Sometimes our ways of being are so deep-rooted and unquestioned, the mere questioning of them seems immoral.
"It is obvious that I will respond differently to my own setbacks compared to someone else's... I'm the one in the difficult situation, not them! What kind of silly question is this?"
It's worth noting here that a large part of our suffering in life can arise from mismanaged expectations about "the will of nature" or the unfolding of the parts of our experience outside of our control.
For example, we know that people can get sick with things like cancer. When we hear about our neighbors getting diagnosed with this condition, we tend to think along the following lines:
"I am sorry to hear about this news. It's unfortunate that people get sick, but death and illness are a tragic but unavoidable part of life. This person has lived a good life so far, has reached a good age, and has had a lot of positive impact on the world around them."
However, if we were to get diagnosed with cancer ourselves, we might think:
"Why me? Why am I so unlucky? What have I done to deserve this terrible fate?"
We ask "why me?" when distressing things happen to us, but we ask "why not them?" when they happen to others.
There is a clear distortion in our thinking when we complain using the words "why me?" The accurate way to think about it, is "why not me?"
When it comes to other people, we can wholeheartedly accept that...
- Items break
- Random accidents happen
- Relationships end
- Illness and death is part of life
But when it comes to ourselves, all of these things are unacceptable and seem almost a cruel joke being played on us by nature.
When a friend breaks a glass, we are quick to say, ‘Oh, bad luck.’ It’s only reasonable, then, that when a glass of your own breaks, you accept it in the same patient spirit.
— Epictetus, Enchiridion Chapter 26
"See Yourself as a Friend" Technique
Many of us are far worse friends to ourselves than we are to our actual friends. When we fail an exam, we might label ourselves as "stupid and hopeless." But when a friend fails an exam, we console them and encourage them to try again.
It is well worth your time to develop the skill of responding to yourself when you are distressed in a similar way to how you would respond to a good friend using warmth, kindness, reason, and objectivity.
Start with small things, like a mug breaking. When this happens, imagine seeing the situation happening to your best friend. What would you say to them? Try as best as you can, to respond to your situation in a similar way.
When you get good at this, recognizing that Stoicism is a learnable skill, you can then begin moving on to more serious matters like illness and death.
If a family member of ours dies, we should absolutely allow grief to fully take its course. However, it can be a very useful perspective to imagine this exact thing happening to a friend and to ask the following question:
The aim here is not to bypass difficult emotions, but to not allow difficult emotions to completely distort our view of life to the point. As Massimo Pigliucci put it:
Grief is understandable. Desperation is counterproductive.