Thursday 16 December 2021

Book Review: The Stoic Challenge

Book Review: The Stoic Challenge

Review By Casey Douglass

The Stoic Challenge

Sometimes, it can feel like life is full of setbacks. Whatever you try to do, things just seem stacked against you. It’s overwhelming. If like me, you have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), you can probably multiply that feeling by a thousand or so. Then add one to the result for good measure. One of the elements of Stoic philosophy that most appeals to me is the notion of the Stoic Test, and William B. Irvine’s book The Stoic Challenge: A Philosopher's Guide to Becoming Tougher, Calmer, and More Resilient is firmly focussed on that particular approach.

Stoicism, as a philosophy, doesn’t entail suppressing emotions and keeping a stiff upper lip. That’s small “s” stoicism. Stoicism, the philosophy, takes a number of approaches in helping the practiser enjoy life just as it is. It does this by encouraging us to reflect on the things that are in, and beyond, our control, and living a life driven by values that aid us rather than harm us. Stoics still feel emotion, but they don’t needlessly fuel it by rumination. The practices they engage in also reduce the chance of negative emotion occurring.

William illustrates this nicely in the book with a burst water pipe analogy. The burst pipe, the setback, needs to be solved. The water that floods your house is your emotional reaction. Some water will leak, even if you are a super plumber who always has your tools at hand. Regardless, the sooner you can fix the pipe or stop the flow, the less damage the water will do to your home. If someone triggers anger in you (the burst pipe), you can either notice it and rise to the challenge, or you can lose your temper with them, stew all day, and flood your emotional basement. Using the Stoic Test approach is one way of dealing with this.

William explains that the Stoics purposefully adjusted how they framed events, to help bring their actions more into alignment with the virtues that they wanted to live by. An example of a re-framing that I always think of is that the sensations of anxiety and excitement are very similar, and how we view a particular arising depends on which frame we view said sensations through. That doesn’t mean in the midst of an OCD spiral, that I can suddenly decide to view it as exciting, but I get the concept if nothing else. Making use of the Stoic Test approach, for me, is more a reminder to at least recognise that things can be viewed differently.

To practise the Stoic Test frame, when you are confronted by a setback, you decide to frame it by saying that the Stoic Gods are sending you this challenge, for your own good, as a way to develop and grow. Now, you don’t need to believe that these Gods exist. You can even just imagine a sage-like elder standing nearby and prodding you towards the challenge. William emphasises that you need to bring this to mind as quickly as possible, preferably within five seconds of the first flush of frustration, anger or whatever is occurring, as it can stop the emotions running away with you. That’s about it. There are nuances and other helpful elements that William covers in the book, but that's the broad gist of things.

When I first started applying the Stoic Test frame to the setbacks I experienced, I was often slow in remembering to do so. I’d get a minute or two into some response and then remember it. Over time though, the notion came to mind more quickly. When it did, it genuinely seemed to help with how I viewed things. When I was able to apply it, it made setbacks seem almost amusing, or at the least, it felt fun to approach them as a challenge. I couldn’t do this all of the time, but it is slowly creeping into my world view the more that I do it. Things that trigger strong emotions are harder for me than more trifling setbacks, but as with anything, as the test frame becomes habitual, I don’t see why I couldn’t make headway with those too.

I had a nice example of a minor setback just before I started to redraft this review. I received an email coupon from a gaming website offering a discount. Often the coupons can’t be used if you’ve been a member before, but this one was titled in such a way that it suggested I could use it. What’s more, a game I have been interested in for awhile is included, so I was pleased at the idea of treating myself to a very cheap game. Well, the coupon couldn’t be used. It was the same as similar ones I’d been sent before after all, just titled in a misleading way. Within a few moments I reframed it as a Stoic Test and smiled. I did have a brief moment of wanting to tweet at the company to let them know that their coupon was misleading, but that urge soon fell away. Who cares. What’s more, the next day the company emailed and said that things didn’t quite go to plan, but now the coupon works as it should. It’s a low grade, low stakes example of how framing something differently takes some of the sting out of things. I wasn’t super upset, just mildly irked and disappointed. The fact that things resolved the next day in a favourable way was a pleasant surprise too, but if that hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have minded.

With my OCD, I’m always careful not to buy into approaches that entail trying to control my emotions. This is counterproductive and just makes things worse. I like the Stoic Test frame approach as changing the frame just seems to encourage a softer, more accepting approach to things, without the emotional escalation that we often add to events ourselves. As the fear of setbacks in life, both large and small, is a major element of OCD, anything that can help me to view the world in a more tranquil and accepting way is just fine by me. If you have OCD, you might find the concept helpful to look into, but here, I can only speak as to how it has affected me.

The Stoic Challenge is a fine book that teaches the reader in a warm, friendly way. William illustrates his teachings with a variety of personal examples, and his easy going manner and acknowledgement that he still slips up, all make it a fantastic book. If you have any interest in Stoicism, or in how the way we view life can affect our mental health, I recommend this book. Also, if you have OCD and have yet to get any formal treatment, I’d do that first. I came to Stoicism after having CBT and other therapy, and I wouldn’t change that sequence of events for anything.

Book Title: The Stoic Challenge: A Philosopher's Guide to Becoming Tougher, Calmer, and More Resilient

Book Author: William B. Irvine

Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company

Current Price: £15.68 Hardback / £10.75 Paperback / £8.96 Kindle

ISBN: 978-0393652499

Published: 1 Oct 2019