Stoicism and Depression

Last weekend, we had a heat wave. For me that meant that even where I live, which had been gray, foggy, and around 15 degrees Celsius, was warm and sunny. I loved it! Then after three days of that, the fog came back and even though other areas of San Francisco and the Bay area are still warm and sunny, I am back in the cold fog.

This morning, I was in one of those warmer and sunnier areas. As I returned home, my mood crashed. I (suspect I) have seasonal affective disorder – something I didn’t realize until recently because it’s usually associated with winter. Except here it’s gray and cold all summer long (well, except for the occasional day or three), so I didn’t make the association.

What does this have to do with Stoicism? Well, I noticed today that I was using Stoicism as a way to trap myself in my depression. Instead of accepting that the weather impacts me a lot – and that this is okay! – I was fighting it. After all, the Stoics seem to say that we should have control over our “inner weather,” how we relate to, say, the outer weather. There is nothing rational about my mood change, so why wasn’t I successfully counteracting it?!

As Andrew Solomon points out so eloquently, depression tends to stick around longer the more we fight it. “Those who can tolerate their depression are the ones who achieve resilience,” he emphasizes.

This highlights something that I have found lacking in Stoicism: Compassion, especially toward the self. At least in my experience, Stoicism can be rather cold. Instead of saying “I am suffering,” it teaches us to not allow but to analyze that suffering. Although that analysis is important, even possibly crucial for our well-being, the first step is to just embrace it and hold it like a parent would with her child. Incidentally, that’s an approach Thich Nhat Hanh teaches… Maybe this is the key difference between Stoicism and Buddhism… At least in my reading it is – and that’s why I am less and less drawn to Stoicism.

After I published the above, I was wondering what other students of Stoicism say about compassion. So, if you want a different perspective, you can read this or that. In my opinion, Stoicism, secular Buddhism, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy have enough elements in common that one can pick the one that seems most suitable. There are many ideas of Stoicism that I find helpful and maybe this whole exploration is partly happening because I am grappling with the teaching as I am learning…

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