William Irvine, in A Guide to the Good Life, explains we’re susceptible to negative emotions like anger, fear, grief, anxiety, and envy because of our evolutionary programming. Each of those negative emotions increased our earliest ancestors’ odds of survival, so overtime, they became engrained in us. For example, early humans who weren’t afraid of lions were less likely to survive long enough to pass on their genes. Similarly, those that didn’t worry incessantly about having enough to eat were less likely to survive long enough to pass on their genes.
Irvine explains the good news. Since we can reason, we can understand our evolutionary predicament and take conscious steps to at least partially escape it. For example, the pain associated with a loss of social status isn’t just useless, it’s counterproductive. We need to learn to “misuse” our intellect to override the evolutionary programming that makes us susceptible to negative emotions.
In short, Stoics pursue tranquility. The major impediment to tranquility is our evolutionary programming. Tranquility and inner joy is achieved by “misusing our reasoning ability” via repeated practice at using specific Stoic psychological techniques.
For example, we must overcome our evolutionary tendency to worry by determining which things we can’t control. Irvine labels this the “trichotomy of control.” Once we identify those things we have no control over, we can use our reasoning ability to eradicate our anxieties related to those things. Doing that improves one’s chances of gaining tranquility. To better understand the trichotomy of control, take a piece of paper, and using a ruler or folding it, make three columns. Label the first “absolutely no control”, the second, “total control”, and the third “some control”. It’s easy to quibble with “absolutely” and “total”, but work with me.
Here are some possible items for each column just to get your wheels turning. No control—the weather, the eventual death of loved ones, our own gradual physical decline, and how fast a competitor might show up at your next race. Total control—to eat nutritious food, to exercise daily, to get adequate sleep, to marry or not, to have children or not, to vote or not, to wear boxers or briefs. Some control—to shape your children’s values, to reduce your commute, to make your work environment more pleasant, to protect the environment.
It doesn’t take long into this exercise to realize the lines between the columns should probably be dotted since there’s often blurring. Not as fancy sounding, but a continuum of control would be better than Irvine’s “trichotomy”. The whole point is to learn to let go of everything that makes up the “no control” anxiety-producing end of the chart or continuum. Accept the fact that if you live in the Pacific Northwest it’s going to be overcast for seven or eight months of the year. And there’s going to be an incessant light rain for those seven or eight months. I originally wrote, “incessant, annoying light rain,” but that’s the exact point. Only things we have some or a lot of control over should have the potential to annoy us.
One last example of learning to let go of those things beyond one’s control. One night last week I asked Seventeen what she was swimming in the meet the next day. “The 50 and 100 free I think.” Internal dialogue. “What?! That’s what the beginners swim. That’s embarrassing for a fourth-year co-captain.” Actual response, “Really?!”
Parenting fail. She could feel my disappointment. In a bathtub (too much information too late alert) partially filled with very warm water, I replayed our brief exchange in my mind. I realized I could give in to negative emotions and be frustrated that she doesn’t approach high school athletics they way I did or the way I think others should or I could recognize that she’s an independent young adult who can choose not to train until the season and who thinks of athletics first and foremost as another way of having fun with friends.
It doesn’t matter whether she swims a slow 50 or a fast 500. Positive parenting rests upon unconditional love. Post bath I attempted a recovery. “I’m really looking forward to watching you swim the 50 and 100 tomorrow afternoon.” “Good!” she said in a way that communicated forgiveness. All was well with Seventeen. And the world.