Friday, September 9, 2016

The Plastic Surgeon and Stoic Philosopher

“When I announced that I wanted to be a doctor, I was told that this could not be, because my folks had no money,” recalled Maxwell Maltz. “It was a fact that my mother had no money. It was only an opinion that I could never be a doctor.”
“I not only reached my goals, but I was happy in the process — even when I had to pawn my overcoat to buy medical books, or do without lunch in order to purchase cadavers.
“I was in love with a beautiful girl. She married someone else. These were facts. But I kept reminding myself that it was merely my opinion that this was a ‘catastrophe’ and that life was not worth living. I not only got over it, but it turned out it was one of the luckiest things that ever happened to me.”
In 1960, Maltz became the author of one of those shamelessly American and rather breathless self-help get-rich books, the once-popular Psycho-Cybernetics. A plastic surgeon, he was prompted to write it by his realization that improving a person’s actual image did not necessarily improve that person’s self-image or attitude toward existence.
I was surprised, upon rereading the book, to find so much of it informed by the stoic philosophers. One of his favorite sayings came from Epictetus: “Men are disturbed not by the things that happen, but by their opinion of the things that happen.”
“Even in regard to tragic conditions, and the most adverse environment, we can usually manage to be happier, if not completely happy, by not adding to the misfortune our own feelings of self-pity, resentment and our own adverse opinions,” Maltz wrote.
“ ‘How can I be happy?’ the woman of an alcoholic husband asked me. “I don’t know,’ I said, ‘but you can be happier by resolving not to add resentment and self-pity to your misfortune.’
“ ‘How can I possibly be happy?’ asked a businessman. ‘I have just lost $200,000 in the stock market. I am ruined and disgraced.’
“ ‘You can be happier,’ I said, ‘by not adding your own opinion to the facts. It is a fact that you lost $200,000. It is your opinion that you are ruined and disgraced.’”

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