III. Stoics Don't Complain
When to seek help and the ingredients for happiness
Welcome to The Stoa Letter, the newsletter on Stoic theory and practice.
Each week we share one meditation on Stoic theory, one action to do in order to become more Stoic, and links to the best resources we’ve found.
The stereotype of the Stoic attitude is the Stoic cow, calmly chewing grass in the pouring rain:
Yes, this is a caricature, but it is true: Stoics don’t complain.
When you complain, you promote the false idea that things not up to you are harmful. If you’re annoyed by a long wait, loud music, or fatigue, remember that such things do not hurt you.
Why? Because it is our opinion about things, not things in themselves that hurt us. One person meets the prospect of waiting in a long line with joy and another lets the delay defeat them. What’s the difference? Their judgments about the situation.
Instead of complaining, try to change the situation. Find another line, ask your neighbor to turn down their music, or get better sleep. If that doesn’t work, reconcile yourself to fate. See what is good in it, enjoy that, and turn to what matters.
Does this mean that you should suffer in silence? Sometimes, but not always. There are no easy rules.
Stoics don’t grumble and grouse, but that doesn’t mean they face every obstacle alone.
Why? There are two key risks with gritting your teeth and bearing your burdens solo.
The first is that silence causes you to fail. Everyone needs to ask for assistance in their life:
There’s no shame in being helped, because you’ve got to do the job you’ve been set, like a soldier storming a city wall. Suppose you had a limp and were unable to scale the battlements on your own, but could do so with someone else’s assistance.
The goal is to achieve the objective, not to do it all yourself.
In the words of the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, we are dependent rational animals. We’re social creatures who rely on people around us, many of whom we’ll never meet. Even as we travel our own path, we use the roads built by those who came before, offer assistance to our fellow travelers in turn, and pay forward any help we gratefully receive.
The second is that silence blinds you to your own needs. Consider the friend in denial about anger management issues or the addict concealing substance abuse. While feigning strength may seem protective in the moment, it promotes self-ignorance. When people are unwilling to confront reality, everyone eventually pays the cost.
Remember, the goal is to solve the problem. Not to suffer in silence. Often you should share and assert your needs. This is different from complaining.
If you need help, get it. If you can, be specific. Do not go about vaguely complaining about the world or casting blame. Instead, consider how you or others can precisely solve the problem.
Approach whoever is playing loud music and work out a deal. Come up with a better sleep schedule. If you don’t like how a coworker communicates, figure out what is driving them and see if there’s a workaround that addresses both of your styles.
There is always a route to self-transformation without complaining. But it’s not a path we need to take alone.
Catch yourself before you complain. Solve the issue, seek help from others, or willingly accept it.
🖼️ A phrase you should know: per aspera ad astra. Meaning through hardship to the stars.
📘 An excellent companion to the commentary on the Elle piece last letter, Brittany Polat writes about love in Living Agreement.
Stoicism teaches us to avoid empathy – feeling alongside other people. Instead of feeling bad with them, we can cultivate the genuine desire to come to their aid. We show we care about others through our acts, not mere feeling. Brittany Polat concludes her piece this Stoic insight:
It’s almost ironic that we can only truly love other people after we realize our happiness does not depend on them. But this is what it means to love wisely. We realize that our own capacity to love is determined by our own character, and we find a deep happiness by fulfilling our own nature as a human through the highest expressions of goodwill and love. Just as a parent loves a child for the child’s own sake, Stoic wisdom allows us to love other people for their own sake and not because we expect to receive something in return. Only then can we flourish, because we only find true happiness by loving others.
📙 The curmudgeonly philosopher William Valencia writes about his ingredients for happiness: acceptance, gratitude, luck, striving. The Stoic answer is simple: all you need is virtue.
What are your ingredients for a happy life?
What did you think about today's letter?
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