would all those things be smart and wise things to do?

I recently facilitated workshops in New York and London where we imagined our responses  to a Trump victory precisely in order to develop more helpful Stoic responses. I’m wondering whether sharing those responses might help now.


This is how some people imagined they would feel the day a Trump victory was announced …


Reaction 1: “Feeling anxious, frozen like a deer in headlights. I feel like drinking, taking tranquillizers or finding some way to distract myself”

Reaction 2: “Feeling angry, arguing with everyone and going on a tirade”


Reaction 3: “Feeling depressed and wanting to hide in bed - or emigrate!”

In order to change how you feel,  you can change how you think (a smart tip from CBT 101!). So what were people thinking that made them feel so upset?


Reaction 1: Anxious thoughts

“Women, minorities and immigrants will be marginalised  and oppressed”
 “Other countries will have a very negative view of America. It will make us vulnerable to our enemies.”
“The stock market will plummet, economic depression with follow”
 “Supreme Court Justices will be appointed who will destroy our American values and democracy”

Reaction 2: Angry thoughts
“How can so many people not see the truth?”

Reaction 3: Depressing thoughts
“Trump represents everything I disagree with”


What thoughts go with the difficult emotions you are experiencing around Trump becoming President?
When doing Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) with clients, this would be the point where we get to test out these thoughts in terms of their realism and helpfulness. We might come up with :-
 “I can’t be sure that Trump will be as bad as I fear. For example,  there are checks and balances on Presidential power.”.
“Although I feel angry, it’s not helpful to vent it"
“Although I am feeling depressed, I need to act according to my goals rather than my mood”.

This can be really helpful especially if followed up appropriate action. The Stoic response incorporates all of these CBT ideas, since challenging unhelpful and unrealistic thoughts and planning helpful behaviours is a crucial part of the virtue of  practical wisdom. However Stoicism takes things further in a way which makes Stoicism a much more comprehensive and philosophical response.

Before moving on to  describing this Stoic response, we need to say a little bit about Stoicism’s view of eudaimonia or “flourishing”. For the Stoics,  flourishing coincides with living as an excellent human being would, living virtuously or, in Larry Becker’s felicitous phrase, becoming a virtuoso at living. For the Stoics, the main virtues were wisdom, courage, self-control (or temperance) and justice (which we need to interpret broadly to include a love of all humanity).

Wisdom  means using our faculty of reason firstly to understand theoretically how to live well and then to use practical wisdom to decide what to do right now, in the situation we find ourselves.   
Chris Gill  has provided us with a nice summary of what the Stoics mean by the other virtues.
Professor Gill writes that :-
 “[Courage]  is knowing how to act and feel correctly in situations of danger, in facing things seen as fearful (above all, death and other ‘disasters’)
[S]elf-control knowing how to act and feel well in situations arousing other emotions such as desire, appetite, lust;
[J]ustice 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.”

We are now coming to the point where we can outline the Stoic response and see what it adds to CBT.

Faced with Trump’s election, a Stoic asks themselves
“How, in this current situation, can I best act  according to the virtues, how can I be a virtuoso at living, how can I act with wisdom, courage, self-control and justice?”

Firstly,  we apply Serenity Prayer Wisdom, by asking

What aspects of the situation aren’t in my power, what can’t I change?
It’s clear a lot of people’s concerns are about things not in our power – things  such as the economy, what other countries think and what Trump’s plans for example in his appointment of Supreme Court judges. If these are truly not in your control it’s a waste of energy to focus on them – but of course if we decide through the use of practical wisdom that we can change them, then we should.

What aspects are of the situation can I change?
Whilst you can’t change the result of the election, you can change how you respond to it. More fundamentally, the Stoics would argue that you can and should respond by putting the virtues into practice. Acting virtuously is one of the things under your control and so that is the focus of the Stoic’s thoughts and behaviours. “What would the fully virtuous person, the sage, do in this situation?” 

·       We need courage and the related virtue of persistence to stand up for what we believe in, even in the face of difficulty, unpopularity or danger.
·       We need self-control so we don’t  lash out angrily at those  who do not share our views. We need self-control to moderate trains of  thought that lead  to self-pity or despair. More specifically, self-control will help us manage ruminating about what the Clinton or the Democrats might have done differently. It might also  help some of us refrain from angry tweeting!
·       The role of justice and  love of humanity  cuts two ways.  Clearly justice and love of  humanity means doing what is in our power to help those most threatened by a Trump presidency – minorities, women and immigrants. But also, as Jules Evans has argued on Twitter (9/11/2016)
“We can either re-draw party lines, middle-class party for globalization / free trade / social liberalism, working-class party against. Or. ..think very hard about how to appeal to those left behind by globalization, particularly white working class. Dont just dismiss as bigots.”
           A similar point is made by Tim Antiss  writing in the Compassionate Mind Forum [ posted 9/11/2016]
“White males without college education, living in the rust belt of the US, voted for Trump. He connected with their pain and offered them hope where the Republican Party and the Democratic party did not. He identified wealthy, entitled politicians as part of the problem, and promised to drain the swamp and end disconnected government, to make government act in the interests of working people. He helped them feel listened too, understood, sympathised with, and not blamed for their predicament. Global trade agreements, jobs leaving the US to lower wage countries, immigrants, etc led to the loss of industries and jobs and communities.”
          From a Stoic as well as a compassionate mind perspective, love of humanity means listening to the concerns of the disenchanted and providing a viable alternative to Trump [or Brexit] to address them.  

Last  but by no means least comes practical wisdom. Having reflected on the situation through the lens of the specific Stoic virtues of Serenity Prayer wisdom, courage, self-control and justice, we need to think about how to best satisfy these in practice. We have already alluded to one part of practical wisdom when discussing the CBT approach and coming up with more balanced and realistic thoughts. We are now a position to apply the specifically Stoic take on practical wisdom -taking the original thoughts that led to anxiety, fear, anger, depression and their ilk and reflecting on the Stoic virtues and how they can lead to a different perspective.

This is what happened when  the New York workshop participants tried this.

Pre-Stoic Reaction 1: Anxious thoughts

“Women, minorities and immigrants will be marginalised  and oppressed”
 “Other countries will have a very negative view of America. It will make us vulnerable to our enemies.”
“The stock market will plummet, economic depression with follow”
 “Supreme Court Justices will be appointed who will destroy our American values and democracy”

Stoic response
“It may not be as bad as I imagine. I may be overestimating how much difference  a President can make. I can make a difference - I can be a grassroots activist for causes I care about – I need courage & practical wisdom.  I now feel more tranquil and determined”

Reaction 2: Angry thoughts
“How can so many people not see the truth?”
Stoic Response
“People have their reasons and concerns which I need to understand. I also need to work at helping more people understand my view. I now feel more empathy for my opponents and calm acceptance of aspects of the situation I cannot change”

Reaction 3: Depressing thoughts
“Trump represents everything I disagree with”
Stoic Response
“I accept the fact that he is President, I will do what I can to mitigate the damage. I now feel strength that I can handle the situation”

As well as clarifying the difference between a Stoic and CBT response, I hope this article also illustrates how a true Stoic answer differs from that of the “cartoon Stoic” often assumed in popular but ill-informed discussions of Stoicism. The “cartoon Stoic” would employ their “stiff upper lip”, repress any emotion and say to themselves “I can’t do anything about it so I need to accept it”.  The true Stoic aims to act virtuously, which also means looking  at aspects of the situation they can change. The Stoic would say that there are things we can all do.

I have previously alluded to John Sellars’ argument that Stoics should actually welcome  adversities as a chance to develop and prove themselves. I would like  to finish today by connecting this with Viktor Frankl’s idea that meaning in life emerges when we  detect doing something of value in the intersection between our life circumstances and our talents and skills. If you are passing a drowning woman and can swim, the meaning in your life right then is pretty apparent – you jump in and save her. Given Trump’s victory and your own concerns about it, life situation, talents and  skills ,  what can you do that might be of value? Adapting the words from the inaugural address of a very different US President to Trump, we might say to ourselves:
 "Do not ask what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for you humanity."


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