Albert Ellis Knew, Too


I promise, we’ll get to the permissible aggression–just not yet. First, we should exhaust [or at least explore] all alternative responses. Albert Ellis, who died on 24 July 2007 at the age of 93, was annoying as hell. Ask anyone who knew him, including the woman he lived with for 37 years, Janet Wolfe. Because he was a graduate of our program @ Columbia, he used to drop by and try to incite us to fury, mostly succeeding. Even so, I feel lucky to have sat in his presence. He is known as the father of Rational-Emotive Therapy, which [I now realize, having come to Epictetus via Tom Wolfe] is based almost entirely on Stoic philosophy. I shall paraphrase him closely [but you must imagination his whiny, nasal voice]: “We talk to ourselves in short, declarative sentences. We say, ‘I am a cat in a sack; and that is awful!’ That is not awful–it is only highly inconvenient.

As it happens, we were weighing Zanzibar, to calculate his proper dosage of flea & tick meds. He wasn’t in the sack 30 seconds. Also, despite the expression on his face in this picture, out of the 16 cats I have owned, he is the most laid-back, seemingly oblivious to the notion of humiliation. When Napster’s turn in the “sack-scale” came, he was, as usual, overcome with fear. Ruth–the 19-year-old, 5-pound Maine Coon–was soaking up BTUs under one of our few remaining incandescent lights; and because her weight has remained constant for almost two decades, she was spared the intrusion into her nap time. Now, be honest with yourself. Do you enjoy public weigh-ins? What gets up your nose about them? Realistically, only jockeys, pugillists and military personnel are likely to face the pain & suffering of job loss, in connection with avoirdupois. Let’s say your doctor hectors you, “If you don’t lose some weight, you’re going to die!” You can reply with the words of Epictetus: “When did I ever say I was immortal?” So good old Dr. Ellis would have you reason with your aroused amygdala, in the face of an impending weigh-in, “I may have put on a couple pounds; but that is not awful. It is only highly inconvenient.” Thus, you should experience less anger, dump less cortisol, and spare your body additional adipose deposits. [I must say, Albert was a trim fellow.]

As with this trivial example, so with much of life: the Stoics and their modern descendants, the Cognitive-Behavioral Theorists, would have us believe that the acting out of aggressive impulses can–and should–be avoided in most instances. We cannot control other people’s actions; but we can strive to control our own emotional reactions to them. My favorite adjunct professor would ask rhetorically, after making a seemingly absolute pronouncement, “Always?” and then answer his own question, either “Always,” or “Not always.” So, Epictetus, Tom Wolfe, and I would answer, as to whether we should always maintain our equanimity, “Not always.”

Oh, yay! We sometimes get to resort to violence! [“Cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war.”] When? Epictetus offers one specific circumstance: one must never “ignore cries for help from a friend under assault from robbers.” Less specifically, he opines, “Just as a target is not set up in order to be missed, so evil is no natural part of the world’s design.” Hmm. That seems to cover alot of territory. Since we’re supposed to love and accept the “Natural,” but hate the “Unnatural,” anything any one of us finds “unnatural” could be considered “evil”; and we’re allowed to oppose it, with violence, if necessary. This is where Cows, Pigs, Wars & Witches would point out to our ancient Greco-Roman philosopher, that what is “unnatural” is largely a matter of geography. There is–and has been, since way before Epictetus was teaching–a variance in climates, native flora & fauna, and resulting folkways, that inform one’s beliefs as to what is “natural” and “unnatural.” We can’t all be Mediterraneans, ya know.

So, alas, we are back to “When in Rome, do as the Romans…unless you are Greek, and despise the Romans…” This is where ethologists point out, we evolved with an amygdala for a reason–to help us [and those within our reference group] survive. Sometimes, the amygdala is not simply “barking mad”–to be overruled by reason, cognitive reframing and Stoicism. Sometimes, the right thing to do is cry “Havoc!”

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Filed under body image, Epictetus said..., pro bono publico, reference group, stress and cortisol

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