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Dealing with disappointment. EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS

Dear Hillary… a philosopher’s guide to coping with disappointment

Dear Hillary,

Wow, what a year you’ve had! First the FBI investigations, then the health scare, and then to cap it all, after years of waiting and hoping, and despite all expectations, you lost your best chance at becoming America’s first female president to a man like Donald Trump.

I’d guess that “colossally disappointed” would be a fair description of your feelings towards 2016. And it got me thinking about how you might be dealing with everything.

There are, of course, numerous phrases that we have coined over the years to help people get over big disappointments. But “chin up” and “every cloud has a silver lining” are the sort of platitudes we use to make ourselves feel better – for not being able to help in a practical way – rather than improve other people’s situations. So I will spare you those.

And given the scale of disappointment we are dealing with here, I think you need a strategy that goes a bit deeper and has a better track record. Thankfully, many great thinkers of the past have produced an array of practical ideas for how to deal with disappointments. The ancient Greeks were especially good at this.

RIP 2016.

Learn from a mouse…

Take Diogenes of Sinope, for example. In the fourth century BC, Diogenes worked as a banker in his home city, but was forced into exile after defacing the city’s currency. He fled to Athens only to find that there were no lodgings for him to rent. He ended up sleeping in a barrel – and his servant, presumably not happy with the new arrangements, ran away. This was a guy at a seriously low ebb.

It was at this point that he saw a mouse running around without a care in the world. Like him it had no bed to go to, no possessions, and no status, but it got along just fine without any of these things. That mouse taught Diogenes that he didn’t need a bed – or any of the usual things people strive for – to be happy. A simple, self-sufficient life would suffice. Even today, Diogenes’ prescription is mooted as the path to happiness.

… or a dog

If Diogenes’ prescription doesn’t appeal, then you might like to consider Stoicism. The Stoics were a group of Greek and Roman philosophers who claimed that what causes us disappointment and distress are not events themselves (like not getting a promotion, getting dumped, or losing an election) but the judgements we make about them. As the Stoic thinker Epictetus put it: “People are not disturbed by things, but by the views they take of them.

The Stoics claim that we should concern ourselves only with our own thoughts and actions, as these are the only things over which we have true control. We can’t control what happens to us, but we can control how we feel about it. To illustrate, the Stoics suppose that every human being is like a dog which finds itself tied to a moving cart.

A time for Stoicism. EPA

The dog can either run willingly wherever the cart goes or be dragged along unwillingly. Either way, it is going to be moved in the direction the cart goes. The idea is that while human beings, like the dog, cannot control the circumstances of their lives, they can choose whether to go along with them willingly or not. That much, at least, is within our power. In this philosophy, feeling disappointment (or being angry or upset) is a choice, and one we can avoid making.

Or a Vietnam POW

There is evidence that Stoicism works in even the most extreme circumstances. Just consider the case of James Stockdale, who employed the philosophy of Epictetus as a coping strategy while being held as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. For more than seven years in captivity (many of them in solitary confinement) and throughout routine torture, the Stoic philosophy kept him going.

After being released, he sought to spread the Stoic message through books and lectures. The Stoic philosophy is so effective at enabling us to deal with life’s vicissitudes that it remains popular today. You could always pop along to the annual meeting of Stoics, called Stoicon, or read the fine defence of Stoicism in the new book by British illusionist Derren Brown.

Maybe it was God’s will

Now Hillary, if you are religious, as I gather you are, then you might like to know that a religious version of Stoicism was developed by the great 18th-century German philosopher, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.

He posited the existence of an all-perfect God, who acts providentially but in ways that are often unknown to us. This meant that sometimes things might turn out in ways we didn’t expect or want, but if we believe in God’s providence then we shouldn’t be disheartened by it. Leibniz took this to heart to such an extent that he claimed that he was perfectly content even when his projects were not successful, “being persuaded that … it is for the best, as currently God does not want it.” So while the Stoics would say that we can get over disappointments by aligning our will to fate, Leibniz would say that we get over them by aligning our will to God.

However you decide to come to terms with the events of 2016, do remember to keep the positive events (like your victory in the popular vote) in sight, and take solace, as you mentioned, in the simple pleasures of a sofa and a good book.

Take care in what could be quite an eventful 2017.

With best wishes, your pal,


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