Over 2,000 years ago, the Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote, “Show me a man who is not a slave.” Seneca was speaking of mental enslavement: “One is a slave to lust, another to greed, another to ambition, and all men are slaves to fear.”
The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius was also a Stoic philosopher. In Meditations, he wrote, “Alexander and Caesar and Pompey. Compared with Diogenes, Heraclitus, Socrates? The philosophers knew the what, the why, the how. Their minds were their own. The others? Nothing but anxiety and enslavement.”
Conquering politicians may have ruled over millions, but they still couldn’t control their own minds.
Do privilege and wealth help one escape mental enslavement? We have only to look at all the dysfunctional behavior in Hollywood and see that money cannot buy psychological freedom.
Aurelius reproached himself: “Stop allowing your mind to be a slave, to be jerked about by selfish impulses, to kick against fate and the present, and to mistrust the future.”
Their contributions are great works of humanity because they reflect timeless themes.
Stuck in Victimhood
Few of us have not suffered bitter setbacks, as Ryan Holiday, author of several books on Stoicism, observes:
So much of what happens is out of our control: We lose people we love. We are financially ruined by someone we trusted. We put ourselves out there, put every bit of our effort into something, and are crushed when it fails. We are drafted to fight in wars, to bear huge tax or familial burdens. We are passed over for the thing we wanted so badly. This can knock us down and hurt us. Yes.”
Each of us forms our identity around what could be called our “story of me.” In his book Question Your Life, Greg Krech observes how often these stories contain resentment. Through our stories, Krech cautions, we create our own burdens:
Wearing a garment of disappointment, resentment and anger is a great burden. It continuously weighs us down as we try to move forward in our lives… It affects our fundamental view of life. It buries us in a complaint-based lifestyle in which our attention is consistently drawn to what is going wrong and how the world fails to meet our expectations.”
In his book, Bonds That Make Us Free, philosopher C. Terry Warner asks us to reflect on this question: “Why do we embrace our miseries and preoccupy ourselves with our victimhood?”
“Experiencing other people or circumstances as having more power over our own happiness than we do,” Warner says, is to be “stuck” in our victimhood. “We believe they have the ability to cause troubling feelings in us that we cannot do anything about, no matter how we try.”
When we believe other people and circumstances are responsible for how we feel and for the choices we make, we are living a lie of victimhood.
Seeing Our Self-Victimization
Warner asks us to reflect on times we are most troubled. The real source of our “afflicted emotions” can be found in our “self-absorption.” Warner writes, “Those times when we feel most miserable, offended, or angry are invariably the occasions when we’re also most absorbed in ourselves and most anxious or suspicious or fearful, or in some other way concerned about ourselves.”
In our self-absorption, we betray our sense of right and wrong. Warner helps us recognize that our self-betrayals can occur in small ways, as in this story of a “busy man”:
A busy man driving home late at night notices the gas gauge dropping near empty. Almost imperceptibly, yet unmistakably, he feels he ought to fill the tank for his wife so she won’t have to do it the next day. But he doesn’t.
In the mind of this busy man, an urge arose to act from his highest values, yet he did not. This is self-betrayal.
To justify his choice, the busy man may have searched his mind for “data.” Thinking of all the things he does for their household that his wife doesn’t, he may have concluded, I’m far busier than my wife; she should be keeping the tank filled for me. In his mind, he became the victim of an unsupportive wife. His wife, not he, was to blame for his failure to put gas in the car.
In this trivial example, the busy man got stuck in his thinking. Portraying himself as a victim, he undermined his relationship and a happy life.
Warner writes, “Life becomes hard to bear only when we, as self-betrayers, cast ourselves in a victim’s role by regarding others as our victimizers and nurse our misfortunes as if they were badges of honor.”
Feelings of “irritation [escalating to anger], humiliation, self-pity, resentment or frustration” come with self-betrayal. These emotions are accusatory. Warner writes, “Only people who are doing something that goes against their own sense of right and wrong have to spend time and energy spinning out a self-justifying story.”
Our self-justifying stories create resentment. Warner writes, “To take up a hard, resentful attitude toward others is to have to live in a resented world, a world full of people who oppose and threaten us. How they are in our eyes is reflective of how we are.”
Warner warns of three aspects of self-betraying conduct: “Accusing others, excusing oneself, and displaying oneself as a victim. We can’t seek vigilantly for evidence that others are mistreating us, as self-betrayers do, unless we actively put ourselves in the victim’s role.”
Having chosen the role of a mistreated victim, we may also choose to feel resentful and entitled. We may see the world as unjust and owing us something. We may believe we are broken while seeing others as advantaged and privileged.
In our victimhood, we believe we are not responsible, others are. And many politicians are happy to exploit our false belief.
What might one say to a man who grew up in a single-parent household in a violent inner-city neighborhood and attended a public school where he learned little and was bullied by classmates? This man may face racial discrimination. If he fathers illegitimate children with several women and is and in out of prison, is he responsible for his behavior? Is he not a victim of his circumstances?
Warner recognizes life’s trials and sees life beyond victimhood:
Though none of us is responsible for the misfortunes that befall us, we are, thankfully, responsible for how we use those misfortunes. We cannot alter past events, it’s true. Not having been responsible for them, we cannot take responsibility for them. But we are responsible for the effect they have upon us—for the meaning we assign to them and the way we remember them. And we can learn and grow from them.”
Marcus Aurelius put it this way in Meditations: “It can ruin your life only if it ruins your character. Otherwise, it cannot harm you—inside or out.”
Warner acknowledges that one may be called “uncharitable” for holding the view that we are responsible for what we make of our lives. Yet to say a person is not responsible “says, ‘You can’t!’ rather than ‘You can!’”
Warner reflects on what it means to believe that a person is not responsible:
Although those who hold this view think they’re being compassionate and kind, they are only being indulgent. Indulgence is a punitive counterfeit of charity. It extends no hope at all for freeing ourselves of our emotional troubles. It takes the position that we are stuck with being the deficient vessels we think we are and are doomed to cope with our lot as best we can.”
Genuine compassion, seeing in all people the ability to take responsibility, is hopeful. Warner writes, “It is because we are responsible for whatever we have become that there is hope for us to change fundamentally. True compassion can be found only in extending this hope to others, never in denying it to them.”
Look around, Warner says. “Have you known people who seem to have made a lifestyle out of amplifying their victimhood?” Don’t stop with seeing the choice for victimhood in others. Warner asks, “Do you see any of this tendency in yourself?”
The cure for being stuck in victimhood is to see ourselves as responsible for making our own choices.
Barry Brownstein is a professor emeritus of economics and leadership at the University of Baltimore. He is the author of The Inner-Work of Leadership. To receive his essays, subscribe at Mindset Shifts. This article was originally published on the Foundation for Economic Education.