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Managing Your Disappointment (Stoically)
This article was originally published on EverydayStoicism.com, Tanner’s personal blog. If you would like access to these articles earlier, you can subscribe to Everyday Stoicism for just $5/mo. Thanks for reading.
I was recently disappointed by a business associate. When we first met I assented to the impression that they were capable, knowledgeable, honest, and could help me to accomplish certain aims. Having thusly assented, I entered into various formal business agreements with this individual and their company. As time progressed, however, it became slowly apparent I had assented to an impression that wasn’t true.
This has happened to you, too, no doubt — and probably far more than once. That’s okay, I’ve been guilty of rushing to trust and judgement many times in my life; and I’m sure this shortcoming has not seen its last expression by me! Yours either, perhaps.
How should a Stoic deal with this sort of thing?
I confess, as a repeat offender, I’m still figuring it out, but I believe I have a few useful things to say about how to move forward and improve on this front as you do.
First, recognize your role in the disappointment
I assented to the impression I assented to because I wanted to believe my reasons for doing so were accurate reflections of reality. I wanted what I believed to be true, to be actually true (see Confirmation Bias). That’s something I have to take responsibility for. I cannot simply kick and scream and say it’s not fair and how dare someone not be what I thought they were — though, certainly it’s understandable if that’s a person’s initial reaction to being disappointed by someone. Instead, I must reflect honestly on what it was about my character that allowed me to make such a poor decision.
I'm not suggesting we victim blame ourselves, not at all. Instead, I'm suggesting an honest assessment of past behavior for the sake of future choices. We make our own choices and, if a choice has lead to an outcome we didn’t see coming, that means something within our power contributed to getting us to where we currently are. This isn’t to say that the character of the person who disappointed us isn’t guilty of its own ills, rather it is a simple recognition that different choices (within our power) may well have lead to different outcomes.
We must spend at least some time, then, reflecting on whether or not different choices could have been made with the information we had at hand when we made the choice to assent to a belief about someone. Again, this isn’t to assess blame! It is to make us better choosers in the future. This is something we, as Stoics, must want to do — it is part of being Prokoptôn.
Second, realize what is your own to choose.
Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions. — Epictetus, Enchiridion 1.1
It is certainly worth making sure we really understand what Epictetus is saying here.
“…in a word, whatever are our own…”.
If it isn’t yours, you don’t have the ability to choose what it does.
Your child isn’t yours, so you can’t choose when it gets sick.
Your car isn’t yours, so you can’t decide when it will stop functioning optimally.
Your business associates are not yours, so you you cannot choose what they do, how they think, or the quality of their character.
When someone not in your control behaves in a way that finds you suddenly in a dispreferred situation, you cannot make them change their behavior or undo the things they’ve done to escape the situation you now find yourself in. Their actions, and past, are not your own.
You’ve been wronged, and now you’re behind on your rent (for example). What control do you have? You can’t change what has happened, you can’t change the character of the person who is most to blame, but you can make decisions right now and you can change the character of the person who is your own (that’s you).
“What help is that?” you may ask, to which I will answer: only a person who knows what is and isn’t their own to choose (control), can make appropriate decisions concerning their present or future — and appropriate choices are the only choices worth making (if you can manage it!).
Lastly, let it go
There is nothing worthwhile that ruminating on the past can accomplish in the present. Indeed, rumination on the past robs you (functionally) of your ability to impact your future positively. You can’t make decisions today if you’re only thinking about yesterday — and if you can’t make choices today, you’ve given up all say in regards to your future. That doesn’t mean you can control your future by “living in the now”, it only means that you forfeit all influence over the future when you live entirely in the past.
But what if the past visited a terrible crime upon us? What if we want legal justice?!
We can seek legal justice, there’s nothing unStoic about such an endeavor, but to require legal justice in order to develop or maintain the quality of our character, is to hedge our attainment of Virtue on something that is not our own and, therefore, which we cannot control.
We have to let go the need for what some might call closure, otherwise the development of our character is in someone else’s hands (so to speak), and that (placing responsibility for our character in someone else's care) is categorically unStoic.