The Stoic philosopher, Seneca, wrote: “The spirit ought to be brought up for examination daily… I pass the whole day in review before myself, and repeat all that I have said and done: I conceal nothing from myself, and omit nothing: for why should I be afraid of any of my shortcomings, when it is in my power to say, “I pardon you this time: see that you never do that anymore”?” The implicit message relating to the re-establishment of one’s locus of control makes this practice powerful. How many times have we found ourselves in situations in which we were certain of our inability to manage them and our accompanying feelings? How many times have we found it impossible to forgive others or even ourselves?
Stoic philosophy, in expected fashion, reframes (or reinterprets) forgiveness in a way that affords us the ability to choose. Often, we think of our emotions as being in the driver’s seat, controlling us. Some resort to evasive measures, such as drugs or alcohol to suppress them, believing there to be no other effective alternatives. Emotions can be perceived of as enemies. And, a common misconception about Stoicism is that its purpose is to suppress them. So, we sometimes think of the other avoidance strategies as being more effective than words.
However, as is often the case with some of the criticisms launched against Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, Stoicism is more about managing one’s emotions than suppressing them. And, one effective strategy of doing so is forgiveness. It’s said that you should forgive others because your anger, essentially, harms you the most. And we can find it difficult to because of the erroneous belief that our reason can’t help us navigate our affect. The stoics would have argued against this misinterpretation of reason and feeling, noting that the two ought to work together in a symbiotic relationship, affecting one another. So, if, let’s say, your intuition is telling you that you should seek out a partner or a friend because you’re feeling lonely, it’s up to reason (or your volition) to decide which relationship is suitable. Sometimes, reason, through the use of cognitive distortions such as mental filtering, tells us to pick a partner who’s bad for us and our emotions, via anxiety, steer us away. Other times, our desires push us toward those who’d harm us, but our reason pulls us back to retreat. Our purpose, it seems, should be a harmonious state of the two. And forgiveness can embody it.
People often ask me how they can forgive themselves for something awful, wondering if they’re, then, justifying their bad action by doing so, basically being a “bad person.” But, through blame and the subsequent action of quitting morality altogether, they’re becoming the type of people they desperately wish to avoid being, fundamentally creating a self-fulfilling prophesy. According to the stoic philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, most of us will never become moral saints, so we should probably discard the hope of ever reaching that plateau. But, we can become ethically better; and to do so, we have to acknowledge our faults and forgive ourselves for them. Forgiveness is the overpass through which we must travel in order to grow.
Unfortunately, it’s accompanied by the cost of emotional pain. Shame tells us that we’re bad people because we’ve done a bad thing, but guilt tells us that we’ve done a bad thing and ought to change. The difference between the two is the difference in accepting or rejecting growth. Since we can’t be perfect anyway, as most aren’t, we can reframe our goals in a healthier direction, aiming for perfection while accepting the unlikelihood of ever attaining it. This begs the question: Can’t we, then, just keep forgiving ourselves ad infinitum? We can, but the purpose of Stoicism is to actively attempt to become a better human being. Thus, if you’re simply forgiving yourself without effort, then you aren’t growing in any morally meaningful way. The answer, as most, lies somewhere in the middle: in this case, in acceptance and change. According to Massimo, I can be proud of myself on my deathbed if, and only if, I gave it my all and if, and only if, I tried my best to become virtuous. Acknowledging these principles, and my inherent power, can help me forgive that which seemed unforgivable.
For more on Stoic philosophy, check out our latest episode of Seize The Moment Podcast with guest Massimo Pigliucci: