Anxiety and locus of control

Do you focus on your choices or on events you don’t control?

© Dave DuBay

In book two part thirteen of his Discourses Epictetus makes an astute observation:

When I see someone in a state of anxiety I say, “What is it that he wants?” For unless he wanted something that was not within his power, how could he still be anxious? That is why a lyre-player feels no anxiety when singing on his own, but becomes anxious when he enters a theatre, even if he has a fine voice and plays his instrument well. For he wants not only to sing well, but also to win the approval of his audience, and that his something that lies beyond his control.

I feel anxious when I want a certain outcome but I’m not sure if it’ll happen. Or worse, there’s an outcome I don’t want but I may not be able to prevent it from happening.

Psychologists talk about an internal or external locus of control. People who believe they can control the outcome of events have an internal locus of control while those who think they have little power have an external locus of control.

This is important because people with an internal locus of control are more likely to take action and to take responsibility for themselves. But people who think things are the result of dumb luck are more passive and more likely to blame the circumstances.

Stoicism makes a key distinction between things that are not up to us—which includes all external events—and things we do control, namely our deliberate choices.

So does Stoic philosophy promote an internal or external locus of control?

Some might say that Stoicism’s locus of control is external due to its claim that external events are not up to us. In a Facebook discussion someone asked why a Stoic would even try to accomplish something if the outcome is not up to her. But that’s anxiety talking—it ignores what is up to her.

I think Stoicism’s locus of control is internal due to its claim that our deliberate choices are up to us. Put differently, we have no power over events (though we may have degrees of influence), but we do have power over how we respond to these events.

Let’s return to the lyre player. Why even bother learning to play in the first place? Because trying or not trying to learn a musical instrument is a deliberate choice. How hard he practices is also a deliberate choice.

Innate talent, or talent relative to other musicians, is not a deliberate choice, however, so the musician must approach his endeavors with a reserve clause: I’ll do my best but also try to practice non-attachment regarding my desired outcome.

Besides, the musician must realize that ultimately he will lose his ability to play. He’ll get older and less nimble. Arthritis may strike.

And most important for Stoics, the only thing that cannot be taken from him is his character. Even if Alzheimer’s strikes and he begins exhibiting inappropriate behavior we cannot say that he willfully sacrificed his character but rather that his brain has become diseased.

But for now the musician must focus on his chosen response to events. Even if the audience boos him he can still maintain his character by not retaliating and instead holding his head high with dignity.

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My disagreements with MGTOW

What does it mean to be independent?

© Dave DuBay

A few months back I wrote that men’s roles are changing in unexpected ways. One example I gave are men going their own way (MGTOW).

MGTOW are against marriage, and many eschew relationships with women altogether. They claim society is gynocentric:

  • men being expected to accommodate feminism while also fulfilling the traditional male role,
  • the welfare state being primarily a forced transfer of resources from working men to women via taxation,
  • women’s marital obligations ending at divorce (which mostly women initiate) while men’s obligations continue as alimony,
  • family court’s discrimination against men, who typically are not given equal child custody and can be forced to pay child support even when a DNA test shows no biological relationship,
  • and the specter of false rape allegations.

Mgtow.com says they’re all about individual sovereignty—“the manifestation of one word: ‘No.’”

Avoiding marriage and fatherhood are legitimate choices. But there are three disagreements I have with MGTOW:

First, women seem to be one of the primary discussion topics. Imagine a man who quit drinking but continuously talks about alcohol. He’d seem like a dry drunk rather than someone who truly left alcohol behind. Or imagine a man who rarely mentions football and seems bored when others bring it up. He’d seem like a man who is truly not a sports person.

Why, then, do so many men who say they’ve gone their own way—that is, away from women—when they spend so much time talking about women? A man whose life does not revolve around women, it seems to me, would instead talk about his hobbies and interests. MGTOW who rarely talk about women and instead talk mostly about how to unplug for society, live off the grid, etc. seem like they’ve truly gone their own way.

Second, MGTOW beliefs about women’s “true nature” are mostly a collection of crude stereotypes: women don’t think logically, they’re narcissistic, they’re manipulative, and the female brain is inferior — that’s why women can’t take responsibility for anything.

However, MGTOW are outraged over feminists’ pejorative claims about masculinity being about domination, misogyny, and homophobia. The irony, apparently, is lost on them.

This enmity, however, not only comes at the expense of our shared humanity—a person can’t be happy so long as he’s focused on blaming someone else.

Finally, MGTOW seem too focused on the blame game. Life is unfair, but do MGTOW really think they have it worse than other people? If MGTOW don’t believe society will change then why even bother collecting grievances?

A man can choose to focus on what is under his control—his deliberate actions and choices. And he can focus on his goals—what he wants to do now that romantic relationships are no longer an issue for him. But focusing on women and societal wrongs will only hold him back.

Worrying about money

© Dave DuBay

Most of us worry about money. Growing up as one of four children I became acutely aware at a young age how stressful financial concerns were for my parents.

As an adult I’m debt free and employed full time, but I still worry about not earning enough and spending too much. In Book XX part 8 of his Meditations on Self-Discipline and Failure William Ferraiolo writes,

If your serenity can be dispelled by the loss of a bit of money, then your mind is just another commodity. You have turned yourself in the psychological equivalent of a prostitute.

We don’t control money. We control our efforts to get it and keep it. But these efforts are not guaranteed to produce the desired result, and unforeseen circumstances such as an economic depression can destroy what we’ve accumulated.

It may sound harsh to compare the selling of our peace of mind to prostitution, but if our happiness is dependent on external things then our peace of mind is not really ours to begin with.

The question then becomes, How do I jettison my unhealthy attachment to money?

Judgmentalism reveals our insecurities

And that also puts other people’s judgmentalism into perspective.

© Dave DuBay

Everyone knows that a stronger person can overpower you. But perhaps that’s not quite true.

Physically, yes, you can be overpowered. But even if they threaten to kill you they still can’t make you do something that you think is wrong. Socrates chose to die rather than agree to something he thought was wrong. Jesus is probably the best known example.

They can’t even make you believe something that is false. If you verbalize agreement when really you disagree then they haven’t truly changed your mind.

Philosopher Epictetus points out that at noon when the sun is shining brightly someone cannot really make you believe that it’s nighttime, even if you say it’s night. If someone sincerely thought it was night they would be mistaken. That’s why he thought that most people hold false beliefs (which they might act on) not out of maliciousness but out of ignorance. Still, ignorance can have very destructive consequences.

Assent can only be given freely—coercion can merely appear to do so. Brainwashing can be resisted, though it may be a formidable challenge. And even if brainwashing succeeds we cannot say the asset was given freely.

Which brings me to feelings of anger, anxiety, and shame over being judged for a choice or opinion that belongs to me and not to the person rendering the judgement.

Judgment is a type of insult. It threatens social exclusion. And judgement springs from insecurities over someone else having a different viewpoint, and uncertainties over those opinions.

If I express my opinion on something—say a political issue—then someone who disagrees might judge me or even tell me what my opinion should be.

Of course, if my opinion was a judgement on something that’s none of my business, or if the facts demonstrably refute me, then they’d be right to object—but not in a way that attacks me personally.

Otherwise, they’re not entitled to judge me because my opinions don’t belong to them. I could point this out to them—but that would be defensive, and it’s likely to result in a pointless argument.

Instead, one simple statement would suffice:

“I do not assent to your judgements.”

What could they say to counter that? They could tell me I should assent. Or reiterate their judgements hoping that the repetition will overcome me. But if I remain firm there is nothing more they can do.

I can remain firm by reminding myself that they have no power over my choice to give or withhold assent. And by reminding myself that their misperceptions are probably due to ignorance rather than maliciousness.

Another scenario: Someone else expresses an opinion that I think is offensive—such as claiming that certain people are inferior.

My objections can be expressed without moralistic judgment, such as stating why I think opinions like that cause harm. I don’t need to attack the character of this person, which again are probably due to ignorance. Their opinions don’t belong to me, so I’m not entitled to judge them. But my opinions are mine, so I can express why I disagree.

Are they likely to respond to my objections with judgements and insults? There’s a good chance. I have no control over their judgements, so what would getting upset or retaliating accomplish except to show that they’ve bested me?

Besides, their judgements reveal their insecurities. That observation doesn’t need to pointed out to them—that would be petty. Marcus Aurelius wrote that the best revenge is to not be like your enemy. That means responding to your enemy with kindness rather than anger. Maintaining my composure but not backing down on my viewpoint is the best approach.

Self-interest isn’t anti-social

But where we locate our self-interest matters.

Desert Botanical Gardens, Phoenix, Arizona. Arizona. © Dave DuBay

It’s controversial to say self-interest is our primary motivation for whatever we do.

This claim seems to advocate selfishness. And what would a society built on selfishness be like?

Besides, there are examples of people taking great risks or even sacrificing themselves for people they don’t even know. How is that self-interest?

Perhaps someone wants to be a hero, or at least not be a coward. Perhaps someone strives to live by a particular moral code. Perhaps someone is concerned about the negative impact on their loved ones if they don’t act.

The difference between narrow self-interest and broader self-interest is important, however.

Being concerned only with the immediate impact on ourselves is selfishness. Though that’s not always a bad thing. Self-defense is one example.

Broader self-interest looks at the long term implications; the effects on people we care about and people whose assistance we might need later; and the impact on society, which can in turn affect us and those we love.

In his Discourses (1.19.11-17) Epictetus writes that

Every living creature…does everything for its own sake…And in general, he [God] has constituted the rational animal to have such a nature that he cannot obtain any of his particular goods without contributing to the common benefit. And so in the end it isn’t anti-social to do everything for one’s own sake.

What follows, then? When people come to hold absurd opinions about things that lie outside the sphere of choice, taking them to be good or bad, it is altogether inevitable that they’ll end up paying court to tyrants…and their flunkeys too!

But isn’t it in our self-interest to give in to a tyrant if he can do us harm?

Epictetus says no. A tyrant cannot force anyone to compromise their ethics. And history is full of people who have stood up to tyranny. They can kill the body but not the soul is how Jesus put it.

Epictetus’s distinction that failure to understand what lies within and outside of our control—and how this failure can lead to failure to understand what is good—is key.

We’re self-interested in things we think are good, but what are these things? He asks, if we value possessions then what’s to stop us from stealing them? After all, if it’s the object we value most then necessarily we value respect for other people’s property less (1.22.16).

But that only leads to all manner of conflicts. What is truly good, then, cannot lie in external things. We don’t control our possessions, circumstances, even our reputations—which can be conferred on us or taken from us by others or by circumstances.

The only things that are truly ours—things no one can take from us—are our deliberate thoughts, deliberate actions, and chosen values.

That’s where Epictetus locates self-interest. And this is self-interest in the broad rather than narrow sense of the term.

A Stoic perspective on the sexual assault crisis

Only we are responsible for our actions. That’s where sexual assault prevention starts. 

Sedona, Arizona. © Dave DuBay

What started with the downfall of one Hollywood mogul has become an avalanche of revelations of what we’ve known all along but have avoided acknowledging—sexual assault is rampant, especially by powerful men. Sexual harassment is even more widespread.

Epictetus opens his handbook (Enchiridion) by stating that nothing external is under our control. Only our chosen values and deliberate thoughts and actions are up to us. This can easily be misconstrued as an endorsement of passivity, but that’s not what he meant. Epictetus was a former slave who gained his freedom.

He gives an Olympian as an example. It is within the athlete’s control to train as hard as possible, make every sacrifice, and to seek every advantage. But there’s no guarantee the athlete will bring home the gold—circumstances could intervene, or the competitors could be more talented.

This does not mean the athlete shouldn’t try. In fact, the athlete should try as hard as possible. But the athlete must curb any sense of entitlement that the gold is theirs.

One interpretation of this is that pursuing something or someone is fine so long as we respect the boundaries. Another interpretation is that we can and should do everything in our power to change the current culture. And that’s up to every individual.

What we control

A Stoic perspective starts with the perpetrator. This is because sexual assault is within the perpetrator’s control, not the victim’s control. Related to this is the distinction between what belongs to us and what does not belong to us. We must protect what is ours while keeping our hands off of things that are not ours.

Stoicism is first and foremost about cultivating wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation. Domesticating (not suppressing) our emotions is a means to this end. And it is obvious to any rational person that sexual assault is ignorant, unjust, cowardly, and shameless.

Refusing to assent

An important Stoic focus is nipping our baser desires in the bud. Learning to recognize when a desire first arises and refusing to assent to it is a skill gained only from practice.

Sexual assault is usually motivated by a desire for power, and lust. Were it only about men gaining power over women then Kevin Spacey would have targeted women rather than men. Were lust not a factor then younger women and men would not be targeted more frequently.

Further, while all the news stories are about powerful men, we mustn’t forget the unpublicized stories of ordinary men and women who also commit sexual assault. People don’t need to have power in order to desire power.

Power is indifferent

Psychology Today profiled a study about sexual aggression when there’s a significant power difference between perpetrator and victim.

The study found that those who are insecure in their power (regardless of how much power they actually have) are more likely to harass or assault people with less power. The study also found “that the corrupting effects of power operate the same for men and women.”

The issue always circles back to the problem of power. Stoicism recognizes that power over people and externals things is a delusion. And power, sex, money, and so on are indifferent not because people don’t desire these things but because these things add nothing to positive values. Instead, it’s about how we conduct ourselves with regard to these things.

But perhaps the most important Stoic observation is that who we are is defined by our actions, not our beliefs or our stated values. This includes our actions even when no one is looking. A key question I, like you, must ask myself is what kind of person am I and what kind of person do I want to be?

 

R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me

Being civil doesn’t mean you have to hide your contempt for someone.

© Dave DuBay

The latest addition to the growing body of modern Stoic literature is William Ferraiolo’s Meditations on Self-Discipline and Failure. A series of personal reflections, it’s a book in the tradition of Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus.

I’ve just begun reading it, so in this and future posts I’ll highlight passages that catch my eye. In book one part six Ferraiolo writes,

Do not pretend to respect other persons either more or less than you actually do respect them. You owe no one a pretense of deference… You should have nothing to do with sham collegiality or faux civility. Some persons are worthy of your contempt… Do not allow yourself to be pressed, bullied, or cajoled into relations that strike you as unhealthy or pointless.

Ferraiolo isn’t advocating uncivil behavior. He’s against faux civility. It’s a call to sincerity. No one likes phonies. And we’ve all heard people say things like, “Well, he doesn’t like me but at least I know where I stand.”

Other people may create unhealthy dynamics, but that’s beyond your control. Whether you choose to allow yourself to be pressured into such relationships is within your control.

Reading this passage though, it occurred to me that respect can mean different things. “I respect you” could mean I hold you in high esteem. “Treat others with respect,” however, isn’t necessarily a demand to think highly of someone. It could simply be a more polite way of telling someone not to be rude—that is, to be civil.

Put differently, there’s respect in the active sense (conferring high regard on someone) and respect in the passive sense (refraining from uncivil behavior). Ferraiolo’s passage seems to refer to respect in the active sense.
It’s insincere to pretend to hold someone in high regard if you don’t. While contempt is the opposite of respect in the active, high esteem sense, contempt is not necessarily in conflict with respect in the passive sense of refraining from incivility.