First an earthquake shook our nerves, and now Hurricane Irene threatens our safety and possibly our lawn furniture. Do we have the emotional tools to cope?
Put down the vodka and valium. We checked in with one of the nation’s philosophical counselors, or therapists who treat anxiety with Aristotle and push Plato rather than pills to allay our earthly fears.
The Prescription: The Stoics, specifically, “A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy” by William Irvine. Also try “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius and “Letters from a Stoic” by Seneca.
Why: According to Andrew Taggart, a philosophical counselor based in New York City, the Stoics held that the ultimate aim of life is ataraxia: freedom from mental disturbance. The problem, the Stoics believed, is not only that we’ve managed to orient ourselves almost exclusively toward the future, but also that we’ve attached ultimate value to what’s uncertain and not within our control. Both mistaken beliefs are nothing but a recipe for tension, strife and distress, Taggert says.
How it works: Taggart says anxiety of any sort is born of the belief that what we deem good will soon perish (our child will be injured in a storm, our parent will be crushed by a falling building) or that what we most want may never come to pass (our best efforts will fail to bring about financial success or social recognition). The problem is that we’ve sought to treat what’s not within our control as if it were or, worse still, as if it should be. But gods we are not, Taggart says. Instead, he says, assent to the thought that the world’s not up to you. Then you consider what is within your power — what you can do, here and now, to steel yourself against harm. In this way, we manage to accept reality and to strengthen our will.