Someone called me “stoic” today. It was a nurse who was commenting on the fact that I didn’t flinch when she put a needle in my arm. I took it as a compliment and quietly patted myself on the back for keeping a poker face when I really wanted to scream “owwwwwwww!!!!”
It was funny that she referred to me as stoic, because I had just been reading about the original Stoics. Stoicism was a philosophical movement that came out of ancient Greece. Its proponents used to gather in an open market in Athens called the “Stoa Poikile” (hence the name Stoics) and share their ideas about life. Stoics believed that everything that happens to us in life is out of our control. In other words, we are all at the mercy of random forces and events that come into our lives and shift us and shape us. Some of those events we perceive as good for us, and some we perceive as bad for us. Simply put, life is unpredictable. I can see you nodding your head!! We can ALL relate to the idea that when it comes to our lives, we are not always in the driver’s seat. The question is, how can one be happy in a world that is so far from being perfect? Basically, the Stoics believed that happiness is found when we stop trying to control our circumstances (because we can’t) and instead focus on trying to control our thoughts (because we can). Happiness, they believed, comes from having good thoughts, and those good thoughts come from adhering to certain virtues. Stoics believed that every day of our lives we should commit ourselves to four main virtues – courage, discipline, justice and wisdom. They believed that a life of virtue creates the thoughts that in turn create happiness.
The most quoted Stoic was the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius who had many good things to say:
“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
“Dwell on the beauty in life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.”
“When you arise in the morning think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love.”
“The happiness of your life, depends on the quality of your thoughts.”
I like the philosophy of the Stoics. I think they had it right. Our thoughts do matter. None of us can control everything that happens to us in life, but every single one of us can control how we choose to react and respond. We really are about as happy as we make our minds up to be. I’m still not sure how the word “stoic” got changed in our English language to refer to someone with no facial expression. But the next time someone calls me stoic, I will use it as a launching point for a discussion on ancient Greek philosophy. I’ll ask her to put the needle down first.