How To Stop Feeling Numb

Photo by Abigail Keenan on Unsplash

The term stoic is defined as “a person who can endure pain and hardship without showing their feelings or complaining.”

By this typical usage, the idea of a stoic philosophy suggests a way of thinking that leads people to quash their feelings altogether. Philosophy has that effect regardless. After all, the topic is quite dry on the surface, indicating a delicate machinery of logic and rationale and seriousness.

It begs the question: have you ever met a happy philosopher? I most certainly have not. The few I’ve met are bookish, brooding, and a bit unkempt. Like me, they need to clean their eyeglasses.

So the idea of a stoic philosophy can easily lead one to think that practitioners are as stony as the marble busts of their forefathers. It’s a faulty impression. The author William Irvine helps us overcome it with his 2008 book A Guide To The Good Life: The Art of Stoic Joy. He begins in the opening pages by channeling the wisdom of one of its most famous practitioners:

Seneca said if one wishes to practice Stoicism, they must learn to feel joy.

That last phrase, learn to feel joy, surprised me when I first read it. Emotions must be learned? Does that mean they can be unlearned?

I think so. In fact, I think this is one of the great tragedies of adulthood. We do indeed unlearn the ability to feel everything from joy to wonder to love. There is a great emotional numbness that pervades every single person who doesn’t guard against it.

This lack of pure, warm, joyful emotion is the modern adult’s default setting. It creates an pervasive imbalance. The only emotions people seem to display are anger, boredom, frustration, disgust, and this emptiness we think of as “being cool.”

That’s pretty much it! If you display any other feeling outside that particular scope, particularly the feeling of unmitigated joy, people will probably think something is wrong with you. Even if their concern is just some false front to hide their insecurity. I should know. I suffer the tendency, too.

Which creates an irony of sorts. If the term “stoic philosopher” is misconstrued as a person who doesn’t have a range of emotions, the modern adult is misconstrued as someone who does.

Learning To Feel

How can we get the feeling back? The stoic philosophy has a number of time-tested techniques that absolutely work. I can never gauge how well-known these things are. I seem to spot articles on these techniques all over the internet so I’ll briefly point out a few keywords without unpacking the concepts. A bit of copy/paste in Google will reward the most curious. And, of course, buying Irvine’s book is the best course of action:

Stoic Techniques for Finding Joy

  1. Negative visualization (imagine losing something to appreciate having it now)
  2. Low expectations (expect the worse, accept whatever you recieve)
  3. Impermanence (all good things do indeed end; enjoy them now)
  4. Practiced poverty (deliberate, temporary abstinence from comforts)
  5. A sense of wonder

That last one is not easily found in other resources. And I think it may be at the root of so much numbness. So what does it mean to have a persistent sense of wonder?

And I Think To Myself …

To start, it requires us to embrace a certain love of the unknown. I am not referring to spirituality and The Big Questions of Life. That’s the stuff that makes brooding philosophers who aren’t really fun to hang out with.

Instead, when I speak of a love of the unknown, I mean the stuff of everyday, regular life. This is the stuff of Double Rainbow Guy. Only for single rainbows too. And days where there are just clouds. Or no clouds. Days with rain. Days with fog. Days of pure sunshine. Every day.

The colors, man …. Like, wow. I can’t even.

It’s also the stuff of electrical outlets. How did we ever survive without them? I can plug a cord into the wall, channel a current, and never once experience an electric shock.

And how about soap? It used to be that all soap was in some hard brick form but now you can get body wash. Which is so much easier to use. And soap used to come in one scent. Something astringent that smelled like ammonia and licorice. But today, I have a bottle of body wash that has a scent called Mt. Fuji. I didn’t even know Mt. Fuji had a smell.

I’m goofing around here but you get the idea. It leads to something Irvine writes about: a deeper sense of gratitude. We can lose this very quickly. Consider the age-old question of whether or not the glass is half-full or half-empty. Irvine writes:

A Stoic would see the glass as half-full and would then go further to express joy at having a glass.

Because when you think about it, a glass is a fabulous thing to have. But we won’t realize that without a cultivated sense of wonder.

Part of me thinks that this emotion (wonder) originates from the attitude that no one owes us anything. How else can we appreciate the glass that holds the water? We can’t even acknowledge the glass if we don’t first cultivate the idea to not expect it.

This idea that “no one owes us anything” is a very adult thing to think. Usually from a standpoint of disillusionment. It’s the mantra of the cynic.

For a true Stoic, it is a seed for gratitude.

No one owes me anything and yet I have so much. How wonderful.

Immigrants know this feeling. Which is why immigrants are a constant source of joy for me. I feel a deep kinsmanship with them because they see our everyday bounty far more easily than most.

And I speak of immigrants of all kinds here — be they new arrivals from foreign countries or anyone else who has moved from one lesser state of being to something richer. Economically, socially, geopolitically, etcetera.

I’m stretching the term a little because these new arrivals to any new, better place are a reliable example of what it means to have an adult sense of wonder. Their newness, their attention to detail, their gratitude for every little thing is exquisite and beautiful. There are times where these are the only people who seem to have fits of joy.

It is very Stoic. As Irvine writes:

Stoicism makes us susceptible to little outbursts of joy. We will, out of the blue, feel delighted to be the person we are.

Everyday Astonishment

This leads me to the best technique I’ve found for cultivating a sense of wonder, eliminating numbness, and having a bit of fun: mundane novelty.

I love to travel. But I don’t like how “travel” has become a new status symbol. When I talk about travel to anyone stuck on the achievement treadmill, they’ll instantly do this perverse form of geographic name-dropping.

I just got back from Sydney …

Last week, while in Ethiopia …

You know, when I go to Moscow …

International travel is one of the more life-affirming experiences available. But there is a lot to be said for a trip to the carniceria just down the road. Or the senior citizen’s hall. Or the World’s Largest Ball of Twine in Cawker City, Kansas. The thing weighs 19,873 pounds! That’s the equivalent of a stack of 19,873 one-pound weights! Or 79,492 McDonald’s quarter-pounders!

The colors, man …. Like, wow. I can’t even.

So if you need help developing a sense of wonder, force yourself to explore the most mundane thing you’ve never seen. That’s a great, underappreciated way to travel when you can’t globe-trot.

And if you can’t even go down the street to some new place, use the internet. I like traveling along random streets on Google Streetview. Just pick a random place and check it out from the comfort of your comforter. Or visit old Geocities websites. Like this one. Incredible, right?

If nothing else, this mundane novelty can break the typical cycle of repetitive experience and give you something to wonder about. Physical travel, even just a quarter-mile from your home, is best. The internet is a decent proxy.

I should caution you, however. Do not let this lead to some haughty sense of irony. There’s nothing more corrosive than the people who pretend to like something as a way of making fun of it. Those people are still suffering the numbness, I suppose. They are victims of some broader, more cynical environment that has overwhelmed their ability to be their true selves.

Can we find joy in having a glass? No matter how full it is?

Can we use our ignorance as a source of wonder rather than insecurity?

Can we learn to be openly, casually, promiscuously joyous again?

Yes. And I emphasis the term “promiscuous” because I, as a Stoic, can be happy about anything. Guaranteed. It’s one of the great superpowers that comes with the practice. And it’s delightfully recursive. I’m currently smiling and happy about the fact that I can be smile and be happy.

I suppose that makes me weird. Stoicism has that effect, too.