Lately, I have been digging on an old school of thought known as Stoicism. Started by some ancient Greeks, I discovered it by reading a book that came out earlier this year. I then proceeded to read some of the original Stoic texts, many of which you can find for free over on Gutenberg.org. For a more detailed description about Stoicism as a whole, I encourage you to click the first link and read about it there because it is a comprehensive yet simple summary of it and such a description is outside the scope of this essay.
Anyway, one of the main ideas of Stoicism is that it is no use stressing over things that are beyond your control. A great example of something that is beyond our control is the past. The past already happened and cannot be changed, so there is little sense in dwelling on it.
Bad things happen and memories of them linger. Some memories trigger strong emotional responses. We are not able to change events that occured in the past and it can be difficult to forget about them, but we are able to change the way we perceive them. The value that we place on events through our perception of them is entirely up to us; this is another key tenet of Stoicism. As a child, I experienced some difficult times and I still remember them well into my adulthood. These memories will randomly pop into my head, and they tend to hit nerves on their way in. With the help of Stoic literature, I have come up with a cool little trick that helps me overcome bad memories and put a positive spin on them. Perhaps it will do the same for you, so let’s check it out.
How to handle bad memories like a Stoic
Say you have a bad memory from your childhood. I have memories of being bullied. This is how I always perceived them:
I remember when ______ ______ used to pick on me in 7th grade. He was such a jerk for no reason and he made me feel so bad. I hate him and seriously hope he dies. His mistreatment of me is the reason why I am such a broken adult.
What I did there was address the fact that I was bullied as a teenager and give it a negative value. I continued to express my resentment for such an unpleasant experience and that led to feelings of anger. The negative value I gave it spread like a plague. To borrow and modify something once said by Yoda the great Jedi master, negativity leads to anger and anger leads to hate and hate leads to suffering.
A Stoic would perceive the memory this way:
I remember when ______ ______ used to pick on me in 7th grade; that was a difficult time but it already happened. It is not possible to go back in time and make him not pick on me. But you know what? I survived it. I am still here, and I am a stronger, more resilient person because of it.
What I did here was address the fact that I was bullied as a child and remind myself that it is over and done with, so there is no need to let it get to me. I also reminded myself that I am a bigger, smarter and stronger person now than I was when I was younger, and that is what really counts.
One of the most popular old-school Stoics was Lucius Annaeus Seneca. Seneca wrote, in his essay On the Shortness of Life, that it is foolish to study history for the mere sake of knowing dates, names and other minutiae. Instead, it is wise to study history to learn from others’ mistakes and to apply knowledge aquired by others; to build upon a framework started by scholars that came before.
In the first perception, I examined the incident and dwelled on the details: what the bully did to me and how it made me feel. When you compare this to studying history, it is like I am focusing on dates and names. In the second perception, I examined the incident and established it as a milestone in my lifelong quest to become a better person. When you compare it to studying history, it is like looking for a deeper meaning and learning how not to make history repeat itself.
We are not able to change things that happened already. All we are able to change is what we think of them and how we view them. If things from the past bother you, then it is worth your time to take a look at how you are thinking about them. Then, maybe you can try thinking about them a different way. Easier said than done? Probably, but one other big thing that the Stoics advocate is the one thing that we have complete and total control over – our actions. Make of that what you will.
Let me hear from you. Try applying this technique to a bad memory of your own, see how it works for you and leave a reply below.