Of Birds and Emotions
Dear Readers, I've been pretty busy over the past few months, organizing the Stoics Care conference, incorporating Stoicare as an official nonprofit, and finishing up my new book, The 90 Day Stoicism Journal (due out in December). Please enjoy this short piece, which I hope will help you see the Stoic study of emotions in a new light.
After living in central Florida for seven years, I finally decided to learn about birds. Although birds are an omnipresent fact of life almost everywhere, they are extremely noticeable in our subtropical climate. Here they are big, beautiful, and all over the place. Magnificent water birds wade in every little pond and rivulet, and red-headed cranes the size of a five-year-old human saunter around with impunity, nonchalantly stopping traffic as they stroll across busy roads.
For a while I just admired them from afar, catching the names of a few here and there, sometimes looking up a species I found particularly stunning. But for the most part I just enjoyed the scenery. You don’t necessarily need to know the name of something for it to be a pleasant backdrop to life. (My husband, taking a different approach, told our kids they were all called “chickens.” That certainly simplified things, but I had to offer hasty corrections every time my toddler pointed at a beautiful heron and shouted, “Chicken!”)
Finally, last month I decided to buy a book on birds. I forked over a lot of money for the Audubon Society’s most up-to-date book on 500 species of North American birds. The kids and I had fun looking up all the birds we’d seen around town. We identified the pair of lovebirds who take a daily bath in our little pond (turns out they were mourning doves), and we put a name to the exotic green-eyed wader we’d seen out on walks (the great egret).
And suddenly we had a new vocabulary. We could talk in detail about an aspect of our lives that had always been uncertain and fuzzy around the edges. We went from, “What was that bird we just saw? –I don’t know, it looked a bit brownish” to “This morning I saw a limpkin, it must have been out catching apple snails.” We knew not only what kind of bird we were looking at, we knew its diet, its behaviors, and how likely it was to make a nest in our yard. We went from the vague outline of observing birds to knowing exactly what to look for and how to identify them.
By putting exact terminology to the low background noise of birds in our lives, we became much more aware of their presence, their beauty, and their interactions with humans—with us. Something we had just taken for granted became an enjoyable and educational part of our day. We were able to speak about our avian neighbors with precision, which enabled us to study and understand them in a completely new way.
After a few days, it struck me that the same could be said for describing our mental condition. The ancient Stoics spent a great deal of time thinking about our inner experience of emotion; they were some of the greatest psychologists of the ancient world. But the reason for this is clear. If we want to see the world clearly and live in agreement with nature, we need to understand what’s going on in our own minds. By observing our mental reactions to certain conditions, by identifying and classifying our emotions, we are putting precise language to formerly fuzzy and poorly understood processes. This enables us not just to understand, but to manipulate these thoughts in ways that are constructive and consistent with our ideals.
Armed with a more precise emotional vocabulary, we can better examine our own mental conditions and how our minds interact with the world. Those “passions” that have always flitted around capriciously within our inner wilderness can now be recognized, named, and dealt with appropriately. Instead of allowing ourselves to be subconsciously pushed around by anger, guilt, or fear, we can identify the characteristics of these all-too-common negative emotions. What do they feed on? Where are they likely to make a home?
As we put distance between ourselves and our negative emotions, we can watch these emotions objectively, even scientifically. We can record their every move. Then we can remove their food source, which is really just inaccurate judgments about the world. When we mistakenly believe that external “goods” are truly good, the result is always anger, envy, sadness, and frustration. Mistaken judgments are what negative emotions feed on. If we remove the bad judgments that sustain them, the passions can’t come home to roost. Our detailed study of our own minds—and what is truly valuable in life—empowers us to prevent undesirable emotional species from nesting in our mental backyards.
So thanks to those beautiful and exotic Florida birds, I’ve gained not only a deeper appreciation for the natural world, I’ve gained new insight into my inner world of mental habits and emotions. And I’ve gained a deeper respect for those pioneering ancient thinkers who inquired into the psychosocial habitat of humankind. Like naturalists of the human mind, they enabled us to observe and corral those perplexing creatures deep within the recesses of our brains: our own thoughts and emotions.