Book [Club] Report - The Stoic Challenge: A Philosopher's Guide to Becoming Tougher, Calmer, and More Resilient - by: William B. Irvine

Written by: Brittany Lyonette
Biggest Take Away: 

“Um, excuse me, sir… I think your privilege is showing.”   Despite the fact that it was  evident very early on that the author, Willam B. Irvine, is most likely a middle-class white man of privilege (he is), and that his rhetoric about staying stoic in times of injustice rather than making one’s voice heard would have been quite tone-deaf had the book been written in 2020 (it was not), there are some definite gems in this book on how to become more resilient in the face of both major and minor setbacks.

My criticisms aside, this book is a good read for those interested in the basics of stoic philosophy and training themselves to be more robust in the face of adversity.  The basic idea is simple: to use a mental trick, known to the ancient Stoics and well studied by modern cognitive scientists, to help us navigate life more easily. That trick is commonly referred to in psychology as the framing effect.

Let's use Irvine’s own analogy to understand framing better. Imagine a piece of artwork which is not yet in a frame.  Put it in a frame that is beautiful and the artwork will stand out as a masterpiece. Put it in an ugly frame and even the Mona Lisa will look terrible!  

Now use this technique against the backdrop of an unfortunate situation you may find yourself in.  Let’s jump right to the obvious: the current global pandemic.  I will come straight out and say that the framing technique does not require you to completely ignore the hardships or to feign ignorance of a negative situation.  Instead it's a technique for controlling your reactions to it. In a sense it is asking you to move away from the “worst case scenario” mentality to the “look on the bright side” mentality (for lack of a better way to describe it).

Being a new mom during COVID times, I find often myself trapped in a negative mental loop, thinking about everything that Sophie is missing out on: being held by her grandparents, making friends and playing with other babies, traveling to the UK so she can meet Tom’s family, and the obvious risks to her health should she be exposed to the virus.  Though all of these thoughts hold their own validity, it doesn’t help me, my mental health, nor does it change our situation to just focus on the negatives.  In fact, it has the potential to make a bad situation worse.  To use the framing technique in this specific case, I should try to notice when my mind is stuck on the negative “frames”, and consciously bring to mind the positives of the situation: my family and friends are all safe and healthy, Sophie has both her parents home to share in the first year of her life, many people around the world have had a chance to slow down and consider what is important in their lives.

Like anything, this takes practice.  Irvine considers every setback he experiences as an opportunity to flex his “framing muscle”.  He calls this the Stoic Challenge. So next time you find yourself in a difficult situation, challenge yourself to reframe your thoughts and see how well you do. 

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