William Irvine’s book, “The Stoic Challenge,” is a little different than some of the other popular books about this philosophy. It is, indeed, a challenge!
His book begins with what to most of us, would be a frustrating time at the airport. One delay after another when we need to catch a flight and we start to steam inside. Not Bill Irvine. He accepts it as a challenge to his ability to use his philosophy, stay engaged and improve his resilience.
I don’t think I have read any other book that uses the word “setback” more often. There is a chapter devoted to it. Actually more than one. He describes all the different ways we can experience a setback, the psychology of setbacks and how to use Stoic philosophy to confront them. The Stoics’ goal says Irvine, “was not to remain calm while suffering a setback but rather to experience a setback without thereby suffering.”
In his chapter on the psychology of setbacks, Irvine gets busy discussing anchoring and framing as they relate to Stoic philosophy.
This kind of anchoring is not like what you experience in Neuro-linguistic Programing, where you heighten the subject’s emotion and attach an “anchor.” Irvine explains it as a retailer selling shirts for $50 but then having sales of 20% off. This anchors the “regular price” at $50 in the shopper’s mind.
When it comes to the Stoics, “they would periodically make a point of imagining ways their lives could be worse…By thinking about how things could be worse, they effectively sank an anchor into their subconscious minds. The presence of the anchor affected how they subsequently felt about their current situation.”
Epictetus said, “what upsets people is not things themselves but their judgment about the things.” So there are six frames that Irvine outlines for us and that we can use daily.
First, there is the “Competing Obligation Frame.” You think someone didn’t give you something you thought you should get because they are nasty, but with this frame, you can step back and say to yourself that they may have had a competing obligation which prevented them from giving you what you wanted.
Second, the “Incompetence Frame,” Someone does something and you at first think it is out of malice, but with this frame, you realize they are just incompetent.
Third, the Storytelling Frame,” allows you to “write your behavior” by focusing on how the setback could turn out well in the long run.
Fourth, the Comedic Frame, is when you use humor to offset the setback. Simple and it works.
Fifth, the Game Frame, is where you think about your setback as just a part of a game. Sometimes an elaborate game I suppose.
Sixth, the Stoic Test Frame, is seeing every setback as a test by the Stoic “Gods” of your ability to stay calm and find a workaround.
This is when we go out of our way to make our circumstances take a turn for the worst so we can expand our comfort zone.
This subject is one I found particularly interesting since in a minor way climbing a mountain I have not climbed before or even one I have during difficult situations is a form of toughness training. However, the author uses climbing Everest as an example which is way out of my comfort zone.
He says your comfort zone has two dimensions. One is physical and the other emotional. You work on the emotional by facing your fears. Then in the physical dimension you face physical discomfort. Is he talking about cold showers? Maybe. He talks about how he forces himself to go out in cold weather with no coat. I think cold showers are worse or rather best. Take that cold shower every day!
The whole idea is to “expand your comfort zone so you will feel comfortable in a wider range of circumstances.”
My favorite subject! Maybe it is because of my age. I think death and I are becoming friends or at least death is a casual acquaintance these days. The Stoics say you should contemplate your death. Irvine says, “…pause in your daily routine to reflect that no matter what you are doing, there is a chance that the is the last time you will ever do it.”
One visualization I liked was what he calls, “prospective retrospection.” This is when you reflect on the fact that at some point in the future you will look back at this very moment and wish you were there. Think about it. You have lived a long time and now you can’t drive, hike, or maybe even walk very well. You will look back and wish for the past. So do it now so you appreciate the present more.