Thoughts on nearly losing my sight in one eye
Stoicism in action
Over course of the next week or so I had my eye examined and poked more times than your average facebook user in 2007, and it turned out I had a detached retina, which required some minor laser surgery and cryo-freezing, or something like that anyway. It wasn’t a comfortable experience but it got me thinking again about certain aspects of Stoicism, and how this age old philosophy can help you when life gives you a bit of a kick in the teeth, or even a squash ball to the eye.
The benefits of stoicism are well documented but one of my favourite executive summaries is unsurprisingly written by Mr Money Mustache.
One of the mental tricks used by the Stoics was a thing called “Negative Visualisation”. The example of this used in Mr Money Mustache’s came back strongly from my memory to the forefront of my mind for obvious reasons:
For example, suppose that you currently have a good working set of eyes. Imagine carefully what it would be like to live your life as a blind person. You would have to work very hard to rearrange your life to remain functional — learn braille, take special precautions when walking around town and when cooking eggs at home, etc. — but in the end, you could surely survive and even become happy again if you were blind. But now open your eyes. SURPRISE!! YOU HAVE THIS BONUS OF SIGHT!!!. Wow, you were already doing just fine in your blind life, but now you have working eyes too? What an incredible life – you are truly blessed with more than you even need.
The mental trick of negative visualisation sure helps a lot, but when you are practically living through it, even if only for a minute or so, it really kicks in as the emotional response involved is much stronger. Very soon after the event I wasn’t feeling sorry for myself, I was actually quite euphoric that I had been lucky enough to get out with both eyes intact!
Wide Eyed and Bushy Tailed
There are also many other mental tricks and subsequent benefits of the Stoic mindset, and one is being able to handle the small issues life throws at you with a calm and considered approach.
Over the course of your life, you will have to overcome many problems, which can generally be filtered easily into the following categories:
- A) Problems that can be solved (getting your boiler fixed)
- B) Problems that cannot be solved or fixed directly and have to be dealt with internally or emotionally instead (death of a friend of relative)
The key thing to remember in any situation you may find yourself stressing out about is that there is a 99% likelihood you have problem of type A. Even if you can’t see a way out or a way to fix it right now, try to find peace in the fact that someone else, or more likely thousands or millions of people, have already faced this exact same problem, solved it, and have now completely forgotten about it and are living happy lives. You also have the ridiculous advantage over all other humans that have ever lived on the planet prior to the last ~20 years of living in an age where answers to most problems are just a click of a mouse button away.
Our stress levels should be bordering on zero compared to our ancestors, who would have had to worry about getting eaten by sabre tooth tigers and where their next meal would come from, yet people seem more stressed than ever. A quick mental comparison of your current situation to both all humans in existence in the present day, and throughout history, should prove that most of your life can be viewed through a gigantic pair of rose coloured
lenses google glasses.
Bringing it back to the last few weeks for me, as mentioned above, the mass poking of the eye was uncomfortable, as was the laser surgery and subsequent recovery period. But all I had to remember was that I still had (or was going to have once the patch was off) full vision, and how lucky I am to be living in an age where such wondrous technology exists that can fix your eyes with a beam of light, and this made me content and happy in my situation. Some people are Stoic by nature and you see this when people get ill, they just get on with it and sometimes even appear to be happier than before on the outside at least. Maybe it is the effect that makes all your other worries fade into obscurity? Maybe it nudges the simple gift of life into razor-sharp focus, or maybe it is something completely different, who knows for sure?
However, if don’t have a naturally Stoic disposition, it would pay some dividends to think about this stuff when “shit happens” in future, in my humble opinion.
Don’t Worry, Do Care
There is a difference between not worrying and not caring. I am not advocating a stance of total indifference over what happens in your life to yourself and your loved ones. If that were the case then you would just walk out in front of a bus and not give a hoot over the outcome!
Instead we must separate these two emotions as they are distinctly different in my opinion. Worrying never really helped anyone as far as I can work out. Me worrying about my eye all night would not somehow magically make it better. However caring about my eyesight and health in general meant that I rang up the NHS 111 helpline, got an opticians appointment, and ultimately ended up getting it sorted out. OK, so excessively worrying would likely result in the same final action, but the stress levels induced are just not needed so why put yourself through that?
As a caveat I would like to say that clearly I did worry a little over the whole squash ball to the eye scenario, on more than one occasion. I am after all, not a robot. It is human nature!
For example, the thought of someone putting a needle through my retina* to reattach it scared the living daylights out of me (and still does) but after letting my thoughts run away in this direction for a couple of minutes, I checked myself and reasoned that hey, things aren’t actually that bad, I’m sitting in a hospital with highly paid specialist eye doctors, they know what they are doing, and that however they do it, it will be sorted out as soon as possible. A few deep breaths and a bit of internal reasoning does wonders for your stress levels, try it sometime if you haven’t done so already.
*Luckily it didn’t come down to that and they decided that laser surgery would be sufficient to fix the problem.
I have a strong feeling that we have a lot of Stoic minded people amongst the readers. Have you any stories on where this mindset has helped you out in your life? I would love to hear about it in the comments! Thanks!