Veterinary professionals need to know how to handle criticism, manage difficult situations and focus on the right things in practice and in life. The ancient Stoics taught just that.
The ancient philosophy of Stoicism was started around 300 BC by Zeno and developed by his students and followers as a mixture of logic, physics and ethics. Today, logic and physics have surpassed old facts and theories, but many still find wisdom and solace in the ethics as encapsulated in the class notes of a student of Epictetus, the letters to a friend (literary or real, we’re not sure) of Seneca and the journals of Marcus Aurelius (intended for publication or not, we’re not sure).
While caricatured in modern times (and even in ancient times by their philosophical competitors) as humorless and emotionless, Stoicism, generally, didn’t argue against emotions. They argued that people are swept up by them too often because they are focusing on, and clinging to, the wrong things. Get your thinking right, they argued, and you would be happier, more content and more resilient when life gets in the way.
Here are a few choice quotes from the three big Stoics and ways these ancient thoughts might be relevant to day-to-day veterinary practice.
1. You know that life can be annoying and unfair, and that people can be hard to deal with. Be ready.
Take it from Marcus Aurelius who lived 121 to 180 AD, and was emperor of the Roman Empire from 161 until his death.
“Say to thyself at daybreak: I shall come across the busy-body, the thankless, the overbearing, the treacherous, the envious, the unneighbourly. All this has befallen them because they know not good from evil.”
In business with the pet-owning public—and in life with everyone else—you meet and interact with those who don’t seem to be doing the right thing. On a good day, once; on a bad day, all day. Prepare yourself for this first thing in the morning, says Aurelius, and before heading out to places or situations you know will be stressful. And remember that they may act the way they do because, to put it colloquially, they just don’t know any better.
You don’t need to take all the abuse, however. Consider the following analogy pulled from the fighting rings of Rome:
“Suppose that a competitor in the ring has gashed us with his nails and butted us violently with his head…we do not suspect our opponent in future of foul play. Still we do keep an eye on him, not indeed as an enemy…but with good-humoured avoidance. Act much in the same way in all the other parts of life…Avoidance is always possible, as I have said, without suspicion or hatred.”
Don’t spend your time resenting, hating and fearing, but build a “good-humoured avoidance” of those situations or those people that have given you reason. What could you do to manage those painful encounters differently?
2. Life is short and death is certain. Act accordingly.
“… call this to mind, that within a very short time both thou and he will be dead, and a little later not even your names will be left behind you.”
Every Stoic thinker points out that life is short, and things that seem big in the moment are really very small in the long run. Thinking about death, in this way, “is not an impetus to sorrow,” Aurelius says, but a way to calibrate one’s actions and thinking to focus on the important things. What is bothering you today, or perhaps every day, isn’t so big if you think about all of your life as a whole—and perhaps how you and the offender will all be forgotten someday.
3. Give gossip no power.
“If you are told that someone is talking badly of you, don’t defend yourself against the story but reply: ‘Obviously he didn’t know my other faults, or he would have mentioned them as well.’”
Epictetus was a slave in the court of the Roman emperor Nero. He found freedom and told his students to focus on strengthening their good traits (virtues), fighting their bad (vices) and ignoring the “indifferents” in life (all the things they don’t control, like wealth, health and people’s opinions of you). He lived from 55 to 135 AD.
Perhaps Epictetus’ advice here isn’t the right response to a negative Yelp! review of your veterinary hospital, but it is a pithy, funny way to respond to one of life’s many indifferents; those things in life you cannot control and whose loss or lack should not be allowed to be your focus in life.
4. Don’t give others power over you.
“Our master is anyone who has the power to implement or prevent the things that we want or don’t want. Whoever wants to be free, therefore, should wish for nothing or avoid nothing that is up to other people. Failing that, one is bound to be a slave.”
Epictetus’ advice is a hard sell in a world where we are encouraged to be the architects of our own health, self-care, finances, careers, families and success. The answer, says Epictetus, is not to focus on the success, but the virtues each day that you do control which may or may not lead to success: study, hard work, kindness, calm and wisdom. You control the effort you put into a case, not the outcome.
The Stoic philosopher Antipater used the analogy of an archer: You prepare your bow well. You practice. You learn from your mistakes. You do what you can to shoot straight. But you do not control or depend on whether the arrow hits the mark.
5. Fight today’s fight today, not yesterday’s or tomorrow’s.
Seneca, who lived from 4 BC to 65 AD, was a playwright, a courtier and a famous tutor of the Roman Emperor Nero. When Nero went bad, Seneca suffered for it.
“What’s the good of dragging up sufferings which are over, of being unhappy now just because you were then? What is more, doesn’t everyone add a good deal to his tale of hardships and deceive himself as well in the matter?…There are two things, then, the recollecting of trouble in the past as well as the fear of troubles to come, that I have to root out: the first is no longer of any concern to me and the second has yet to be so.”
It is natural to be hurt, sad and angry about bad things that happen. It is natural to be worried, anxious and frightened about bad things that could happen. But there is little to be gained by either, says Seneca. Stand your ground for today and today’s troubles, and don’t add to your burden by rehashing what’s happened over and over again, or imagining over and over again what could be coming.
6. No matter where you go, there you are.
“The story is told that someone complained to Socrates that travelling abroad had never done him any good and received the reply: ‘What else can you expect, seeing that you always take yourself along with you when you go abroad?’…If you really want to escape the things that harass you, what you’re needing is not to be in a different place but to be a different person.”
If you are unhappy, unsatisfied, frustrated or overwhelmed, it’s possible a change of scenery could help. But Seneca warns us that it’s also possible, whether on vacation or in a new job or home, that the same problems that plagued you before follow you. Because you follow you.
How to change yourself is up to you. Stoicism is one among thousands of paths out there. Pick one and try it. Stoic teachers made a promise to their young students millennia ago that stands for us today: Through self-reflection, ethical study and practice in changing how we think, speak and behave, we can become better, kinder, more ethical people who do more good and less harm in this world. We can better weather the death, disappointment and disaster that surround us.
Changing how you think about things and the choices you make each moment is hard work, but you can do it. +
- The Communings With Himself of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (1916, Harvard University Press), translated by C.R. Haines
- How to Be Free: An Ancient Guide to the Stoic Life (2018, Princeton University Press) by Epictetus, translated by A. A. Long
- Letters From a Stoic (1969, Penguin Books) by Seneca, translated by Robin Campbell
- A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine (2008, Oxford University Press)
- How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life by Massimo Pigliucci (2017, Basic Books)