The Rationalist’s Mistake: How (Not) To Miss The Extraordinary

Maarten van Doorn
Apr 9 · 6 min read

I have always had a tight bond with reason.

This is an intimate part of my identity, and for the most part, it has led me in the right direction.

When I was young, for example, I dreamt of being like Sherlock Holmes. Extremely rational and not contaminated with these inconvenient things called feelings:

“All emotion is abhorrent to me. It is the grit in a sensitive instrument. The crack in the lens.” — Sherlock Holmes, The Abominable Bride

I’m not saving the world like Sherlock — but still, I thought, emotions just get in the way. Also they’re unpredictable and annoying.

So I set out to master them once and for all.

I *want* to be in control…

This took me to Stoicism and Buddhism.

Stoic philosophy, for instance, teaches that happiness is found through accepting the moment and by not allowing oneself to be controlled by any desire for pleasure or fear of pain.

Ryan Holiday, author The Daily Stoic, describes Stoic writing as “almost a meditative technique that transforms negative emotions into a sense of perspective and self-government.”

Like Buddhism, it points out the potential control you have over your feelings. It emphasizes the gap between stimulus and response, and instructs you how to reclaim the driver’s seat.

Whether you can do this, depends on you.

Many Stoics emphasize that because ‘virtue is sufficient for happiness’, a wise man would be emotionally resilient to misfortune.

That sounded like a dream to me.

… I *could* be in control…

Things start to come together now. It’s here where the most well-known Stoic teaching comes in.

The first step towards independence of mind is to strictly divide the world into things — or efforts — that are up to us, and things — or outcomes — which aren’t.

This is how, for example, Epictetus, one of Stoicism’s leaders, explains this ‘dichotomy of control’:

Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power our opinion, motivation, desire, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing. — Enchiridion I

You can go to the gym and eat healthy, but if a virus hits you, you’ll get sick. Or, more profoundly, what is up to us, is how we behave to our beloved partner. Whether he or she loves us back, and sticks with us, is not.

In theory, armed with this knowledge, you’ll invest your efforts into things you have some control over, and avoid a lot of distress in your life.

You don’t need to worry about the things you have control over, because you have control. You don’t need to worry about the things you have no control over because there’s nothing you can do about those.

With some effort, I figured, I could reel my reaction to things — the way they had me feel — in my circle of influence, and nothing could hurt me anymore and I could feel good all the time.

… Therefore, I *should* be in control

Thus Stoicism (a) teaches you how to separate what you can control from what you cannot, and (b) trains you to focus exclusively on the former — as our perspective on things is ultimately up to us. Observe:

Choose not to be harmed and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed and you haven’t been.Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

This self-reliance regarding my own feelings is exactly what I had been looking for. And apparently, it was possible:

The more you are identified with your mind, the more you suffer. Or you may put it like this: the more you are able to honor and accept the Now, the more you are free of pain, of suffering — and free of the egoic mind. — Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now

I just had to learn how to be a mental ninja, and I could feel whatever I wanted because I was in control of my own mind and spirit.

If that didn’t work, that meant I was doing something wrong.

If, I reasoned, when unhappy, the culprit was internal, the solution had to be too. I needed to meditate longer, be more grateful, work harder and intervene in my self-talk and bliss would find its way to my doorstep, wherever that would be.

Like Sherlock Holmes, I am a rational, independent man who has the upper hand over his feelings instead of the other way around. If I couldn’t manage my feelings, that means I was slacking, not that the task was impossible.

But perhaps it was.

It took me many Sunday-nights of misery to realize I was deluding myself. Despite my simultaneously Spartan and romantic ideal of independent self-reliance, feeling bad is not a sign of weakness.

Why you shouldn’t want to feel good all the time anymore

We mainly associate Stoicism with cultivating an eery sense of calm in the face of, well, everything. In many minds, Stoicism is linked to a Dexter-like affective independence of life-events that sometimes overdoes it.

For years, similarly, my biggest wish was to have the ability to “stroll, like a man in a park without a care or a worry in the world,” whatever life would throw at me. What could be better than feeling great every single minute?

I now believe this approach is unhealthy.

Fundamentally, negative emotions are not one’s enemy. When something makes me angry, that’s not necessarily bad. When something makes me sad, it’s not either.

Shitty feelings are a part of life, and crap up to tell you something.

They are information in light of which to change the course of your ship rather than to reflect on the craft of sailing.

Emotions have a function: to create strong incentives for us to take action.

When a situation is giving me prolonged feelings of unhappiness, that ought to cause me to take action and relocate my life. Not to be more disciplined in gratefulness exercises.

An exclusive occupation with your mental reaction to something misses the point that your negative responses might actually be on to something.

When you meditate yourself into taking perspective and feeling good after a harsh breakup, I guess there is merit in that, but it’s also a way for you to numb the pain and to pretend you don’t have to adjust the course of your life if only you do internal work.

A meaningful life

The bigger problem arises when this line of thinking gets taken a little too far.

It’s not just that this way of living misunderstands emotions. Despite how reason-glorifying it seems, denouncing feelings is also not the strategy you have most reason to adopt. It’s an irrational plan for the game of life.

When I was young, something happened to me that had me devastated for years. I was willing to do whatever it took to make sure I’d never be hurt like that again.

Until I realized how high the price was.

Here’s a question for you:

What makes something special?

Wanting to always be in control, refusing exposure to disruptive emotions, strips life’s exceptional parts of their meaning. Pursuing the “rationalist” boyhood dream of emotional independence is a surefire way to cheat yourself out of life’s most precious gems.

For example, a lot of good things in life come from contrasts. Can I genuinely be content if I’ve never felt sad? Perhaps, but not in the same way.

But more profoundly, something’s or someone’s ability to affect your feelings even if you don’t want them to, is what makes that thing, event or person unique for you.

The power to do something to me — make me laugh, cry, sing, dance — is what sets the ordinary apart from the extraordinary.

These walls I built — I realized they weren’t just keeping out pain but many other feelings didn’t pass through either.

The heart has many reasons, the 17th-century philosopher Blaise Pascal said, of which reason knows nothing. Since the heart merely pumps blood, it would be better to say that our mind goes through processes of reasoning of which we, as conscious thinkers, know nothing.

I now believe that much of the distinctive value of unique experiences, including love, depends on their relative imperviousness to rational regulation and control.

And that’s why they are the things that count.


There’s more to that

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Maarten van Doorn

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PhD candidate in philosophy. What do you think you know, and how do you think you know it? Get ideas that make you think: maartenvandoorn.com

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