Stoicism - The Face I Wear... Calmness in Chaos
Updated: Feb 19
by Catherine J Rippee-Hanson
Whenever I need patience and endurance, I wear the mask of Stoicism for calmness in the face of chaos. Like Sisyphus, as he pushed that boulder up a hill, only to watch it tumble down again, stoicism means bearing pain without complaining. That does not mean there is no internal conflict. Sometimes I don't share my feelings, but I am undeterred by hardship most of the time. Life has tested me many times, but I have remained calm under pressure, despite intense emotions that might be raging within me. I have learned to accept and adapt to what life brings, and I have the self-discipline to endure all challenges with honor and good character. No, it's not about having absent feelings... rather it's about setting them aside to be fully capable of what's required of me.
I am not immune to inner turmoil just because I have serenity and clarity of thought during chaotic times. Stress doesn't escape me, but I keep it behind the mask of stoicism when necessary. Behind an expression that projects self-control, I hold and hide my turmoil. But the pain stays, even my feelings may be hurt. Even so, my strength is not allowing my emotions to cloud my judgment of life's events. That's something I learned from my mother.
My father was emotionally volatile, and, in some ways, I had thought that he made my mother a victim or perhaps somewhat of a martyr because of her steadfastness regardless of her circumstances, but once he said to me, "You don't understand... your mother is a rock!" That certainly brings to mind Sisyphus. She has always been happy with the simple things in life, and she quietly tolerates any psychic or emotional blow that comes her way without letting on about the pain she is enduring.
My mom has been by my side several times caught in the midst of irrefutable chaos - irrefragable life or death situations. I know from experience what happens when the mask of stoicism is worn, and how helpful it can be. There is more to it than just hidden emotions... There is a wall that is built... a gate that is raised for the purpose of self-preservation, or the preservation of another individual without being hindered by emotions or doubt. Every family member who tries to care for someone with serious mental illness faces a heightened need to cope with their suffering at some point.
During my childhood, most weekends were spent with my family boating, fishing, and exploring nature in the San Joaquin Delta in California. We grew up as "river rats," as we called ourselves, firmly rooted at John Moore's Riverboat Resort & Cabins. Immediately following the sudden death of my father in 1994, my mother moved to the delta island that she was so familiar with. The island was small with a levee loop and scattered resorts, camping areas, and boating slips. My late husband and I didn't want her to be alone there, so we decided to move there as well.
We bought a large 4 wide mobile home in a nice resort about a mile across the cornfields and wild sunflowers in full bloom on the other side of the island. On August 1st, 1994, as workers arrived to install new carpet in the mobile home before the moving truck arrived later that day, I realized I was just in the way as they worked, so I decided to go visit my mother on the other side of the island. The two of us were having lunch and chatting and laughing in her small trailer, which she said was all she needed.
In the mostly quiet Delta environment, there are common sounds that are recognizable to all "river rats". Buffering engines on distant boats, faint echoes of families laughing on the water as they pass by an inlet or dock, or the slightest hint of music... there one minute and gone the next. However, what we heard on that day cannot be adequately described by my memory.
I heard it mid-bite into my sandwich. Impact... slightly muffled, yet distinct. Any boater knows instinctively when a sound does not belong. "Did you hear that?" I asked her as I threw my sandwich down and stood up, listening intently for a few seconds. There was a faraway sounding squeal and cry. She asked, "A car accident on the levee?". "No," I said as I bolted out of her door and up the steep hill from the resort toward the levee road and the open water channel. It wasn't loud enough for that to be the case. I stopped half-way up the hill with Mom right behind me and listened again for a few seconds, and I realized it was coming from the water across the channel. I yelled at my mom to run back to her trailer to get her cordless phone.
As I ran quickly up the hill, she did not hesitate as I saw two boats far away across the channel once on the levee road. From a distance, I couldn't tell how many people were there, but I saw something red being pulled out of the water. It was a body.
As I stood on the docking area of the resort, I waved my arms in a crisscross motion and yelled as loud as I could, knowing it would echo across the channel to try and get to the side I was on as they were close to open water. My mom came up right behind me and I turned and told her to call 911 and tell them we needed life flight - which on the delta islands is sometimes the only escape to get to help. Despite how long it seemed to me, within a matter of minutes they had seen me standing with my mom on the dock, and one boat had begun to tow the other towards us as it was splintered and sinking.
Two boats were filled with members of one family. The most damaged boat almost ripped in half when the other boat's operator got distracted and miscalculated in the waves, resulting in their boat to crash and fly over the top of the other boat. As the two boats drew near, we could see the extensive damage and the bloody carnage in one of them. I am not trained in emergency response. Neither was my mother. However, Stoicism allowed us both to act without hesitation and regard for how it would make us feel.
In the sinking boat, two children were covered in blood but were not hurt as they were seated low in the boat. Grandpa's head was covered in blood as he tried to hold his wife steady - the spine of his wife was sliced vertically from the tailbone to the back of her head. We assumed her neck was broken. Residents of the resort began to come up to the levee and cars started to stop on the levee road. I was barking orders at people... commands delivered bluntly and directly, "Get the hell off the levee road! You! - Go get clean towels! Bring a blanket and water for the children in shock! Someone clean the blood off the children and check them out! Move your fucking car off the levee for emergency response vehicles! Hey man! Don't just stand there! Help tie off these boats to the dock!"
The scene was horrific, but all I could do was to take in the details...assessing the situation. There were other boaters in the channel coming closer, causing more waves, so I grabbed a bullhorn from someone's hand and yelled at them to slow down! The worst off was Grandma - she couldn't be moved. I had another person stand there to help other people out of the boats as I convinced Grandpa he needed help, and I assured him that I would take over and hold Grandma in place with pressure and keep her still as the boat bobbed up and down, still filling with blood and water. As I pressed my center of weight on the edge of the boat, I had to get down on my knees on the dock with my elbows inside the edge and hold her head as still as possible while holding it as close to the dock as possible.
I would not let this woman die. As a result, I had to remain calm in the face of chaos. I could hear others... "Oh my God... Oh my God!" However, no one offered to help unless they were ordered to - except for my mother. Emergency response arrived almost an hour later. The 'looky loos' had blocked the levee road and there was nowhere for the helicopter to land. As the dock slippery with blood bobbed with the waves and tide, and as I tried to hold on to the sinking boat with almost sheer will - despite my body screaming in pain - I would not give up. Sisyphus.
The Myth of Sisyphus
Mom found out who the severely injured adults were and where the rest of their family was staying when they were being taken to the hospital, she got in a car with the children after the paramedics checked them out to take them home. As I crossed the levee road, still covered in blood, I slowly walked back down the hill to my mother's trailer. One of her neighbors ran up to me with a large bath towel and tried to wipe away the blood. Thanking her, I was emotionless to the situation... still wearing my mask of stoicism, I entered Mom's trailer. I saw the partially eaten sandwich from almost two hours ago on the floor. My body ached, my ribs and abdomen were bruised, and my knees were badly scraped from trying to keep Grandma still and the boat from moving. I picked up the sandwich and threw it away. My hands trembled, and then I shook.
In that safe place, the danger passed, my emotions flooded me, and my doubts surfaced. Had I done all the right things? Were they going to live? My mind became flooded with all the questions I had avoided facing during the chaos. Even though my mom wasn't a big drinker, she always kept a six-pack of beer in her refrigerator in case one of her sons-in-law stopped by to check on her or change the propane tanks. In spite of my hatred of beer, I found three of them in her fridge and downed them all. It wasn't until Mom got dropped off that I realized how quickly I had consumed them. As she opened the door, I burst into tears and said, standing there with blood still on me, "I drank all your beer!" She at once started laughing, and then my tears turned to laughter.
It was that day, when my mom was 54 years old, and I was 37 years old that I realized my father was right. My mom is a fucking rock!
The only blow that ever weakened her resolve was the diagnosis of Schizophrenia with Anosognosia that her only son received, and her frustration at being unable to find him help. Many families who are struggling to be caregivers to their loved ones with mental illness or brain disorders know what it is like to be unprepared for that role and expected to succeed when the safety net from the so-called system is ripped away. Stoicism may be a default mode of coping for those families. Stoicism, of course, does not guarantee success, and there can both be positive and negative effects from adopting the philosophy. If you are not fully stoic, for example, you may fall apart after the crisis has been dealt with like I did.
Most people do not understand stoicism under extreme circumstances. This may come across as indifference, but it isn't always the case. Stoicism is a response I can choose when faced with a stressful situation. Even though I choose stoicism most of the time, there are times when I let my emotions fly and smack anyone who gets in my way. In other words, my life isn't entirely stoic... at least not to a point of fatalism, but rather the face I put on when necessary. Even when others perceive something different - a lack of emotion - I strive to have the traits of character that reflect the four cardinal virtues of temperance, courage, justice, and practical wisdom.
I've often heard "Why don't you smile, why don't cha cry...or scream?" Despite chaos, I survive and thrive. My first thought is acceptance - this is happening. Following that, I think about what needs to be done. I suspect I can appear unfettered by worry because I accept humanity's failures, life's disappointments, and perhaps because of that, my Stoic attitude is perhaps closest to understanding what it means to be truly human, so I seek balance. Buddhism preaches calmness and emotional temperance and is inherently stoic in the way it seeks peace and mindfulness in the present moment.
On the other hand, Stoics do not "fight the system" when reforms are needed. It is for this reason that I don't describe myself as wholly Stoic. I will set my emotions aside so that my reality will not be tainted. Acceptance is one thing but adapting also involves knowing when to adopt the Stoic attitude at will during chaos to cope, as well as when to help others adapt and change. So, stoics might look at the outer world in a visionary way, and say, "What would I like to see? What would or could be possible?" "What can I do to change things?" How can I use my voice? Am I doing enough? Families caring for and keeping safe our loved ones suffering from serious mental illness or serious brain disorders ask themselves these questions - when they are not being stoic.
The positive about stoicism is tranquility, a sense of calm and in adopting this attitude, when necessary, I am at peace with myself. I don't care if others cannot 'see' or know where I am coming from... I consider most disturbances to be petty, so I overlook them as not worth getting bothered about when I have a higher purpose. In situations that would upset others, I am "cool, calm and collected."
On that day of the boating accident, if it weren't for stoicism, 'Grandma' probably would have died. I was amazed that she survived and even met up with my mom almost a year later and thanked me for saving her. However, I have not met her. As for my brother, who is about to be released from the hospital soon after another tragic accident caused by his serious mental illness - most likely to return to the streets with delusions and psychosis - I need to prepare. I accept that it will happen. I need to adapt. I need to be calm in midst of chaos.