Andrew Fiala

Before sending an angry text, take a deep breath and consider the ancient Stoics

Laurel Foster looks at Instagram in San Francisco. The digital age has led to instant outrage and criticism that can be harmful, says Bee ethics columnist Andrew Fiala.
Laurel Foster looks at Instagram in San Francisco. The digital age has led to instant outrage and criticism that can be harmful, says Bee ethics columnist Andrew Fiala. AP file

We seem to enjoy outrage. One day people pile on about a smiling teenager in a MAGA hat and a Native American drummer. Another day we’re complaining about referees or kneeling athletes. We get worked up about the sex lives of pop stars and the lies of politicians. The ether flows with mocking and angry words. Instead of listening, we accuse. Instead of thinking things over, we over-react.

This is a good time to remember the value of equanimity. Anger and outrage are not virtues. A balanced life is calm and composed. Think before you speak. Recognize that most things are beyond your control and none of your business. The virtuous person remains upright and steady in the face of adversity. And often she remains silent.

This is a central idea in the teaching of the ancient Stoics. The word “stoic” is used to describe someone who remains calm despite hardship. This can become a caricature of a rigid and emotionless person. But the goal of Stoicism is not to eliminate emotion. Rather, it is to avoid those extremes of emotion that undermine clear thinking and cause anxiety.

In an anxious culture driven by outrage we forget the importance of emotional control. We have been taught that empathy is important and that it is good to express our emotions. Some even suggest that there is something wrong with bottling up your emotions. Let them out, they say. It is healthy to cry and rage and vent.

But it is neither healthy nor wise to allow your emotions to control your thinking. We don’t want doctors, for example, to be driven by emotion. We expect professionals to keep their composure. A stoic doctor is a calming presence who reassures with her thoughtful stability.

We also find praise for calmness and self-control in Chinese Taoism and in other traditions that teach that about mindfulness and balance. These traditions remind us to consider a broader point of view, to learn to accept the inevitable and to go with the flow.

The universe cares little for our raging and venting. Things will come and go, whether we like it or not. Every generation has dumb people and pompous politicians who do and say stupid things. But every empire crumbles to dust and the loudmouths are eventually forgotten.

But those who rage against the injustice of it all imagine that somehow their angry outbursts matter. Perhaps they want to leave a mark on the world by yelling. But heated words blow away with the wind. Anger is not persuasive. And nature is indifferent to our complaints.

The Stoics teach us to accept what we must and focus on improving ourselves. Be prudent and cautious. Seek knowledge. Do the right thing. Don’t be surprised by the idiots around you. And stop worrying about things you can’t control, including those who continue to spit into the wind.

Accept that bad things happen to good people. Acknowledge that all good things eventually end. But also realize that nothing bad lasts forever.

Of course, even stoicism has its limitations. We need to be moderate, even in moderation. Americans are not content merely to accept the inevitable. We embrace freedom and celebrate creativity. We find cures and make improvements. We develop science and technology, hoping that knowledge can make things better.

Stoicism goes too far if it teaches us simply to stand still while things fall part. Nothing gets better unless we work to make it so. But that work should be smart and reasonable. The work of improving the world is not emotional work. Rather, it requires ingenuity and knowledge more than excited passion.

Stoic acceptance does not give up on a limited and pragmatic kind of hope. Human beings are clever and creative. We are rational and resilient. We’re not perfect. Nor are we immortal. But we can repair what we break and do better tomorrow. The one thing we can improve is our own state of mind.

Prepare for the worst, work as hard as you can, and give thanks for what you get. Acknowledge that nothing comes for free and nothing lasts forever. And stop complaining. Grit and gratitude make life bearable. But anger sets fires. And foolish words fan the flames.

Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: @PhilosophyFiala