Two Ways of Controlling Emotions

We expect soldiers to control their emotions of fear, rage and grief, even under the most extraordinary pressures.  Not only do such powerful emotions get in the way of the difficult judgments they have to make in combat, it has often become a point of pride for them to be tough, disciplined, immune to emotional “weakness.”  But that can come at a cost.

Nancy Sherman, University Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown, pointed out over the weekend, that so many soldiers who are caught up in their stoical behavior, eventually cry out for relief:  “They wanted to register the complex inner moral landscape of war by finding some measure of empathy with their own emotions. One retired Army major put it flatly to me, ‘I’ve been sucking it up for 25 years, and I’m tired of it.’”

Professor Sherman elaborates:  “The Stoic doctrine is essentially about reducing vulnerability…. Virtue [is] based on reason only, and shorn of ordinary emotions, like fear and grief that cling to objects beyond our control.” (See, “A Crack in the Stoic’s Armor.”)

But is “sucking it up” really stoicism?  Or is it based on a fear of emotions?  No doubt some of the soldiers who suppress what they feel seek to avoid looking “weak”?  Or they could be the victims of a well-established military convention, an entrenched expectation?  They might be trying to live up to a group norm of manliness and strength?

It could also be that, for some, the fear of strong emotions leads to their dissociation, the loss of conscious awareness they exist.  In that case, there is a good chance they will reappear at some point in the future.  They have not really been extinguished.

We can make a useful distinction between the mindfulness and self-control of someone who actively seeks a better way to live, on the one hand, and the conformity of someone embracing a norm he or she has never questioned, on the other.  The former will have pondered how others have lived their lives and considered the choices they have.  The other needs the kind of help Professor Sherman is seeking to offer.

There are other pathways of reflection and emotional peace.  Buddhism seeks a remedy for the suffering that comes from attachment.  Christianity has proposed prayer and the acceptance of God’s will.  There are others.

My point is not to propose the right way for us to manage our emotions.  As a psychologist, I am in favor of being having and knowing and expressing them.  But one has to respect those who strive to find another way – especially under repeated, extreme and painful circumstances.

The two kinds of stoicism can look the same, but they lead their adherents in diametrically different directions.