In praise of the stiff upper lip

Stoicism is the ethics of fortitude. No human life can escape vicissitude and so, given its inevitability, why not develop an attitude that enables trouble to be borne with equanimity? When fate drags us into misfortune a stoic attitude enables the cultivation of a sentiment of tranquility. The over-wrought, muddle-headed reactions of most people to tribulation often just increases the suffering.

Lawrence Sterne quoted an epigraph in his great comic novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by the stoic Epictetus (55-135):

Men are disturbed not by things, but by the opinions which they have of things. Thus death is nothing terrible, else it would have appeared so to Socrates. But the terror consists in our opinion of death, that is terrible.”

So if instead, Epictetus is saying, we look hard at the things themselves and not the dogmas about them that we take to be true, then the terror will fall away.

My mother had cancer in her 40s and died when my two brothers and I were young. That was hard enough to cope with, but the greater suffering was caused by the attitude of others to her during her illness.

– Our local vicar declared that she was paying for the sins of a two hundred year old ancestor who had drowned by suicide. This judgement of divine wrath insisted that she was to bear the punishment.

– Other people (who did not know her well) put her illness down to a lack of positive attitude to life. (Incidentally she did have a positive attitude to life.) Her emotional resignation, went this narrative, was having a negative effect on her body. Her illness was the wages of repression.

– Many parroted the restitution narrative: treatment would cure her and return her to ‘normal’. Her cancer was merely a blip waiting to be sidelined. This fixation on remedies promoted a series of devastating false hopes.

The first was a moral judgement. The second a psychological judgement: ‘the sick woman creates her own disease’. They are a powerful means of placing the blame on the ill. The third was, in its way, a denial of the reality of death. These narratives were false cultural constructions and added to her suffering. It was only when my mother accepted the inevitability of her death that peace came to her. There is a restless need in human beings to find meaning in illness and death. It is a futile attempt to gain meaning and therefore control over the contingent. It amounts to no more than self-deception based on fear. The acceptance that adversity has no meaning, but is simply to be borne, is a liberation.

The stout-hearted self-reliant English Gentleman of my youth famously maintained a stiff upper lip through all eventualities. He is a figure of mockery for my generation: emotionally illiterate, unhealthily repressed with no ability to express himself. And there is an element of truth in that. But, by contrast, modern men and women spend their time constructing futile defences against vicissitude: insurance, health and safety, over cautious attitudes, risk-adverse behaviour, regulators and regulations. Our external lives are smothered with excessive security. Perhaps if we too developed a stiff upper lip, accepted contingency and chance and intrepidly opened ourselves to the world and what it brings we might find it has much more to offer.

We have nothing to fear but fear itself.


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