Life is a sea of frustration: we can’t seem to find our car keys when we’re already 20 minutes late for work, we pour a bowl of cereal only to discover we have no milk.
How do we react when things don’t go our way?
Most often, with flames of anger and red-hot rage.
We hurl our coach cushions while we desperately search for our keys; we curse the cruel universe (and our inconsiderate roommate who never refills anything) for making us have to go to the grocery store first thing in the morning. The most minor mishap can send us into a tantrum, though we should be far more mature for someone of middle age.
Why do the smallest, most insignificant things possess the power to make us so angry?
According to Seneca, father of Stoicism, anger is not an explosion of uncontrollable passions— it’s the result of an error in reasoning. We rant and rave when our expectations collide with reality. For example, when we were expecting to spend our Saturday soaking in the sun only to learn that the weather forecast predicts gray skies and relentless rain. Or consider the romantic arena: we only pout and lock ourselves in our room when our husband forgets our anniversary because we expected him to romance us with extravagant gifts, a diamond necklace perhaps, or two round-trip tickets to Tahiti.
In his ever-edifying The Consolations of Philosophy, Alain de Botton suggests anger isn’t an inextinguishable wildfire— it can be contained. According to Botton, who famously finds solutions to contemporary problems in the wrinkled pages of art, literature and philosophy, Seneca’s stoicism can stamp out our embers of exasperation before they burst into full-blown flames of rage. Rather than expect too much from the world, we would be wise to lower our expectations and take a grimmer view of reality.
To illustrate his point, Botton uses one of Seneca’s acquaintances, Vedius Pollio. A wealthy man from ancient Rome, Pollio lived in a world of grand gardens, gold-gilded palaces, extravagant feasts, and elaborate frescoes. Like many rich men, Pollio was accustomed to getting his way. When one of his slaves dropped a tray of crystal glasses during a party, Pollio was so enraged that he ordered him to be thrown into a pool of lampreys.
Was Pollio’s reaction a tad bit extreme? Of course: most of us wouldn’t toss someone into a pool of eels for such a silly mistake.
So why did something so trivial (a bit of broken glass) catapult a dignified man of refined manners and good breeding into such a blind rage?
His anger seems disproportionate to its cause. Certainly, a man of his class could have replaced the crystal. With the commanding wave of a hand, Pollio could have had one of his hundred servants come and sweep up the shattered dishes. Logically, there’s no reason a few broken glasses had to ruin the revelry of the evening.
However, Botton argues there’s rationale behind Pollio’s seeming irrationality: “Pollio was angry for an identifiable reason: because he believed in a world in which glasses do not get broken at parties.” In other words, his reality (my clumsy slave tripped and smashed my precious crystal) didn’t meet his expectations (my party will proceed smoothly).
If we want to be calm and generally content, we must learn to expect less of life. Rather than expect circumstances to unfold according to our carefully-orchestrated plans, we should rip a page from the Stoic survivalist handbook and prepare for the worst to happen. If— like Pollio— we’re hosting a dinner party, we should anticipate things will not go smoothly: guests will arrive that didn’t RSVP, we’ll run out of champagne, our guests will inevitably have trouble finding topics of conversation and suffer a few awkward silences as they nibble crackers and brie.
Ultimately, Stoicism suggests we relinquish rose-colored romanticism and accept reality. No matter what, our time on this planet will be filled with rude people, interminably long lines, stolen credit card information, delayed flights, flat tires, and human stupidity. If, as Botton writes, we reconcile ourselves to life’s necessary imperfectability, we’ll be less angry (and less likely to fling a helpless servant into a pool of lampreys).